According to the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, keeping our hands clean is the most important thing we can do in order to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Many diseases and other conditions are spread by not properly washing our hands with soap and clean running water. In addition to the latter statement, the CDC website goes on to explain in detail how germs get onto people’s hands, the various ways in which these germs spread to others via ones hands, how these germs can kill children around the world, and how hand washing can help battle the rise in antibiotic resistance. Hence, the importance of signs at restaurants and other businesses’ restrooms stating that employees must wash their hands before returning to work, as well as the schools emphasis on educating children to wash their hands and other similar campaigns. Was Jesus negating the latter? No. As Jesus often did, he was speaking metaphorically, so please continue to wash your hands before meals!
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So, what was Jesus’ dispute really about in Mark 7:1-23, when the Pharisees question his followers' hand cleanliness when eating? It’s about what goes out, not what goes in. This is why he quotes Isaiah in verses 6-7, who said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The accusation is directed at this group of Pharisees, whom are concerned with physical issues addressed by the elders. In contrast, Jesus is concerned with the human heart, from which good and evil can be derived. That’s what’s important in our walk in Jesus.
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Secondly, Jesus is concerned about the anthrōpos, human being, not one’s dietary and health related habits addressed in this elders’ tradition. In the words of Joel Marcus, a theologian at Duke University, it “is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of the anthrōpos. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world.” That’s why Jesus lists some of the non-exhaustive evil things that defile humans.
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Thirdly, we need to be very much aware of how Satan is lurking in the shadows of our lives. Just like the Pharisees and scribes in this passage, we are often too quick to point out other’s wrongdoings, diverting attention to our own propensity to do the same. Take for example Facebook or any other social media, where you can often find people making broad generalizations or false accusations about political groups, controversial issues, racial/ethnic groups, etcetera. Our own sports, cultural, political, and other leaders aren’t any better. That’s Satan trying to reel us in.
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In the words of Matt Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary, “We know enough about the human condition to say that evil is about more than an individual's selfishness or bad decisions. It roams our collective existence, our social, economic, and familial systems. We are at once perpetrators and victims. And our victimization furthers our capacity to perpetrate. "The human heart,” or the human will, remains a complex thing. Our kin and culture usually keep us ingrained in patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.”
Now that is a mouthful, isn’t it? Therefore, being a friend of Jesus is not an easy task, due to our human frailties. It’s much more than me writing this sermon and you sitting here. As our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wrote in his book, Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, “being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.”
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In closing, let us leave behind the “human traditions” that misconstrue God’s commandments. Jesus never denies the validity of the Mosaic law or the Ten Commandments, but does reject interpretations and practices that deviate or obscure their intent. As Bishop Curry says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Let us lead our lives in the loving, liberating, and life giving ways of Jesus. And remember, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.”