The Pilgrim God: Reflections on the Story of Jesus

50. Clean Hands (Mark 7:1-23)

After the day of his great promises of life, meaning, and love by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus continued his preaching and healing in the neighboring towns. It was the last year of his public life. Already the leaders in Jerusalem had determined to kill him. Jesus knew that he was relatively safe as long as he did not go to Jerusalem and so he decided to stay in Galilee as long as possible. He knew that he would eventually be executed but he did not want to rush the process. He still had a lot of work to do.

Once the Jerusalem Pharisees realized that Jesus would not be coming to them, they decided to go to Jesus. They sent a delegation north to harass him wherever he went. They followed him from town to town listening to all he said, writing down phrases that might be used later in a criminal trial. They questioned the timing of his healing on the Sabbath and heckled his preaching. They tried to plant questions in the minds of the listening crowds, questions like:

"Is this Jesus an instrument of God or simply an anarchist, an over-turner of accepted laws?"

The approach was clever. Most of us love laws, especially laws that we have become accustomed to over a lifetime. Such laws become part of our culture, therapy for us when we are confused about being "on the right track". We look at our laws and say:

"I must be a good person because I faithfully observe all these laws."

In a way our laws are our conscience and our god.

This sometime worship of our laws and long established customs eases the fear we experience when we first come to realize our contingency, that left to ourselves we are naked and unprotected in a cruel harsh world, that we are poor flabby bags of soft flesh in a universe of fire and flood and trembling earth and (worst of all) unpredictable members of our own species. Faced with the madness around us, we tremble and cry:

"We must protect ourselves from the evil hordes! If we cannot be sure of their love, then we must bind them with the law!"

But what law? Why, our law of course! We want to bend all to the "straight and narrow way" that is our way. We say to ourselves:

"If salvation comes from my law, then I am safe! I can prune and shape my law until it becomes a tight-knit tree where I can hide and safely pick off those outside who are not exactly like me."

And so we stay in our own bigoted tree with other nuts like ourselves.

It was for such reasons that the Pharisees were deadly serious in their complaints about the apostles washing before dinner and purifying the pots and kettles to be used. For them these small matters had become measures of virtue, measures much easier to apply than commandments about thinking well of your neighbor and respecting your parents.

Jesus must have smiled sadly when he heard their complaints. It was so foolish! Here they were, these people who had dedicated themselves to religion, standing in the presence of Jesus-God and worrying about clean hands and sterile pots. They spent so much energy inspecting sinks that they missed looking into the eyes of God.

He told them to their face that they were worrying about the wrong things, that their laws were trivial when compared with the ten commandments. He condemned their trivial pursuits and they hated him for it. Soon they would kill him for it.

But not just yet. Jesus left that place to go about his business of saving the world. The Pharisees left too .. to go about their business of killing a God who refused to take seriously their laws about clean hands.

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