Wash Your Hands (Or Not)!
Relatively innocent practices can morph so easily into rules and then symbols. I invited congregation members to teach their non-communing children to cross their arms over their hearts as they came to the Eucharistic table. The purpose was purely practical – a way for the communion servers to know who was coming for the meal and who was coming for a blessing. No big deal, I thought.
I thought wrong.
Soon I noticed anxious parents fussing with their children’s arms on the way to the altar. In some cases, the fussing was a bit more aggressive than I would have preferred. Before long, some were asking me about which way was the “right” way.” Should the children place their right arm over their left arm or vice versa. Of course, it didn’t matter, but that response was not satisfactory.
After that, children who mastered the practice came forward with what appeared to be self-satisfied smiles on their faces. They had the pleasure of knowing that they were doing it “right.” Before long, those smiles turned into frowns directed toward others who were doing it “wrong” or not at all. The practice had transformed into a rule.
I knew we had gone off the tracks completely when a child asked, with all sincerity, if people who didn’t cross their arms right could still get a blessing. The child shared that this wondering had come from one of the child’s parents. The rule has transformed into an identity practice which could be used to separate the insiders from the outsiders.
If only I had kept my mouth shut.
We are convinced that we think ourselves into acting. In fact, we are much more likely to act ourselves into thinking. Often, we engage in a practice and then go looking for a story to justify that practice. This is the point at which a preacher can be forgiven for trotting out the “cutting the ends off the ham” story. It has become a cliché, but that doesn’t make it less applicable.
A young girl was watching her mother bake a ham for a family gathering and noticed her mom cutting off the ends before placing it in the oven. “Mom, why do you cut the ends off before baking the ham?” she asked.
“Hmmm… I think it helps soak up the juices while it’s baking. I’m not sure, though. That’s just the way your grandma always did it, so I’ve just always cut them off. Why don’t you call grandma and ask her?”
So, the little girl phoned her grandma and asked “Grandma, mom is making a ham and cut off the ends before placing it in the oven. She said that it’s probably to help soak up the juices but wasn’t sure. She said you’d know because she learned how to cook from you.”
“That’s true. I do cut off the ends of the ham before baking. But I’m not sure why either. I learned how to cook from my mom. You should ask her.”
So, the inquisitive little girl called her great grandmother and asked “Great grandma, mom and grandma said they learned how to cook a ham from watching you. Do you cut off the ends of the ham to help it soak up the juices?”
The great grandmother chuckled. “Oh, no sweetie. I just never had a pan big enough to hold a whole ham, so I always had to cut off the ends to make it fit.”
Some scholars suggest that this is the real issue in the Great Handwashing Debate in Mark 7. Yair Furstenberg gives a detailed description of the ways in which this debate cannot be taken directly from Leviticus 11, for example, to first-century Galilee.
He argues that hand-washing before a meal was a hygienic practice that originated in Greco-Roman culture and was adopted by the Pharisees as a new addition to their practice. Jesus is not opposed to hygienic practice, as far as we can tell. Instead, he does not wish to adopt this larger popular custom, with its assimilationist dynamic.
The Biblical understanding of purity, Furstenberg suggests, understood the person as the source of potential contamination. The later, Pharisaic, system understood external substances to be the source of potential contamination. “The hand-washing custom is not a component of the priestly purity system, nor is it an expansion of it,” Furstenberg writes. “Hand washing cannot be seen as an adaptation into daily life of any biblical ruling concerning purity. On the contrary,” he continues, “the custom itself reshaped the nature and content of discourse relating to ritual purity” (pages 199-200).
This certainly helps us to make more sense out of Jesus’ use of the Isaiah 29 quote and his dual condemnations of the Pharisaic innovations. “’Rightly’ you set aside the commandment of God, in order that you can consider valid your tradition” (Mark 7:9, my translation). Jesus accuses the Pharisees of “making void the word of God by means of your tradition which you have been handing on…” (Mark 7:13, my translation and emphasis).
