Summary: We need to filter out those things that will affect our thinking and then we need to make sure we test our thoughts and motives against the highest demands of the Kingdom, that is, inner purity and godly love.
I wonder how many of you have been watching the series “Meet the Amish” on SBS over the last 4 weeks. It’s been fascinating to watch a group of Amish young people experiencing the wider world after living a very sheltered life surrounded by a family and community dedicated to maintaining a complete purity of life.
There’s much to admire in the principles they’ve grown up with in their community. They have good reasons for doing things differently from the rest of the world. Yet at the same time I wonder whether the lengths they’ve gone to, to keep themselves pure, are actually necessary or, for that matter, enough.
Of course, God’s people through the ages have always looked for ways of maintaining their purity of life by external structures and rules. The Jews developed a whole range of rules and regulations to govern everyday life, to help people be sure they were being faithful to God in every circumstance. But it didn’t stop with the Jews. The monastic movement in the Medieval Church developed various rules of life to help Christians structure their lives around the worship of God. So in one version, the day was broken up into periods of work or rest separated by times of prayer - not unlike the Muslim prayer times in fact.
In the reformation many of these practices were abandoned because they were thought to promote religion rather than faith. But then they were replaced by other rules that were there to help people stay away from temptation and to remain faithful to God. The Amish come out of that period of time.
In more recent times evangelical Christians have created other rules of life. The daily “quiet time’, reading the Bible and praying, at one stage became a law rather than simply an encouragement to faith. Certain behaviours were considered to be not acceptable: gambling, swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol - particularly beer; even dancing and going to the movies was considered questionable by some when I was growing up.
If you’d met someone who did these things you would have wondered whether they were really a Christian. I remember meeting some Dutch Christians at St Jude’s in the 70s and being appalled by the fact that not only did they smoke, but they drank gin! And enjoyed it!
Well, in today’s gospel reading we find the Pharisees and teachers of the law coming from Jerusalem to seek out Jesus in Galilee. This is perhaps an indicator of how seriously they saw the threat that he provided. They weren’t prepared to leave it to the local synagogue elders. They wanted to confront him themselves.
The issue that they chose to confront him with is telling in itself. It was the issue of washing hands before eating. Now this wasn’t just a carry over from their days in kinder. Rather it was one of those things that was meant to help them in their desire for purity in all things. They figured that if you’d been to the marketplace, you’d almost inevitably have had to have touched someone who was a gentile, and therefore you’d be ceremonially unclean. In fact these people were so concerned about the impurity of Gentiles that they even considered that the shadow of a Gentile falling across their plate would make it unclean. So there was a real concern about washing their hands after being somewhere as tainted as the market. But the thing was, none of this had come out of the Scriptures. It was all a human invention. Sure, it was an invention with good reasons behind it. The intention was good. Like suggesting that smoking is bad because it damages your body. And in a sense it was a helpful provision for the people because it made up for the fact that they had no choice but to live in a multicultural, multi-faith society. Had they been able to live in a land without foreigners, as God had originally instructed them in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But that hadn’t happened, so their ancestors had come up with this compromise. But it wasn’t what God had told them, and in fact went beyond the things God had told them to do.
But as with many of their rules and regulations, the original intent had been lost and the rule had become an end in itself.
So the Pharisees object when they see the disciples start their meal without first having the ritual hand washing.
But Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. He doesn’t comment on the question of washing. Rather he focusses on the heart of the matter. He jumps straight to the real issue at point. What matters isn’t whether you’ve fulfilled all the regulations that people have thought up. What matters is whether you honor God with your heart as well as with your lips.