Washing Hands

Sunday 2 September 2018, 14th Sunday after Trinity – Morning Prayer, 11.00 am

WASHING HANDS James 1 17 – 27

I haven’t said very much to you about the cruise I took down the Nile a few months ago.  And I’m not going to say much about it now, except about handwashing. Every time we left the coach to go back to the ship we cleaned our hands with antibacterial wipes.  And as we stepped back on board we had our hands sprayed with more antibacterial cleaner.  Apparently there was an extremely high risk of contracting some really nasty and infectious diseases.  Hygiene was the watchword to enjoying a healthy and happy tour.  So we naturally complied.

So perhaps when we heard the Pharisees in the Gospel reading this morning being highly critical of the disciples’ eating their food without washing their hands, as Jewish law required, we might have some sympathy with the Pharisees.  Surely being clean is good and healthy for the individual and the community?

But hygiene wasn’t the issue.  For the Jews hand washing was a ritual act, not to wash away physical dirt, but to remove, symbolically any defilement which might have been incurred by, say, brushing against a Gentile, or a tax collector or other unclean person in the market place.  It was one of the ways in which the Jews marked themselves out as different from all other people and maintained their claim to be God’s chosen people. Even more important than the laws of ritual cleansing were the Food Laws which among other things precluded a Jew from eating blood.  In these ways Jews marked themselves out as God’s chosen people. But to understand why these laws, which may seem fairly secondary to us,  were so important and caused such controversy in Jesus’ day we need to look back into the early days of the Jewish people.

Throughout history the Israelites struggled to preserve both their very existence and their identity as a people.  They were nearly crushed by Pharaoh in Egypt, they just about survived the desert, later they were exiled and their city Jerusalem was destroyed, and so on and so on.  In his covenant with their ancestor Abraham, God had promised to care for them as his people if they would obey his commandments.  So clearly to obey God’s commandments to the letter, they thought, would be their way to survival and prosperity.  So the book of Leviticus, the third book if the Old Testament was compiled to set out the laws which arose directly out of the covenant of Sinai, the Ten Commandments.  It was essentially for the priests, the sons of Levi, so they could instruct the people.

The fifth book of the Old Testament is the book of Deuteronomy.  It contains the words Moses addressed to the Israelites just before they entered the Promised Land.  It is a reaffirmation of the Sinai covenant and an explanation of the law, the heart of the covenant.  In other words Deuteronomy sets out how the Israelites are to live in their new land and keep faith with their faithful God.

This was around 1260 BC.  As time went on the Israelites continued to be threatened by their powerful neighbouring countries and were often in danger of slipping into the idolatry of the surrounding people and denying God.  How to stop the covenant with God from being broken and how to keep their identity were the questions .  A strict religious sect, the Pharisees, grew up in the second century BC.  They were ordinary Jews, but they kept closely to the Jewish law. They often extended the way the law applied, for example forbidding work on the Sabbath – keeping the Sabbath holy – meant you should not walk about 1 km from your town, or carry a load, or light a fire in the house.  My mother remembered when walking through the Jewish neighbourhood of her home town Hull, people would leave their front doors open so that passers by could be called in to stoke the fire for them.  They thought these extra rules built a protective fence round the the law itself and by keeping this second set of rules the people would be in Iess danger of breaking the actual law of God.  So the law about circumcision, the keeping of the Sabbath and the food laws took on the force of the Ten Commandments themselves and became the mark of the faithful Jew.    In Jesus’ day it is thought that there were around 6,000 Pharisees whose complicated set of rules were meant to keep the people free from sin.  And so we find them in our Gospel reading, tailing Jesus and his disciples, on the alert for any sign of a breach in their defensive wall of laws.  Alongside them were the Scribes.  These were not a sect or a political party.  They were experts in the law – hence they were called lawyers and teachers, rabbis.  Their job was to interpret the law and apply it to everyday life.

The aim of the Old Testament law was to shape a people who would show the world, by their lifestyle, who God is and what it means to live at peace with him.  The law aimed to do three things:  to show  Israel’s distinctiveness as the chosen people of God;  to reveal something of God’s nature; and to provide a way of being in right relationship with God.  The New Testament affirms the law in its basic revelation of God’s character, but the coming of Jesus meant that the distinctiveness of the Israelites as God’s chosen people needed to be radically rethought as Christianity spread through the world, and how to be in right relationship with God.  These are the points where the Pharisees and Jesus clashed.  Jesus taught his followers to go beyond the literal observance of the laws and to discern, understand and do God’s will.  What matters most is what is in a person’s heart and that will direct a person’s actions.   And the teaching of Jesus leads people to a deeper understanding of the kind of behaviour God wants.

As St James puts it in his letter, written some 10 or 15 years after the death of Jesus, “A pure and faultless religion in the sight of God the Father is this:  to look after orphans and widows in trouble and to keep oneself untarnished by the world”.  (James 1:27). Nothing about rituals and hand washing – just hands on care for others and respect for oneself, as Jesus taught.  Easy really.