Tag Archives: food

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.

Food Won’t Save You

Food Matters

My diet has changed drastically from when I worked as a manager at Burger King in college. The changes came in a series of shifts that my wife and I made in response to health issues her or I have faced over the past decade and a half. The most recent shift happened about two weeks ago. In an attempt to lower my blood pressure without medication I have been cutting out more sugary foods and adding more spinach, celery, and kale. I have even choked down a couple bottles of beet juice.

What we eat matters and it matters a lot. It matters for our health. From a Christian perspective, it matters to God. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. How we treat our bodies isn’t just a question of health or disease, but a question of obedience or sin. We obey Jesus when we eat food that nourishes our bodies and prepares us for embodied works of service.

If we relegate obedience to the spiritual/cognitive realm, we fall into the platonic error of imagining that the body is unimportant. Our bodies matter to God. Therefore, what we put into our bodies matters to God.

Food Idolatry

False worship means worshipping the created thing instead of the Creator, worshipping the gift instead of the giver. For a health-conscious culture, and for health-conscious Christians, this is a real danger. “Worship” is a funny word that we often associate with specifically spiritual practices like singing and prayer, but here I mean something more expansive. We “worship” food when we mentally grant it divine attributes, when we come to believe that it can save us.

For some, food is the answer to all our problems: We seek the right diet to improve our health, our mood, and our body image. There’s an important aspect of truth here. Better food can make your life measurably better (and bad food can make your life measurably worse).

But food has its limitations. It won’t fix your relationships. It won’t give you peace with God. It can’t protect you from tragedy. Even for what it sets out to do – to make our bodies healthy – it is only one aspect of a whole matrix of complex factors: genetics, germs, environment, community, exercise, etc.

If you put your hope in food, it’s eventually going to let you down. You might make aging a little less painful, but you cannot stop the inevitable.

A healthy perspective on food

I don’t think that we’re left between the false dichotomy of saying either that “food is the most important thing” or “food doesn’t matter.” No, we need to simply view food for what it is: A good gift from a good Giver. That enables us to receive it with thanksgiving.

Note Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:3-5

“[False teachers] forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

God is good and he has given us the blessing of good food. That food, and the bodily benefits it confers, do not point to themselves, they point us back to our Creator. This perspective on food calibrates our expectations about what food can and cannot do.

The Food that Saves

Jesus said some shocking things while he was on earth, and perhaps one of his most shocking statements centers around food.

Jesus had just finished feeding 5,000 men with just a handful of loaves and fishes and a great crowd was following him asking him questions. That’s when he drops this bomb:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:48-51

Thinking that Jesus was advocating some sort of cannibalism the people questioned him amongst themselves. To that, Jesus doubled-down:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:53-54

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story concludes with this statement: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

My Catholic brothers and sisters say that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist and that eating the bread of the Eucharist really is eating Jesus’s flesh in obedience to his words in John 6.

Personally, I think that Jesus pointed us away from this interpretation when he states: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63).

What, then, is the logic of Jesus’s words? Simply this: We need Jesus. Specifically, we need his life and the eternal nourishment that he offers. The manna God gave Israel from heaven was a good gift and it sustained them in the wilderness, but it could not save them from death. It did, however, point them to the One who could.

Jesus is the bread of heaven. He is the food that saves. How do we “consume” this food? “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).