TEXTS: Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
I have to tell you, the first thing that I thought about when I read the Lectionary gospel passage for this Sunday about the Pharisees and washing hands was public bathrooms. Why is it that you go into a public bathroom and you see signs plastered everywhere instructing you to wash your hands; so you wash your hands and reach for a paper towel to dry off, only to find that the towel dispenser is empty! And, of course, there is no air dryer!
I hope that this morning’s reading from Mark was clear enough for you to understand that the whole exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees really had nothing at all to do with personal hygiene. In fact the washing that the Pharisees were so meticulous about was not for the purpose of cleaning hands at all. Back in the days of Jesus no one knew anything about germs or viruses. That wouldn’t happen for hundreds of years. No, washing hands among the Pharisees was simply a ritual act, a religious act that involved dipping one’s hands in water and then removing them. Ritual washing was very often not restricted to hands either. I believe that I have spoken before about a thing called a Mikvah, a small enclosed pool of water that would allow Jews to dip their entire body as part of ritual cleansing before entering the temple or performing or participating in any form of religious rite. So the whole business was about being ritualistically clean and not about being hygienically clean.
And the thing that Jesus was really riled up about was the fact that this form of ritual cleaning was not part of the law of Moses at all. I is nowhere to be found in the codes given by God to the people of Israel, but was rather part of something called the “tradition of the elders” which were extensions and extrapolations of the law of Moses put forth by leaders of the synagogue and which were widely accepted to be as authoritative as the law itself.
Back when I was working for the UCC here in Jersey, when I held the auspicious title of “Interim Associate Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ”, it was my job to resource and support churches, pastors and congregations in New Jersey and Delaware. On occasion this meant working with leaders of other denominations when UCC pastors were serving their congregations and when pastors from their denominations were working within the UCC. (It was actually one of the things about my work that I enjoyed the most!)
At one point in my tenure I found myself working with the Presbyterian Church USA on two fronts. On the one hand I was working with the New Jersey Presbytery to credential a woman who was finishing her seminary work at Princeton so that she could serve a UCC congregation in Egg Harbor. On the other hand, I was working with the Newark Presbytery to credential a UCC woman who had also finished her MDiv work at Princeton and who was serving a Presbyterian congregation in East Orange. In both cases the ordination of these women depended upon a legitimate call to ministry and an official ecumenical document called the “Formula of Agreement” (which happens to be the same document that allows me to serve here at Zion).
My work with the New Jersey synod to get Pastor Jeanie recognized by the UCC went swimmingly and it was a thrill to participate in her ordination and to see her continue her duties as the pastor of St. Johns UCC in Egg Harbor. My work with the Newark Presbytery though hit a snag when an officer of the Presbyterian Church known as the “Stated Clerk” informed me that Pastor Maria couldn’t be installed as an ordained pastor of Elmwood Presbyterian Church because she had not first served in a UCC position as an ordained pastor. In phone my phone conversation with said Stated Clerk, I questioned his reading of the “Formula of Agreement” (which I had pulled up on my computer even as I spoke to him). The Stated Clerk informed me that his objection was based not upon the “Formula of Agreement” but rather upon an “Authorized Interpretation” of the “Formula of Agreement”. My response to the Stated Clerk was, “The whatedly what what?” Well friends, it turns out that an “Authorized Interpretation” is the Presbyterian Church’s modern ‘tradition of the elders’; an interpretation or extension of an original agreement or law put forth by someone in authority within the church which, over time, is generally accepted.
Now I am a practical man; and as a practical man this is what I knew. I knew that Pastor Maria was as qualified as any minister could be for the position that Elmwood Church was calling her to. I knew that Pastor Maria had been serving Elmwood as an associate pastor for children and youth for some time as a licensed student – and that the people of Elmwood loved her. I knew that the UCC had forged an agreement with the Presbyterians which had been ratified by both denominations, an agreement without any so called ‘authoritative interpretations’. I even knew that the presiding Presbyter, the ruling elder of the Newark Presbytery, agreed with me and desperately wanted to see Pastor Maria ordained and installed at Elmwood. I knew therefore that I was going to fight tooth nail against the tradition of the elders, er, the authoritative interpretation to make sure that justice was done. In the end we won out and again I was thrilled to participate in Pastor Maria’s ordination and installation. Since that time, with the retirement of the Senior Pastor, Maria has been promoted to the position of Senior Pastor at Elmwood and continues to have a rich and powerful ministry there.
Now you know and I know that every denomination, every form and tradition of the Christian Church, every congregation has traditions of the elders; those things that are decidedly not part of the commandments of God, not part of the call of Christ, but which are part of the fabric of the church. It doesn’t matter what you call them; it doesn’t matter where they came from of how they originated, or whether they are recent or ancient, they are part of the fabric of the church. And for the most part these traditions serve a good purpose and are a benefit to the church and the life of the congregation. The problem comes when the traditions of the elders get in the way of the love and grace of God, when the traditions of the elders become more important than God’s commandments or even run counter to God’s will, or are twisted to subvert God’s will. Therefore when we are dealing with the traditions of the elders it is always good to ask, “Is God being served here?” “Is the love of God at the center of this tradition, or is this tradition being used to control, to oppress, to exclude?”
In today’s passage the Pharisees used the ritual of the washing of hands to show off their piety and to elevate themselves (and thus to denigrate others). Water was a precious resource in first century Palestine. Those who were prosperous could use water as they wished. If they needed more they simply had their servants secure more. Many wealthy homes probably had their own cisterns or wells. For the peasant class water was not at all plentiful. Water for these people had to be hauled, sometimes across great distances from public sources by members of the family. There were no servants around to do such work. So the Pharisees did what was easy in their situation and looked down upon those who didn’t follow their lead and instruction, those who would have had to put much more effort and sacrifice into the tradition. And all this served to emphasize the separation of classes in their society.
Friends, God calls us to faithfulness. Christ proclaimed salvation for all people; not just for those of one particular class. The message that we proclaim to this day should have as its base not tradition, not even law, but rather love and kindness, compassion and grace. Let us be a people of love who worship a God of love; a God who, in a supreme act of love, came to be among us, incarnate, in Jesus Christ our Savior. Jesus, who lived as we live and died as an innocent man for the sake of the sins of others. Jesus, who rose to show us the promise of a resurrection to eternal life in God’s kingdom of light. Let us hold fast to that which is good, that which is just, that which is centered in the love of God, and drop all that is nothing more than baggage, that which even has the power to harm, to tear down rather than to build up. Amen.