Notes on the Lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page at AnglicanCompass.com/NotesOnTheLectionary 

Gospel Reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 7:1-23

“And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.’” (Mark 7:18–20, ESV)

Growing up, I remember that one of the first rules I was taught about eating a meal in polite society was to wash my hands. Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we are told to wash our hands regularly to slow the spread of disease. For us, being opposed to handwashing doesn’t seem prudent and seems like an odd position for Jesus and his disciples to take.

The reasons why the Pharisees washed their hands and why we wash our hands are very minimally related. Yes, both are based on a desire for cleanliness and avoiding taking in anything improper – the difference though is that for the Pharisees this largely was about avoiding being ritually unclean and being unfit for worship in the Synagogue.

What could make the Pharisees unclean such that they would have to wash their hands before eating? Mark includes in his explanation to a largely Gentile audience the detail of washing hands after coming from the marketplace. The marketplace in the first century would have been where many different peoples – including both Jews and Gentiles – gathered to buy and sell goods. 

The Pharisees sought to wash off even the possibility of defilement from being so exposed to unclean people and places. For Jesus to neglect this tradition – in their eyes at least – was to say that his disciples didn’t need to practice it either, and strongly implied that such cleanliness was not important.

Jesus says as much in his rebuke of the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites for their practices. Hand washing isn’t required at all by the Law. Absent an understanding of anti-microbial hygiene, it is almost entirely for show: it is an outward act intended to show rejection of the surrounding world. Yet, when the Law requires honoring of father and mother, including providing for them in their old age, the  traditions of the elders allowed for a first century observant Jew to avoid this by declaring what would have gone to his parents as instead going to God.

Such an act and an allowance reveals more about the decay and unfit nature of the heart than washing hands ever could hope to remove. The person who washes hands but lets his parents go destitute may as well wash with water from the bottom of a latrine for all the good it would do – at least hands and heart would match!

As Anglican Christians, one of the charges that is often brought against us is that we value too much the “traditions of men.” On the surface, someone who sees the care with which an Anglican approaches the liturgy might feel justified in saying this. And in some cases it might in fact be a witness against an individual who puts far more care into the details and nuances of getting rubrics exactly right or waving a certain churchmanship flag than in showing grace and love towards fellow believers.

Yes, this is often true of our tradition, and of every Christian tradition. We are fallen human beings just like the people in Jesus’ day and we are also tempted to elevate man-made rules above compassion and love. Or to use pious religion for selfish ends.  At the same time, Anglicans believing Anglican things, upholding the Great Tradition, or carefully observing the liturgy for the purposes of facilitating worship in spirit and truth do not need to be the same as washing hands for show and then ensuring that elderly parents have no means to support themselves. But we can be like the Pharisees about our man-made traditions, and for that we need to repent. Yet the teaching is not “completely eschew tradition,” it is that traditions have to yield to the commands of God.

Finally, consider the words of the Collect appointed for this week, which appeals to God that his grace would “precede and follow after us,” so that we would “continually be given to good works.” How does this relate to the lesson we’ve looked at this week? How does God’s grace keep us from defilement? Are there any other concepts you could relate this teaching to in understanding the relationship between grace and good works?

Please answer in the comments or just meditate on it throughout the week!