This is true. I never thought much about what was behind the Jewish tradition of hand washing before today. I have always simply jumped to what appears to be Jesus’ main point and skimmed over the roots of the tradition which is at the center of this week’s controversy. And yet, I was having trouble finding faithful parallels in my own experience, so I decided to go a little deeper.This is what I learned:
Apparently, the basis for hand washing in Judaism was originally related to the Temple service and sacrifices as outlined in Exodus 30:17-21. Before going into the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and their feet. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, however, everything changed. There were no longer ritual objects and processes to be followed. Still, the rabbis did not want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved it to the dining room table or home “altar.” In essence, they attempted to bring the holy into every day life. (Enter ritual Jewish hand washing into your search engine and you’ll get all sorts of background information. I found EHBlogger to be especially helpful.) At some point, though, what was meant to be a life giving practice became a means of designating insiders and outsiders. Even more than that, from what Jesus offers today, in some cases, at least, it had somehow become an empty ritual which no longer, in fact, led people closer to God.
And oh, it is so, isn’t it, that we still sometimes find ourselves where the Pharisees were today? Something is put in place with all good intentions and is perhaps, quite meaningful to many. After a time, we find ourselves believing there is only one way of doing things because that is the way it has always been done. Or we have done it so often it has become rote and loses meaning altogether. And yet, somehow it gets all caught up in our experience of faith.
I think, for instance, of how acolytes are taught to light the candles in the place where I worship. Somewhere along the way we learned there was only one way to do this. Oh, one would have to stretch to find scriptural basis for lighting them and putting them out in a certain way. It is just human tradition. And yet? I, too, find myself twitching a little when one of our youth starts on the outside when instead they should be starting on the inside.
Or I think of how we find ourselves most at home with a certain version of the Lord’s Prayer. You know the one — where it rolls easily off my tongue without my thinking about it because it is the one I have recited since I could first speak. I don’t even really have to think about it. Only might it be so that this is exactly what Jesus speaks of now when he says we ‘honor him with our lips,’ but our hearts aren’t truly in it? And perhaps, even somehow as detrimental as that, might it be so that the words to the version I so cherish no longer speak in a language that can be fully understood or embraced in today’s world?
Or I think of this, of a very human tradition which somehow became “sacred” in a place I once served. And mind you, this human tradition was of my own personal making.
This is how it came to be. I was walking on a beach in Florida where I was on a quick getaway before the start of Lent. As I walked I started picking up seashells — those little clam shells which are so common. I was thinking about the children of my congregation and I was thinking about baptisms. I was remembering that the shell is an ancient symbol of baptism. (Now mind you, I have looked and looked and have not been able to come up with exactly why this is so. If you have insight into this, please let me know.) Pretty soon, I had a whole bag full of little shells which I stowed away in my carry on luggage, sand and all.
From there I put together a children’s message which I used again and again and again at baptisms. It went something like this: “We use water in baptism. Shells come from the ocean which is full of water. Have you ever been to the ocean? (“Yes!” some would reply.) Can you see across the ocean? (“No!” they would shout.) And God’s love for us and for our new brother/sister is even bigger than that!” And every child would get a shell every time.
As I said, I made it up. And yet it seemed to work. For pretty soon parishioners returning from winter vacations would bring me bags of shells. The children knew the answers to my questions and would chime in enthusiastically. And yes, before long, children were lining their shelves at home with these shells. Some parents, bless them, even had the foresight to write the names of those baptized on those very shells in magic marker so their children would make the connection to those newest to the family.
Eventually, I left that congregation to serve another call. I had not been there long, though, before the new pastor called me up, begging for the children’s sermon about shells. Apparently the children were clamoring for it. Somehow for them, it had become so that it was not a baptism if there were not shells.
Oh yes, even the youngest among us can get caught in this. Our very human traditions somehow become central — even “sacred” and we can wind up missing the intended point altogether.
The ritual of hand washing was meant to be a good thing. The practice of giving children shells at baptisms was meant to be a good thing. Both attempted to bring the faith “home” in a memorable way. But neither are central to the gifts that God intends us to carry with us: gifts which include forgiveness and peace and healing and hope .
So yes, this is one of those weeks when we are called upon to take a look at that which has somehow become “sacred” which is not, finally, central to who and what we are called to be and do. The church word for this is adiaphora — as in, it just doesn’t matter for God’s Word doesn’t indicate either way. If you are called to preach this week, however, I would caution you just a bit. I may well be wrong of course, but it could be that those Pharisees so long ago were not only trying to be mean spirited about the disciples. Hand washing may well have meant a great deal to their journeys of faith, just as those shells and the ritual we shared became so important to the children in a congregation I once served.Those things which are somehow unimportant to you and me may hold a precious place in the hearts of those we are called to lead. Surely we must take the time first to listen and seek to understand why. Having done this, even then I would start with a story about one’s own struggle with this. For it is a struggle we all share. (For an example of this, see what I put together in this space three years ago: What Matters and What Doesn’t. )
- In your experience, where have you fallen into the trap of believing human traditions were sacred as the Pharisees did? How might this inform your preaching and teaching this week?
- How is it that we “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition?”
- One avenue I have not yet explored is why some of the disciples had abandoned the practice of ritual hand washing.What might have been their reasons for this? Practicality? Principle? What do you think?
- How do you hear the Pharisees today? Were they mean spirited? Judgmental? Confused? Just plain befuddled?
- Jesus comes down pretty hard on the Pharisees. Why do you think that is? Are there “human traditions” you and I are called to address in the same way? What would that look like in your context?