Before March 2020 I assumed I knew how to wash my hands. It was a quick, mindless few seconds of warm water and soap. But after Covid took the planet by storm, I watched Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN address the world about how people should properly wash their hands. Dr. Gupta took great care to outline his 6-step technique. I realized that I hadn’t really been washing my hands at all. I needed to take more time, and be much more deliberate about using more soap and lathering every part of my hands.
In Jesus’ day washing hands was a big deal. As far as we know, there wasn’t a viral epidemic in the early first century Mediterranean world. But cleaning and purification was nonetheless at the heart of Israel’s social life. It was the Pharisees who considered themselves the guardians of a rigorous purity tradition that extended to all facets of existence. In today’s Gospel we’re told that some Pharisees had made the trek from Jerusalem north to Galilee, presumably to observe religious life in that area and to ensure that the people were upholding the purity code. We’re told that the rigors of purity involved not merely the hands but food itself, and the plates, pots, cups and utensils involved in its preparation. This tradition functioned as a way to uphold economic class hierarchies. The friends and associates of Jesus would’ve found certain purity expectations almost impossible to meet. Peasant farmers, for instance, didn’t have the necessary water for all the required cleaning, and fisherman were frequently in contact with dead fish and other creatures.
So in today’s Gospel we shouldn’t be surprised that some of Jesus’ friends are accused of “eating with defiled hands.” The accusation is not that they lacked any hygiene whatsoever; it’s that they failed to observe “the tradition of the elders.” The Pharisees attempt to draw attention to this as a way to undermine Jesus’ own integrity and credibility.
How does Jesus respond? Very bluntly. He doesn’t feel compelled to explain the actions of his friends. Instead, he calls the Pharisees a bunch of hypocrites. Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offensive, accusing the Pharisees of distorting the real intent of the law of Moses by adding layer upon layer of pious observance. The result, says Jesus—quoting the prophet Isaiah—is that “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” I think what Jesus is getting at is that religiosity, piety, spirituality, faith practice—this must be unadorned and unembellished. Simplicity and authenticity is what distinguishes Jesus’ own approach to the spiritual life. It’s not complicated, but neither is it easy. What Jesus teaches is that the way that leads to eternal life demands our authentic selves, not who we would like to build ourselves up to be. It is only in embracing ourselves for who we truly are that we can enter more fully into the life of God.
But there’s more in today’s showdown between of Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus goes on to say that the Pharisees have everything backwards. They’ve set up a rigorous washing tradition so that nothing impure is ingested. But according to Jesus, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In other words, what matters is a pure heart, not formal attitudes that only reinforce privilege and social hierarchies. Gustavo Gutiérrez, an important theologian from Peru, has written: “Defilement has nothing to do with not washing our hands. Instead, it comes from harming others, forgetting their needs and believing that we are ‘clean.’”
Jesus’ showdown with the Pharisees ends there. He leaves the scene and journeys north into the region of Tyre. We’re not told how the Pharisees responded to him. But we can be sure they were mulling over what he had to say. I’m certain most of them would’ve been deeply offended, even incensed by Jesus. But perhaps there were a few Pharisees who wondered what exactly a religion of a pure heart would look like. Jesus called for purity within, but he didn’t really explain how that inner purity should manifest itself externally. It was pretty clear, though, according to Jesus, that the Pharisees were not exemplars of what inner purity was about.
Now, if these same Pharisees were to enter a portal and be transported a few decades into the future, they might discover the Letter of James. That letter provides an answer to what “pure and undefiled” religion is. In today’s first reading we heard that “if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
These are powerful words that we must all ponder carefully. Religion, at its core, is not about how we pray, or how we speak about our faith. If anything, says James, it requires a “bridled tongue.” Talk is cheap, as we all know. Pure and undefiled religion, according to James, is action on the ground. More specifically, it is caring for orphans and widows in distress. It is reaching out to the hurting, the suffering, the downtrodden and scorned. It is a life of care, a life that resists our social hierarchies of who is clean and unclean, who “has it together” and who doesn’t. Resisting this social hierarchy that we see everywhere around us is a way to keep oneself, as James puts it, “unstained by the world.”
I think our readings today compel us to do some homework. What does it mean to be a religious person? Is a Christian defined merely by belonging to a church community? Is religiosity just about prayer and worship, especially on a Sunday morning? Jesus challenges us to roll back the external trappings of our piety and to assess our hearts—to lay bare our authentic selves. James follows that up by stating that the religion of a pure heart—the religion of authenticity—will lead one to embrace a life of care for those on the margins.
St. Aidan’s can be that kind of community. The Way of Jesus is not easy, and none of us can follow it solo. Let’s continue to walk that Way together, remembering that our faith must never leave us comfortable but is always driving us to the margins.