Text: Mark 7:1-13
As some of you already know, we spend a lot of time at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Once a week our son has speech therapy there. We will be there this next Friday and Saturday for another surgery. Needless to say, we have gotten to know the neighborhood and the various eating establishments very well.
One of the places we will sometimes go is Noah’s Bagels inside the QFC market in University Village. On one of our visits, I noticed a sink near the pop machine and coffee dispensers. Inside the sink was a decorative pot. I think it was made out of some type of metal. Behind the faucet was a laminated sign with some Hebrew writing on it. My curiosity led me to try deciphering the inscription.
Carefully, I read “Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu melekh ha'olam, asher qiddeshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al netilath yadayim.” Without a lexicon at hand, I could figure out this much: “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who…” and then I was stuck. The rest was a struggle. I could make out the word for commandment. There was something else there about hands.
I asked one of the employees what it was all about. He said, “It’s a handwashing prayer for our Jewish customers. I’m not sure what it says.” I googled it when I got home. It is indeed a handwashing prayer for religious Jews. The exact translation is this: “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning washing of hands.” This goes back all the way to ancient traditions, similar to the way St. Mark describes the practice of the Pharisees and scribes. According to their tradition, it is necessary to wash your hands in a carefully prescribed fashion with a special vessel in order to avoid anything that was ceremonially unclean, defiled, common. This tradition was further extended to the ceremonial washing of cups and pots and pans, even the cushions upon which you laid at your dining table. This usually involved sprinkling with water, sort of like a baptism. In fact, the word here in the Greek for “to wash” is indeed the same word from which we get “to baptize.” They would literally “baptize” their pots and pans and sofas, not just to wash them, but to make them ceremonially clean, so that the people who used them would not be defiled by any “uncleanness.”
The Pharisees and scribes were disturbed when they noticed the disciples of Jesus eating with (heaven forbid!) unwashed hands. It wasn’t that they were concerned about hygiene. They looked down upon those who did not rigidly keep these traditions, which they held up as highly as God’s commandments. They thought that by keeping these traditions, they would thereby be in a better position to keep God’s Law.
And so Jesus lays into them here. He calls them “hypocrites.” Mask wearers. Pretending to be something that you are not. And what were they pretending to be? Someone who honors God with their man-made traditions. But Jesus calls them out. Using the words of Isaiah, he accuses them of honoring God with their lips, but in reality their hearts are far from God. They rigidly hold to tradition, but at the same time they were trying to find ways to circumvent God’s law. Traditions were meant to help people keep the Law. Instead, they ended up tampering with it, creating loopholes.
For example, Jesus affirms the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” No matter how old you are, you should “give them honor, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem.” But if you declared something to be “Corban” … a gift given to God … even though you should probably be using it to take care of your parents … then you were released from your responsibility to use it to take care of your parents.
Hypocrites, Jesus calls them. They are more concerned with an outward appearance of piety, more concerned with outward purity and cleanness, less concerned with inward purity and cleanness. They spent an inordinate amount of time scrubbing hands and pots and pans and couches. But no matter how hard you scrub the outside, there’s no way you can scrub the inside. And I’m not talking about pots and pans. I’m talking about hearts. They were overly concerned with “doing it right,” but they forgot about “rightly doing unto others.”
But it’s not just a first century Jewish problem. It’s not just a twenty-first century Noah’s Bagels problem. It’s been a human nature problem since Adam and Eve first reached out with unwashed hands and ate the forbidden fruit. From that moment on, not just their hands, but their hearts were defiled, unclean, common, not fit for God’s service, not fit for being in his holy presence.
Are there any manmade traditions that we hold to firmly? We have many fine traditions here in the Church that may not necessarily be prescribed in the Bible. The trouble comes when we begin to think that we are just a cut above everyone else because “we do it this way and they do it that way.” Do we honor God with our lips, yet our hearts are far from him? Do we come here just to make an impression on someone? Do we come here thinking that just by showing up we’re somehow impressing God? And do we invent pious appearing ways of getting around God’s commandments?
No matter how hard you scrub the outside, there’s nothing you can do about your inside. That’s something only God can do. That’s something we need God to do for us.
That’s something that God did for us. Jesus became common, defiled, unclean, for you and for me at the cross. Jesus suffered outside the walls of Jerusalem, crucified as a common criminal. The holy and righteous Son of God became defiled and unclean with the sins of the world laid upon him at the cross. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” And 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus endured a baptism of blood which paid the price for our deceiving lips and our distant hearts. Jesus endured a baptism of blood which paid the price for our hypocrisy. Our masks are torn away. He calls us to repentance and faith in his shed blood for the forgiveness of sins.
That bath of blood is poured over you in the water and the Word of Holy Baptism. All that Jesus accomplished at the cross is personally applied to you. Your sins are forgiven. You are washed. You are clean. You are made to be a part of Christ’s Church, his holy bride. The heart of the Bridegroom is close to you. You were “cleansed by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).
Like those washed and scrubbed pots and pans, you have been set apart as holy vessels dedicated to God’s service. You are “Corban” … gifts sent out into the world to serve and do acts of mercy and kindness in the name of Christ, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14).
So go ahead and keep washing your hands before you eat. That’s still a good practice. Not because the Bible tells you it’ll get you closer to God. It really is good hygiene. But since there’s water involved in washing, maybe it’s a good time to remember your baptism every time you scrub your hands. Remember how God has washed you clean and forgiven your sins for the sake of Jesus.
And maybe I could rephrase that little prayer from behind the faucet at Noah’s Bagels: “Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu melekh ha'olam,” … “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning washing of hands.” Maybe I could rephrase it by using this prayer which we will use a short time from now: “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, for You have had mercy on those whom You created and sent Your only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. With repentant joy we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of His body and His blood on the cross.”