Mark 7.1-23; “A touch, a magic in the hand.”
Can you imagine that moment when Jesus first tried to persuade his disciples that they didn’t need to wash their hands before eating?
It takes my imagination into the world of Monty Python. These grown men, who had been trained from their earliest days to ‘wash your hands before the meal!’ ‘It doesn’t look like you’ve been to the bathroom?’ ‘Look at those hands!’ Now they are being encouraged, by Jesus, not to bother with this most basic of rituals of cleanliness. Habits of a lifetime, going by the board. In a culture such as theirs, this was really strange.
For their Jewish culture was full of purity codes and ideas about cleanliness. There was no way you could draw near to God unless you were free of defilement, free of dirt. Many hours would be spent in ritual cleansing and washing – before worship in the Synagogue, before meals. Certain things and people were unclean – as we know, the woman with the haemorrhage was unclean. Lepers were unclean. If you were disabled you were unclean. It was important to wash, if you were to be acceptable.
So the Pharisees are very quick to pick up on the fact that Jesus’ followers are not washing their hands.
What had Jesus taught them, that they had changed the ingrained habits of a lifetime? Because once you’ve got the habit of washing your hands, it’s very difficult to stop. It feels wrong, somehow. Just like now, when we enter a hospital, we immediately look out for the cleansing fluid in the dispenser on the wall.
He wanted to impress upon them that the outside trappings of religion were not as important as what went on in their hearts. All those little rituals meant nothing if the person were bitter, or cruel, greedy, or wicked. Not only that. The Pharisees could control people by insisting that they fulfil the requirements of the law. If you didn’t, then you were excluded. Unclean meant unclean.
So it’s a defiant action – this teaching of Jesus that his disciples don’t need to wash their hands. Jesus is making a bigger and deeper point that religion is not about the external routines and practices, but about the relationship of the person to God.
Let me tell you another story about hands, and about looking more deeply into the human heart.
There was once a very clever little boy who very much enjoyed his cleverness. He was taught by an old teacher, who tried to instil in him a sense of humility; a sense of openness to the world and to new knowledge, rather than the shallow, tricksy sort of showing off that this boy delighted in. Because with that cleverness was a contemptuous streak. The little boy was not a kind person.
One day the little boy felt cross with his teacher. He wanted his own back.
He caught a butterfly. With it in his hands, he ran up to the teacher, convinced he could trip him up; prove his teacher wrong.
‘What’s in my hands?’ he asked, with a gleam in his eye.
‘A butterfly, my boy.’ Said the old man, who knew more than met the eye.
‘Is it dead or alive?’ The boy had planned what he would do. If the teacher said ‘dead’, he’d release it to fly free. If he said ‘alive’, then he’d squish it and show the mangled little form.
The old man looked deeply into the boy’s eyes. Right into his heart. The boy began to feel uncomfortable under this searching, loving gaze.
The teacher took his time to answer.
‘My son,’ he said. ‘It’s in your hands.’
The child turned away. He released the butterfly to live another day.
The child learned a profound lesson that day. He learned that more than a butterfly was in his hands. His life was in his hands. He could carry on with his cleverness, not caring for the consequence. Or he could pay attention to his heart; to what was inside, to the way he treated people and the world around him.
We hold much in our hands.
I don’t know about you, but every so often I find myself looking at my hands. The lines on my palms, the veins. Nails, cuticles, scars. So familiar, holding so much.
They tell the story of our past; the years of care, of work, of labour. The times of holding – the hands of others, bodies, children, parents. The times when our hands are midwives. When they bring things to birth, carrying; soothing and gentle. Our hands shape and mould. Sometimes they do bad things too. They hit. Or steal. They write cruel words. They bear the scars of our mistakes, or worse. Our hands give to everything their season. In them are all the seasons of our lives.
Listen to the poem Comfort, by Elizabeth Jennings.
Hand closed upon another, warm.
The other, cold, turned round and met
And found a weather made of calm.
So sadness goes, and so regret.
A touch, a magic in the hand.
Not what the fortune-teller sees
Or thinks that she can understand.
This warm hand binds but also frees. (Comfort by Elizabeth Jennings)
The touch of kindness, human love and warmth, that liberates from the pain inside.
Jesus was not so concerned about whether his disciples washed their hands before eating. Instead he cared that his and their hands were there to touch the poor, the blind, the crippled. He used his hands to heal, to help people move from darkness to light. In all times, his hands were there, with a holy touch, whether the time was to be born, or to die; to break down or to build up. His disciples were to do the same.
Our hands are his hands in the world today.
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial’. Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from my hands; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:39-44)
Jesus’ hands are pierced on the cross for us. Later, when Thomas doubts, he sees the wounds and fresh scars, and believes.
These hands are not clean, as the Pharisees demanded. They are the hands of a criminal and blasphemer, in their eyes.
Those hands are stretched out to save the world, then and now, revealing a heart as pure as the love of God.
We began the service praying the collect for purity.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.
It’s hard to have a pure heart today – we can be corrupted by so much. All the evil intentions that the gospel lists – deceit, pride, folly – and the rest. The time of confession is absolutely crucial: that we bring to mind the wrongs we’ve done – which so often our hands have carried out.
And then we come to the communion rail, and hold out our hands to receive the Body of Christ. Our hands, now clean because our hearts have confessed our sin and been absolved.
Our hands, held out to receive the living Christ, who touches us and makes us whole. Our hands held out, that we may go and hold out our hands to the world, in love and service.