Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "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." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
It’s not really about washing hands, is it? That’s NOT why the religious leaders in Jesus’ day are all riled up. They say it is, sure. It’s really about who has the power to say what matters. It’s about their sense of control being challenged by someone new on the scene. Someone who claims authority simply by virtue of a closer connection to the divine. I’m the son of God, so I know what’s up. “Oh really, Jesus, you think what you have to say trumps the teachings of our elders, of YOUR elders? What you teach your disciples is better than centuries of lived wisdom and teaching?
Jesus’ answer is great. He says no- it’s not WHAT I teach that’s better, it’s WHY. I teach spiritual freedom from human doctrine. WHY? Because God is bigger than your ways. Sure, wash your hands- but why? If it’s to love your neighbor, then great. But if it’s to hold power over your neighbor, then you are simply not connected to the God you preach.
My fourth grade school pictures are missing something. And the only two people who know it are mom and me. (and well, now you!); My mom sent me to school that day wearing a yellow shirt and a colorful vest that I sewed in 4-H. I didn’t want to wear that vest, and wouldn’t you know- that when I took it off for recess that morning, I just plain forgot to put it back on! They whisked us away for school pictures, we got them back weeks later- and when my mom saw that plain yellow shirt- she was upset. I tried explaining that I’d taken it off for recess and forgot to put it back, but she was having none of it. All these years later- as we’re both able to chuckle about the incident, I think: It wasn’t really about the vest was it? It was about a mom who was watching her daughters grow up, make decisions of their own, sometimes against her will. It was about a daughter carving her own place in the world, sometimes against her mother’s will. It’s really about who has the power to say what matters.
Moments like these (vest or no vest) challenge us to look under the hood- to question WHY it is we feel the need to control others. What’s your “vest” story? Maybe you’re the one who thinks there’s ONE right way to load the dishwasher; Fold the clothes; Spend your money; Seek justice; Prepare for a career; Raise your children; Be in relationship; or like the Pharisees, wash your hands.
However your need for authority and control manifests, we hear Jesus ask the hardest question of all. Why? What’s hiding in your heart that makes you need to be so RIGHT all the time? To control how others make decisions?
Eugene Petersen interprets Jesus saying, “It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.”
I think about this list, how all of us are prone to at least a few of these evil ways, and I do think it’s because of our need for control. I slander someone else when I feel out of control in my own life. I am arrogant when I’m not confident about my self worth. I make foolish choices when I’m concerned about controlling what others will think. All the while, the truth remains clear: I can only ever make decisions for myself, no one else. If some day my kid WANTS to wear a vest on picture day- I won’t be able to control them any more than my mom could my decisions.
I can, however, control how I respond- what my behaviors say is really going on in my heart. I have officially been on both sides of this “what to wear to school” issue. On the second day of school, Blaire chose to wear mermaid pants with a cheetah-print dress. And I felt this deep urge to make her change. I wanted to control how her teachers thought about my parenting skills. I didn’t want to be perceived as the mom who sent her kids to school in crazy outfits. But I took a deep breath, I accepted the truth that my clothing values are not shared by my dear daughter- and that’s okay. Not just okay, but GOOD; In hindsight I’m glad she proudly wore that outfit all day, because I learned a valuable lesson. I was “this close” to foolishly telling a 5 year-old that what she wore mattered more than who she was...and having to sit with that is hard. I had the impulse to act as if that were true, even though I Of COURSE don’t believe it. This change of the heart stuff, it’s hard work...and it’s totally worth it. Jesus says, It’s not what you wear or how you wash your hands that defiles you, it’s what comes from the heart that matters.
Here’s a question for us- what’s your “vest” story in our church? Or our collective “cheetah print & mermaid pants” story? Where in our rituals of worship have we demanded that others hold the same values we do in aesthetics? Or musical tastes? Or theology? Or use of finances? The term “sacred cow” is used whenever there’s a part of church culture that simply cannot be questioned. Like the Pharisees ritualistic washing of hands.
NIB Commentary: “People come to hold on to merely human traditions as if they were divinely revealed. At the same time, the very basic virtues of love, reconciliation, and the good news that God has come among us as savior get lost. It would, in fact, be much easier to follow any number of ritual practices than to transform our hearts.”
I read that this week, nodding along, until I realized we claim the ritual practice of worship as THE single-most important act of heart transformation.
So which is it? The outward act or the inward change? Or maybe a better question is- do those two things happen simultaneously? Are we open to being changed by the common rituals that bring us together? Are we also open to changing those common rituals to be inclusive of new ideas and people? Jesus’ teaching always ask us to go one step further, to ask the question that lies at the heart of it all:
Why are we doing what we do? Why do we worship? At our best, we usher in God's kingdom, in which Jesus takes the impossibly evil intentions of our hearts and changes us. Gives us a way where there was no way. For only God has the power to illuminate our hearts and bring resolution and peace within each of our “vest” stories. Only then can we release our need for control of others into the arms of our ever-loving Savior.
Jesus, may your kingdom come to us today on earth, in our hearts, as it has always been and always will be in heaven. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.