The Hardest Thing About Being a Christian? Washing Your Hands (Mark 7)

What is the hardest thing about being a Christian? It may be coming to church each week and being forced to listen to me drone on about religious stuff. Perhaps it’s making what we say, do, and sing impact your life beyond these four walls. You could be concerned about putting the right amount of church time in so you get in good with the big guy but you still want to go fishing and you really want me to move it along. (Whether or not God is taking attendance is another sermon altogether, I’ll come back to that one.)

Maybe the hardest thing for you is dealing with nitpicking, holier than thou, got it all figured out, and are confident they know Jesus personally types of Christians. I find this difficult. This is what the first few verses of Mark 7 are about. Jesus runs into a group of people who are pretty sure they have a pipeline to God and know far more than Jesus does.

You know the type of person I’m talking about. Is nit-picker too gentle a word? I mean people whose version of Christianity (or religion) is limited to and experienced within three or four very narrow choices: Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi. That’s the world they live in. Everything must be limited to these four options. If those alternatives aren’t available or people chose a different choice, then those who pick Diet Sprite, Mountain Dew, and Canada Dry are either doing sodas (religion) wrong or it’s as if they drinking nothing at all. They might as well be doing without. If you can’t have Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi you’re not drinking anything officially blessed by the soda fountain God.

The CDPD crowd (Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi) were opposed to Jesus. If he’d suggested free health care, balloon rides, and meals for everyone over 65 they would have found religious and social reasons to object to his ideas. It didn’t matter what Jesus said. In their eyes, Jesus was always going to be wrong. He wasn’t drinking Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi. He brought fresh water, wine, and Diet Mountain Dew to the party. You see how low they were willing to go to find something wrong with his actions in this passage. Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands correctly.

Here’s what you need to know: ritual purification and cleanliness are a big deal in Old Testament law. In fact, the reason it became a ritual probably had more to do with the notion that purity saves lives and prevents the spread of disease. Eventually, this public health idea becomes wrapped up in concepts of religiosity. You can imagine how what might have been washing your hands with water and prayer evolved into a more elaborate ritual. A can of Coke suddenly became a limited edition two liter that needed to be poured in a special cup in a sacred way. Are you getting the picture?

Now we got them, said the Coke people. We’ve got them on a health code violation. Jesus may have thought he was something, making bread appear from nowhere, casting out demons, and healing sick people. We’ll show him, by gum! You know you’re dealing with crazy people when they think the best way to stop Jesus is the ancient equivalent of Gomer Pyle making a “citizen’s arrest.”

Mark is quick to point out that Jesus did follow the law, even the hand washing proscriptions. It’s just that he and disciples didn’t do it in the old school, most traditional, Old School, way you great-great grandparents learned how do drink Diet Coke way when they were leaving Egypt way. Mark says if they went to the market, they took a shower before having a meal. I’d say that’s better than washing only your hands, right? On top of that, they cleaned all of their dishes; their cups, jugs, pans, and even their sleeping bags. These disciples were the cleanest group of single men you’ve ever met. But not according to the holier-than-thou nitpickers. The law, (Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi only rules) specify you must wash your hands in a specific way before eating. It doesn’t matter that the disciples have taken a full-on shower (i.e., provided their own Coke Zero). And so the Pharisees respond, “Mr. Jesus and your group of ne’er-do-well disciples have broken our shared religious law.” Doesn’t this kind of thing just get under your skin? And to think, Jesus has to deal with these kinds of shenanigans every day.

This is why I believe the hardest thing about being a Christian for us was also the hardest thing for Jesus. Jesus encountered difficulty, know-it-all people, too religious for their own good, and determined to use God as a means to alienate and judge others rather than bring people together.

It’s the showdown at the Galilee Corral. The Piety Police have confronted Jesus and the disciples. They are not washing their hands. Showers do not count. The Bible says their hands must be clean. How dare they contradict the Bible is such an explicit way. If people defy the Bible over hand washing today, what will they be doing tomorrow, wearing polyester?

Jesus answers the Pharisee’s assault with prophecy and practicality. In verse six he says, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.'”

Wow. Next, Jesus places his own spin on the verse: You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to the rules created by humans and handed down to you. That’s how you get nitpickers, holier than thou, hand washing, Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi people. It was a 1st-century problem and it’s a 21st-century problem. We are as guilty as the Pharisees of creating a faith of limited means to access and follow God. If it doesn’t fit into the spiritual equivalent of Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi, we don’t know what to do. And when pressed to offer more choices, we argue, debate, or panic, instead of providing a new flavor or means of meeting God.

When we ignore God’s good ideas to make rules we claim God created, endorsed, wrote, or delivered when God had nothing to do with those so-called laws in the first place; we create rituals and deem activities holy that have no place in our lives as people of faith.   Yes, Jesus was correct.  Nitpickers love to enforce rules they created.

Jesus ends the debate by reminding each of us that what makes us dirty (or unclean) is not the grime on our hands or bodies. It’s what on the inside. That’s where the real filth is. The one thing we need to wash is the human heart, the human soul, or our conscience. That’s what divides us from the world around us. Physical contamination is simple to tackle. Spiritual corruption can’t really be addressed by soap and water. We need prayer, and an embrace of the Grace Jesus offers. We need to make it easier for people to be welcomed in God’s house and follow Jesus. Life is hard enough, the church doesn’t need to make life more difficult.

Richard Lowell Bryant