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  • Pastor Jim Gronbeck (Retired)

“Cleanliness is Next to Godliness”

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Over the past couple years, we have learned, or re-learned some things about hygiene. We wash our hands many, many times a day, and as we wash we sing the “Happy Birthday” song, or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a couple times to get the length of time right. We use Clorox/bleach wipes, Microban, or some such product over our hard surfaces. At church, we spray a couple different disinfectants throughout the building. We’re trying to keep up these new traditions to ensure the building and people are as safe as possible.

On my trip to Israel, I learned about eating Kosher food. Kosher is a term used for something that was prepared in accordance with the Jewish dietary regulations. From the time I got on the El Al airplane, and throughout the trip I ate only Kosher food according to Jewish regulations. That was at times a bit confusing because certain kinds of food couldn’t be served with other things. For instance: if you had beef for your meal, you couldn’t drink milk. So, if milk was served you ate fish. It was confusing, and I thought it was sort of silly, but because I was a guest in their country I gladly went along with their regulations.

Jesus was Jewish. He was expected to follow the rules and laws of the Jewish religion. One of those rules was the washing of one’s hands before eating. It was a Jewish law. If you didn’t follow the law, you were considered unclean and couldn’t participate in worship or be an accepted part of society.

As we have been learning throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was not as concerned with the rules, as those in the religious circles were expecting of Him. Throughout the first seven chapters they were asking questions of Jesus and His disciples such as: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why don’t Your disciples fast? Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And now the big question becomes, “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” The Pharisees were the ones in charge of making sure the laws were kept and the people were keeping themselves purified according to the laws of their religion. For them, the laws were the means to religious purification, and to see Jesus and His disciples ignoring them was outrageous.

As we see, eating was a matter of vital importance to the Jewish religious system. It was not a trivial matter, or one of simple hygiene. The Pharisees sought to sanctify all areas of life. The washing of hands was seen as a mark of respect of every aspect of God’s created order. Jesus, then, puts the entire system in jeopardy by allowing His disciples to eat without washing their hands.

Jesus doesn’t see it this way. He says that the religious leaders have put oral traditions—the regulations humans have put on the faith—over and above the written tradition found in Scripture. Jesus goes on to question all the laws about eating. Jesus says nothing that enters our bodies from the outside can do us harm in a spiritual sense. Jesus wasn’t talking about cholesterol here! For Jesus, religious purity is a matter of the heart. It is what’s inside a person that counts, not that which comes from outside. If the inside--the heart--is good, then it will produce good things. If the heart is evil, then it will produce evil.

The ultimate issue and question that is dealt with here is one’s inclusion into the Kingdom of God. The early church struggled with the issue of who is included in the Christian community. Does one have to become Jewish and follow the Jewish laws in order to be a Christian? They used this story from Mark to answer that question, coming to the understanding that all people were included into the Kingdom of God through their faith, not by becoming Jewish. That’s good news for us!

Human traditions are important in many respects. But, when they conflict with, or become more important than, Scripture then they become a problem to our lives of faith. Scripture is the one thing that stands above all the rules that humans add to the religious experience. When it is about who has clean hands more than Jesus’ call for repentance and a changing of our hearts and minds, then we need to listen to Scripture.

Martin Luther would agree. He fought against the teachings of the Church of his day which relied on tradition. The Church told people what to believe and what was important. Luther taught that the Bible and Jesus’ teaching was what was important to our lives.

There are a lot of voices competing for our attention. There are a lot of people saying things that sound good, but in the end are not what makes life meaningful or enjoyable. It is easy to get swept up and believe these ideas or beliefs and fall away from Scripture. As a country and society we need to focus on things that bring us together and remind us that this country is a melting pot of many different people with different traditions and beliefs. We can celebrate our differences without condemning or putting down someone else’s beliefs. As Christians, our focus is on how Jesus taught us to love one another and treat one another with respect. It doesn’t mean we accept and integrate everyone else’s beliefs into our own faith.

Jesus taught that the outward things (traditions) are not the all-important things we are to cling to in life. What is inside us, in our hearts, is what is important. The evil things that bring heartache, hurt, destructive relationships, are the result of the sin that is within each of us. Not washing our hands, or eating the wrong food, or wearing the wrong clothing, will not keep us from our heavenly home; but hatred, malice, the way we treat other people, the hurtful things we say, and all the things Jesus listed are the things that we need to change.

The letter of James is all about how we are to live and be as Christians. This applies so much today as it did many years ago. James is one who calls for action on behalf of Christ, and not just idle talk. He says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Help others and treat others with the respect and love of Christ. Care for those who are different, have differing viewpoints, or are struggling in one way or another.

We are loved and accepted by our Lord and Savior in spite of our failures and sin. We can share Christ’s love with others by showing that same love and acceptance.



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