Hand Washing and Defilement

We have a lot in common with the Pharisees these days. We are obsessed with hand washing.

In Mark 7, the Pharisees confront Jesus because they saw “some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (7:2). My wife would confront me about that, too. But, the concerns of the Pharisees were a different from those of my wife. The Pharisees were concerned less about a viral infection than they were about moral infection or, as they called it, defilement.

We have hand washing charts. The Pharisees had “the tradition of the elders.” Both involve rule and ritual to defend against an unseen contagion. Let us consider more closely the logic of the Pharisees: God had established the Israelites as the holy people of God – a people set apart from the nations. As such, everything they did should be holy. Since the priests had rituals for washing their hands and they were set apart, it followed that the people, also being set apart, should follow the practices of the priests. In doing so, they set apart even common meals as holy meals.

The opposite of holy and set apart is common, and a synonym for common is defiled. So, to fail to wash your hands in the right ritualistic way defiled your food. Add to that the idea of defilement as a contagion that spreads and eating defiled food with defiled hands defiles the person who eats it. Defilement, like a viral infection, comes from the outside, and we need to protect ourselves against it through rule and ritual. Such was the logic of the Pharisees.

The logic has a certain appeal to it, but it fails on two counts.

First, in practice, it was hypocritical.

We err when we think that the Pharisees were simply too strict in following God’s laws. We often use the word legalism to mean something like that. But, according to Jesus, their problem was not that they were too strict, but that they disregarded God’s law. He says they “let go” (7:8), “set aside” (7:9), and “nullified” (7:12) God’s commandments in favor of human traditions. Some of their “traditions of the elders” were not just unnecessary add-ons, but downright contradictory.

Jesus gives the example of the practice of Corban which prevented children from following the commandment to honor father and mother by preventing them from using property set aside as “Corban” (banned) for such a “common” use.

Their practices, then, were hypocritical because while they gave an appearance of piety, below the surface they exposed “hearts far from God” (7:6). Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, they were greatly concerned about tithing on the mint and cumin, but neglected for justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Second, in principle, it misplaced the source of defilement.

The hand washing rule showed that the Pharisees were concerned about defilement from an external source – unclean food or unwashed hands. After revealing their hypocrisy, Jesus next shows that they have misunderstood the source of defilement: “Nothing outside a person can defile them” (7:15). Food just goes into the stomach, Jesus says, not the heart.

What goes in does not defile. What comes out does. Our thoughts and behaviors defile us – they make us unholy. And what comes out has an interior source: our hearts. Our hearts – the core of our being – lead to what we think and do. What we think and do defiles us.

The fact that moral defilement comes from inside is both good and bad news. The good news is that nothing outside of us can make us morally dirty – not the food we eat, not dirt on our hands, not a virus or disease, not evil that someone else has done to us. Many people live with a sense of shame because of the wicked actions of others. Jesus’s words here are a comfort.

Bonus: In saying this, “Jesus declared all foods clean” (7:19) so… bacon!

The bad news is that the only way for us to avoid defilement is for someone to transform our hearts. We need to be cleansed – not through healthy eating or hand washing – and utterly remade. Thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Jesus does for us.

Postscript: Food and hand washing still matter

The Bible does not denigrate the body. There is a moral component to how and what we eat. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and the agents of how we carry out much of our service and obedience to God.

We have a responsibility to care for our bodies. But that’s not to say that some foods are inherently “clean” or “unclean” (the language of having a dietary “cleanse” is oddly religious language), but that how we treat our bodies comes from the heart – a heart interested only in pleasing the flesh or a heart concerned with keeping in step with the Spirit.