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September 2, 2018

“Washing Our Hands of Labels”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

James 1.17-27

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

September 2, 2018

As I read today’s Gospel reading, I imagined that the Pharisees had never eaten with toddlers. It does not matter how many times you wash a toddler’s hands, they are always unclean. Part of this is because they eat everything with their hands. The moment you wash the dirt from outside off of their tiny fingers, they have shoved their hands into jam and yogurt and anything else they can find. Even though I despise the sticky mess of toddlers, I love the ease with which they sit down and dig into whatever is on the plate before them. They aren’t concerned with rules or how others look at them or whether they are using the “right” fork – they are just present in the moment and enjoying a meal with whoever dares to sit at the table with them. This was the experience of the disciples and Jesus in our passage for today.

Obviously the Pharisees were not referring to eating with toddlers. They were referencing purity laws regarding washing hands and foods. Though, they took their purity laws a little more seriously than most. Purity laws were mostly for priests – not the laity.[1] These disciples sitting around the table were not priests – so the law wouldn’t have affected them.

Whether or not the disciples should have washed their hands before dipping their bread the au jus sauce, the Pharisees have completely missed the point – and Jesus makes this known.[2] This group of rule followers is shaking their heads at people not following purity laws, but aren’t questioning why they are doing so. The Pharisees cannot see the bigger picture. They are also worried that by association, Jesus, or the Pharisees, will become unclean. In those days, as it is today often, to associate with an outcast means that you might also be excluded if you associate with that person.

Perhaps the best analogy for the Pharisees and the disciples is a middle school or high school lunch room. I’m not hip with school lunch rooms anymore, but when I was in school the athletes all sat at one table, the “geeks” sat at another, the musicians sat at another, and there were very few that could float seamlessly from table to table. The Pharisees have made it clear that they don’t want to sit at Jesus’ lunch table. They could just sit quietly at their own, but they vocally make noise that Jesus’ lunch table isn’t following the rules. They’re whispering and snickering.

How easy it is to be caught up in that world. Do you remember junior high and high school? Some days it seems like one mistake or snub from the cool table will paint you for life. Those Pharisees are stuck in that smaller vision, but Jesus is looking at the big picture. This isn’t about some handwashing. This isn’t about ritual or about tradition. Jesus is making a statement that he will not be defined by the Pharisees, and neither will the disciples. We all know that the lunch tables we sat at in school didn’t determine who we are now, but we also have more perspective. The Pharisees don’t have that perspective in the moment. Jesus tries to give it to them.

Jesus didn’t criticize the people he sat with at the table. He didn’t say, “Go wash your hands first,” but he met them where they were in the moment. He ate a meal with them and connected with them, without judgment.

The Pharisees labeled the people as “unclean” but Jesus is into relabeling, and redefining and reimagining the entire structure of society. Dr. Deborah Krause, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary, argues that part of the reason why Jesus moves from here to there “immediately” in the Gospel of Mark is because Jesus is trying to redefine space and redefine society. He is looking outside the boundaries that society places and broadening them. Here Jesus challenges the idea of being “unclean” or a “defiled” person. In Jesus’ time people were considered “clean” and “unclean” but he is challenging that and redefining the word “unclean.” He tells the people that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." For Jesus, the unclean food doesn’t make someone defiled, but their words and actions do. Not what does in, but what goes out. This is a euphemism, as well. What goes in the body (food) isn’t as defiling as what comes out (which is a reference to the toilet) suggesting that sometimes people use words and actions that are the equivalent to sewage.

Eugene Peterson has a really great paraphrase of this passage in The Message: “Listen now, all of you – take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit – that’s the real pollution.” This is a rather gross version of this passage, but I think he’s just saying what Jesus is alluding to in his words to the Pharisees. I also like the idea of the words or actions as being pollution. In the environment, often pollution is not something we can see – the emissions from cars and factories. We don’t see it there, but when our children – and we – have asthma and other respiratory problems because of that pollution, we begin to notice it is there.

How do we pollute the world with our words? We have had a dramatic shift in our culture in which words are used as weapons more often than not. It has become “normal” to speak harshly, crassly, and insultingly to people through social media, even speeches. Our world is polluted with words that are harming us. Like pollution, we may not see the effects right away, but we will one day, and it will be very clear.

We can dress that pollution up any way we like. We can take tradition and cover up what is really going on because “that is the way we’ve always done it,” and we can wash our hands and put on a pretty smile, but the pollution still is there. I really like what Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, wrote in her blog this week: “Clean hands are nothing without a pure heart and the actions that spring forth from it.”

Who is “unclean” or “defiled” in our society? Someone of the opposite political party? Someone who doesn’t act like we want? I think mental illness has a huge stigma in our society, and many people who suffer are considered “unclean.” This past week Kevin Hines spoke at the college as part of the Zero Suicide Initiative. Hines is one of thirty-six people who survived jumping off the Golden Gate bridge after attempting suicide. He spent two hours describing his battle with mental illness, but also the hope that he has gained over time.

In his speech he described the bus ride to the bridge, and talked about how he sat on a bus with a hundred people, and he screamed out loud and talked to the voices he was hearing – and no one asked him if he was ok or if they could help. Sometimes it isn’t our words that defiles, but the words we can’t seem to find: we must ask forgiveness for “what we have done, and what we have left undone.”

We have all seen someone on the street that has battled with mental illness, and it is pretty typical to walk on the opposite side of the street or ignore or turn away. Yet, what would happen if we just asked, “Are you ok?” Kevin Hines made it clear that we are all in this together – just like our blocks show – and that our words and actions matter.

Last week we put together this building of blocks with words of the gifts God gives us, showing that we are stronger together than apart as a community of faith. If you didn’t have a chance to add a block last week, you’re welcome to after the service today, because we will do more with this over time. When we stand together as a church and say, “Yes, we are called to help end the stigma of mental illness,” or “Yes, we are called to help the homeless,” or “Yes, we are called to feed the hungry,” people notice. They notice the opposite, too. When a faith community stands against humans and degrades and defiles, people take note of that, as well.

The James passage continues to remind us that our actions matter. Our words might be polluted at times, but God’s Word creates and sustains and nourishes us. To make sure we aren’t polluting the world with harmful words, we must first listen. Once more, I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.” Post this everywhere! Post it on your doorposts – intersections – Twitter accounts. Listen, then respond. Sometimes our response isn’t verbal – it’s with our actions. We are to be “doers of the Word.” How can we do if we don’t first know the Word? The Gospel reading wasn’t telling us to just throw out all tradition, but perhaps to give it a second glance – why do we do what we do? Listen to God’s Word – listen to people around you – are we doing what we are supposed to be doing?

This week, listen first, but don’t stop there – be a doer of the Word. Find strength in God’s Word, and welcome to the table those who are considered defiled. Let us cut back on our pollution in the world. Amen.



[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 21.

[2] Amy C. Howe, “Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 20.