Column: Jesus asks us to cleanse hearts as well as hands

by Father Mike Stubbs

Public health officials encourage hand washing as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the swine flu. That doesn’t surprise us. We have known about the role of germs in spreading disease for a long time.

On the other hand, at the time of Christ, no one knew anything about such matters. Sickness was believed to result from evil spirits. Hygiene was unknown.

But at least some Jews practiced hand washing for religious reasons. It served a symbolic purpose, much like Catholics dipping their fingers in the holy water font upon entering a church.

That is the practice which Jesus is examining in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. He criticizes people for observing the practice in a superficial manner — for putting too much emphasis upon externals; for cleansing their hands, but not their hearts.

He goes on to make a radical statement: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” This statement maintains that ritual impurity also does not matter when it comes to food. Jesus is giving the go-ahead for foods that traditionally have been considered unclean.

The issue of whether certain foods should be considered unclean enjoyed a great deal of attention in early Christianity.

The apostle Peter received a vision which gave him guidance regarding that controversy: “I observed and saw the four-legged animals of the earth, the wild beasts, the reptiles, and the birds of the sky. I also heard a voice say to me,’Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.’ But I said, ‘Certainly not, sir, because nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time a voice from heaven answered, ‘What God has made clean, you are not to call profane’” (Acts 11:6-9).

The decision by early Christians to not observe kosher, to eat foods classified as unclean by the Law of Moses, contributed to the division between the Christians and the Jews. They could not eat together. They could not socialize. They drifted apart.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading anticipate this stance of the early Christians: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person.”

At the same time, nothing in the Gospel text suggests that Jesus himself disregarded the prohibition against unclean foods — that he himself ever ate them. If he had, he would have surely encountered criticism from his opponents, just as he did for breaking the Sabbath. But no such criticism concerning unclean foods ever occurs in the Gospels.

In fact, the criticism concerning a lack of hand washing in Sunday’s Gospel reading is directed against some of Jesus’ disciples, not against Jesus himself: “When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands. . . . So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him: ‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?’”

Evidently, Jesus himself was observing the Law of Moses and following tradition. At the same time, his words and his teachings lay the ground for his disciples to do otherwise.

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