The jarring element of this analysis, in connection with traditional readings of this text, is that Jesus is the theological “conservative” here who critiques and rejects the “liberal” accommodations of the Pharisees. “The distancing of potential sources of contamination from the digestive system,” Furstenberg writes, “with the hands posted as guards, originates in alternative concepts of purity, closely related to the Greco-Roman custom of hand washing and absorbed through popular practice into the Jewish laws of purity.”
“The Pharisees accepted this practice and integrated it into their purity system,” he continues, “whereas Jesus confronted it with the conception of ritual purity found in Leviticus. In Jesus’ view,” he concludes, “the anthropology of the levitical purity laws places the self as a source of impurity rather than as a vulnerable potential object of contamination” (page 200).
Jesus rejects this practice in search of a story and returns his listeners to the standards of Torah. That’s what he proclaims to the crowd in Mark 7:14-15 and explains to the disciples in Mark 7:17-23. The composer of Mark’s account adds the explanatory asides to his Gentile audience to bring the story into their faith practices.
If this were simply a debate about halakhic interpretation, it wouldn’t be all that interesting or important. But Jesus moves the conversation into a larger spiritual and moral arena. The story that justifies the practice leads to what Willie James Jennings calls a “diseased imagination.” The focus on external purity practices leads to evaluations of persons based on and justifying those practices.
In The Christian Imagination, Jennings describes the historical process by which stories were developed to underwrite and justify the European Christian practice of the chattel enslavement of African bodies and the genocidal removal of Indigenous bodies on the American continents. It is clear from the historical record that the practice preceded the story. It is also clear from the historical records that the story defaced and deformed the Christian imagination to accommodate enslavement and genocide.
Jennings describes “a history in which the Christian theological imagination was woven into processes of colonial dominance. Other people and their ways of life had to adapt,” he writes, become fluid, even morph into the colonial order of things, and such a situation drew Christianity and its theologians inside habits of mind and life that internalized and normalized that order of things” (page 8).
I don’t think it’s trivial that Jesus takes on the hand-washing practice and expands it into a major theological and ethical issue. If, in fact, the practice originates with the colonizers and is a way into assimilation with the imperial power and status structure, then this is a big deal. The practice is part of the “deformation of the imagination” of the Jews of the time. Jesus takes his audience and his disciples out of that system and back to their core identity as the people of God formed by Scripture and not by human traditions.
God’s people cannot live inside a domination system, cannot accommodate to imperial powers, without experiencing a defaced and deformed imagination. This is the song that binds together the witness of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrews resist Egyptian imperial power and are released in the Exodus. Israel and Judah embrace forms of empire and are destroyed by empires. Jesus proclaims an alternate reign, God’s kin(g)dom and is executed by agents of the Roman system.
Our own “imperial” system that deforms the Christian imagination has now been outed for what it is – White Christian Nationalism. This is the goal of a process five hundred years old. The evidence of a deformed and defaced imagination is almost too much to catalogue. There is the conjunction of “Christian” and Confederate flags. There is the excruciating whiteness of large parts of the Church on this continent. There is the complicit racism of those of us who wish we could get it “right” without paying a price.
If it were just about cutting the ends off the ham, this little text wouldn’t matter much. But it is about who we are as followers of Jesus and how far off the track we’ve gotten in that process. This is a trail we will follow further as we see the outworking of this text in the challenge of the Syro-Phoenician woman next week.
References and Resources
“Cutting Off the Ends of the Ham.” https://www.executiveforum.com/cutting-off-the-ends-of-the-ham/.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
FURSTENBERG, Y. A. I. R. (2008). Defilement Penetrating the Body: A New Understanding of Contamination in Mark 7.15. New Testament Studies, 54(02). https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688508000106.
Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010.
Kenny, Andrew. “Surprise, Colorado: The guy who sold all those ‘NATIVE’ stickers is a transplant.” https://denverite.com/2018/05/25/surprise-colorado-natives-inventor-beloved-bumper-sticker-utah/.
Malbon, E. (1989). The Jewish Leaders in the Gospel of Mark: A Literary Study of Marcan Characterization. Journal of Biblical Literature,108(2), 259-281. doi:10.2307/3267297.
Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd Edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh. Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Oswald, Roy M., and Friedrich, Robert E. Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.