Sermon – Trinity 13

Hand Washing – 29th August 2021

James 1: 17 – End   Listening and doing; Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14, 15, 21 – 23  True cleanliness

  1. Introduction.          How many times a day do you wash your hands?   For myself, I haven’t tried counting but it must be at least a dozen times and perhaps a lot more not to mention the use of sanitizing gel.  When I was at a boarding school, in the junior house we had to line up on the way to a meal and pass Matron, showing both sides of our hands to show that our hands were clean.   I guess I am one of only a few people here present who has done an NHS hand washing course with its practical test at the end.  As a hospital chaplain I had a personal clip-on sanitiser, so that after visiting patient, if we had shaken hands, I could readily disinfect my hands before going to another patient.  Perhaps we have some sympathy with the Pharisees’ remonstration with Jesus, that his disciples were not washing their hands before eating!   Sometimes I get a little annoyed with a person when I ask a question and the person’s answer is to a different question to the one I asked.  It may seem to you, that Jesus even deliberately ignores the Pharisees’ question, apart from a reference to cleanliness and in response asks them a question.   If either of these points resonates with you then this sermon is for you as we look more deeply at today’s Gospel and at the end briefly tie it in with to today’s Epistle.

2. Pharisees’ question.         As Jesus points out, the Pharisees’ question is not directly based on the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, for us, the Old Testament.  Rather it is based on the interpretation, known as the Talmud, originating from the time of the priest and prophet Ezra of the 6th Century BC and continuing perhaps 200 years or more into the present era, comprising both written interpretation, known as the Mishnah, and the oral tradition, known as the Midrash.  Mark as the gospel writer also expands on the Jewish practice at that time.  The practice of hand washing, washing of food bought in the market and washing of cooking and eating vessels was all good and accords with what is common practice today by many of us, especially in this Covid pandemic.

3. Old Testament.      Without even going into the interpretations in the Talmud, it is worthy of mention that there is much in the Old Testament about washing including especially washing of hands and feet. Many of the references are to the required practice of the priests that they should not enter into the Tabernacle or Temple without washing their hands and feet, in order to appear clean in the presence of God.   The general thrust of this is therefore ceremonial rather than that of hygienic practices by the general population.  Thus, as Mark states, the interpretation in the Talmud was seen in ceremonial terms.

4. Jesus’ response.  Now let’s consider Jesus’ response.  First let us remember that Jesus was an itinerant preacher, saying on another occasion, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8 v 20).  We are very accustomed to our houses and flats, all with running water.  However, in my younger years, I lived in two villages with no running water.  In one, in Rutland, we lived in a cottage, dependent on a hand operated pump outside the house.  There was no bath or hand wash basin, just a sink where we washed up and washed ourselves.  In another village, in East Sussex, we had a piped water system in the bungalow, dependent on the rainwater collected from the roof into an underground tank and then pumped by a hand-operated semi-rotary pump, into the roof tank.  I am sure that as a boy I did not wash my hands 12 times a day!  Jesus and his disciples had even less provision, perhaps eating a meal outside, a mile from a well.   I can well understand that Jesus and his disciples didn’t always wash their hands before eating

Secondly, remember that Jesus said in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them”.  Jesus had been brought up in a good Jewish family, obedient to the requirements of the law, as seen in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel.  He was often challenged about healing people on the Sabbath.  He went deeper than the written law, to the principles underlying the law.  He knew that in particular, the Pharisees, the strictest law-abiding Jews, were often out to trap him.

On this occasion Jesus holds on to the principle of ceremonial cleanness, that is, what is pleasing to God, and challenges the Pharisees on the grounds of fundamental unholiness, of the breaking of the commandments.  He is not denying that hand washing is a good thing but that it is not the basis of establishing a right relationship with God and in that respect, it is quite trivial in comparison to the major moral aspects of the law, in particular the ten commandments, which we have writ large on the E wall of the chancel.

If you wish understand the full thrust of Jesus’ teaching, then sometime this week read the whole gospel passage from Mark 7 v 1 through to v 23.  As you can see in the Sunday newssheet, today’s reading, is as one commentator has put it, ‘rather like a shrink-wrapped supermarket fish’, with its simplified selection of verses.

5. Application.           How do we apply today Jesus’ teaching in his response to the Pharisees’ challenge?   We should not neglect good hygiene, using sanitisers, washing our hands, having Covid vaccinations.  We should do these things so that as far as possible we remain in good health and therefore are not a burden on other people and also, out of concern for one another that we are not passing on infection to others.   What we are doing is living out the second commandment of Jesus summary of the law, ‘loving our neighbours as ourselves’.  We need to see that all people are made in the image of God, whatever the colour, race or religion of the other person.  Our relationship with God should motivate our relationship with one another, and I believe to a large extent it does.  But as we look out at the worldwide scene, we see in so many countries that this is not so.  There are personal and corporate struggles for power, there is little concern for those who ‘get in the way’, in that struggle.  We are particularly concerned at present about the desperate situation in Afghanistan, where those who sought a new freedom and way of life, now live in fear of their lives.  

Let us not be quick to condemn the legalism of the Pharisees or even the Orthodox code of living of Jews today.  We live in this country, as in most countries, circumscribed by a mass of law, regulation, codes of practice and formal guidance.  We live in a complex technological age with huge populations.  As someone involved in writing of international standards, in my case, relating to lightning protection, I am conscious that I am contributing to that mass of requirements.  I try to do it bearing in mind a concern for the safety and wellbeing of people, both directly from the effect of lightning strikes and indirectly in care of the buildings in which people live and work or are served by, with a particular responsibility for churches.

I said at the beginning of this sermon, that I would refer briefly to today’s epistle, from the epistle of James, whom I said in my sermon in July, was almost certainly not the James the son of Zebedee, but possibly James, son of Alphaeus, another apostle of the 12.  One can sum it up by saying that we should be good listeners and good doers.   In other words, we should not be in a rush to speak but rather be willing to listen.  Sometimes in parish ministry, someone has said to me something like, “Christopher, thank you so much for visiting me two months ago when I was going through a difficult time, you were so helpful to me then.” I think back to the occasion and realise that I hardly said anything. By articulating a problem, the person has seen the solution.   Secondly it is not enough to leave Church today saying, ‘That was an interesting sermon.  We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I going to do differently as result of that sermon.’

Jesus was a man of prayer, thought and action, listening to God the Father, guided and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.  Let us like him see the underlying principles of our religion and act on them.

Christopher Miles

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