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Sunday Message for 29 August 2021: “Dirty Hands, Clean Soul”

Muddy waters cloud Old Testament religious rules and today’s scripture has Jesus’ response to this problem. What survives of Jesus’ teachings suggests that he had an ambivalent response to the Old Testament rules and regulations.

What about Jesus’ mixed attitude? On the one hand, Jesus said that, “. . . till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one ]tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. . .”(Matthew 5:18-19a). Jesus’ words suggest that he blindly accepted Old Testament law.

On the other hand, Jesus understood that the rule-based, contemporary form of Judaism needed reform. Jesus rejected strict, unloving critics who rigidly adhered to a twisted form of Old Testament performance art. What upset Jesus was the perfectionistic repetition of rules and rituals. The issue in Mark chapter 7 involved legalistic religious critics (Pharisees) who criticized Jesus’ followers for their lack of ceremonial hand washing. The problem was religious bureaucrats, experts in laws that they had created and from which they profited.

Jesus wasn’t preaching against hygiene because there’s nothing wrong with removing dirt from fingers or plates. Jesus was upset with mere outward appearance when it displaced inner purity. In effect, Jesus’ was washing his hands from contaminated Old Testament rituals.

The Jewish rule about hand-washing wasn’t done from knowledge of modern hygiene. Prior to modern biology, people were ignorant about the microscopic viruses and bacteria which cause illness. All the ancient ritual hand-washing wasn’t motivated by scientific knowledge of germ theory but for outward, observable ritual purity. Silly? Sure, and it is this obsession with a maniacal minutiae of religious rituals that Jesus condemned.

Nowhere are excessive rules more obvious or troublesome than in certain forms of bloated religion. Those ancient Jewish religious experts Jesus denounced had elevated their traditions to a life-and-death status. In contrast to the questionable heap of Old Testament regulations, Jesus demonstrated that love is the priority for which no religion, rule or ritual should be substituted.

Modern followers of God must be as vigilant as ever and recognize and reform nonsensical religious rules. Jesus’ criticism of ritual purity may also undermine many of the over six-hundred Old Testament rules and commands, which strike modern readers as insanely irrelevant. Consider a prohibition against mixing wool and linen in your clothing (Deuteronomy 22:11) or how menstruating women are “unclean” and need to be segregated from society (Leviticus 15:19-30). Such rules, if they ever were legitimate, do not withstand scrutiny today.

In response to the critics, Jesus didn’t mince his words. He warned against relying on externals at the expense of compassion. “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus’ rebuke echoes through the ages, implicating not only ancient Jewish Pharisees but generations of priests and others who’ve abandoned God for the sake of pompous ritual.

Jesus wasn’t absolutely denying the benefits of all rituals and traditions. Jesus knew that much of the Old Testament resided in a peculiar, ethnic distinctiveness not applicable outside Judaism.

Jesus realized the problem with how bad religion kills from within. He rejected servile obedience to rule-based tradition, which consumes like a soul cancer. Evils arise when priests ancient or modern peddle requirements of their own creation, for the sake of dominating people and fostering dependence upon institutional bureaucracy. When Jesus criticized the priests he exposed how their rules, rituals and traditions perverted God’s Way.

As a form of passed-down knowledge, traditions profoundly connect people through time and distance. The problem is when rules, rituals and traditions become infected and decay into life-sucking obligations. Jesus flatly declared that rules and traditions are made to help people; people are not made to serve rules (Matthew 12:1-8).

Let’s rejoice that we are free to love and be loved without domination by modern versions of those ancient Pharisees. Praise God that we are immersed in divine love that transforms, not from priestly water pouring over hands but from a miraculous, soul-cleansing redemption.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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