Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 15:1-20) transports me to a scene marked by some holy high jinks of hygiene, in a sacred showdown of etiquette versus ethics. Jesus dis-respects his elders over their critique of the dirty disciples, who ran afoul of custom and convention by daring to eat their bread without the ceremonial hand washing. This is one of those passages that kids should probably not read and memorize, lest they take it too literally and refuse their mom’s and dad’s request to get back to that bathroom right now and put some soap on those filthy hands! Make sure the water’s hot! And you’re not finished until you’ve had time to sing happy birthday while you’re washing!
While Jesus must have heard the aphorism that cleanliness is next to godliness, He apparently believed that there were other things even closer to godliness. Like compassion and grace. And cleanliness in and of itself was no guarantee of close proximity to godliness. Clean hands and hypocrisy, for instance, kept one a safe distance from God. Clean hands and lip service kept equal distance from the Holy. These elders of Jesus’ day treasured tradition over the true spirit of the law God had given them to live by. They no doubt walked around singing the Fiddler on the Roof song at max volume, Tradition! Tradition! but their customs had long overshadowed the core values of the covenant. So they came to Jesus, after having washed their hands many times that day, to complain about the un-hygenic practices of the disciples, whose hands were permanently stained with the grit and grime common to fishermen. The focus of Jesus’ followers was on trying to understand what their Lord was all about, for He was often a mystery to them. Had they paid any attention at all to the elders, they might have agreed with Barney Fife, who had been reading again and gave Andy some of his newly discovered insights. Barney’s magazines told him that some people have what you call a handwashing compelsion. There are all sorts of compelsions, Barney went on, and this explained the odd behavior of the strangers who kept going to Floyd’s Barbershop. They have a hair-cutting compelsion. They can’t help it, the well-read deputy explained.
But, after Jesus finished his dissing of the compelsion-ridden wise fools, his followers were still scratching their heads (with dirty hands). What was all that about, Jesus? So He had to shift into teacher mode to give the dull disciples a primer in psycho-biology 101. Whatever goes in your mouth, including the grease under your nails, will all come out in the wash, so to speak. But what comes out of your mouth, this is a different story, this is where you separate the clean from the filthy. Listen closely to those religious folks. Do you hear grace and compassion coming out of their mouths? No, that’s because their hearts are filled with evil, with bigotry, with pride and prejudice. Those holier-than thous are all washed up. I can just hear the disciples, responding as so many struggling students do, will this be on the test?
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.