Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Blessed are you O Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has called all things into Being through your Word.
This is always a fun Gospel passage to wrestle with, because, let’s face it, the Pharisees were right. It’s kind of important to wash our hands before we eat. We know this. We know it better than they did. It’s important to wash our hands, and our cooking vessels, and to wash produce and meat we buy at the market. The Pharisees are an interesting bunch. It’s interesting that they come in for so much flak in the Gospels. I don’t know about you, but no one can make me as furious as the people I love the most. My family, for example.
Chris Rock, one of my favorite stand-up comedians, says—and I’m paraphrasing here, I didn’t look it up, but it’s something like, “If you never contemplated murder, you ain’t never been in love. If you haven’t bought a shovel and a rug to roll up the body in, you ain’t never been in love.” And only the religious arguments I have with other Episcopalians have provoked me to burst into tears. So the extent of the pounding that the Pharisees take in the Gospel accounts really catches my attention. Here are some things I’ve found out, and you may already know all this, but I’m going to lay it out so we can talk about it: Among other things, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection; they believed that humans had free will and that God has foreknowledge of events but does not predestine them; they believed that God speaks to God’s people through the experiences and traditions of their heritage as well as through scripture; and they believed that every member of the nation of Israel--not just the priests--was called to righteousness: righteousness, defined as “right relationship with God”. The Pharisees believed that everyone was capable of, and called to, right relationship. Holy cow, the Pharisees were Episcopalians! They believed that every Jew could study Torah and live into the covenant by keeping the commandments—not just the scholars and judges. Most of all, they believed that the study of Torah, the engagement with their own heritage, and the day-to-day life of faith was just as important as the sacrifices made by the priests in the Temple on behalf of the people.1 They believed that it was important and possible for every Jew to live a life centered around God.
All this probably has a lot to do with why we keep finding Jesus hanging out with Pharisees, in all four Gospel accounts: having dinner at their houses, talking with them, arguing with them— scholarly argument being a time-honored pursuit and primary method of teaching the Law.
So where does the car get ridden of the rails? How do we get from this egalitarian ideal of everyone being called to right relationship to “you hypocrites”? I think the trouble for the Pharisees starts when they begin to confuse “righteousness” with “being right.” It’s a fine and flimsy line between dedicating ourselves to righteousness and dedicating ourselves to being right. Because once we’ve embarked on a course of action or a way of life that we believe is righteous, it’s all too easy to become invested in being right about it. And the next thing you know, we’re “teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Of course it’s important to wash our hands before we eat, and to wash food bought in the market before eating it, and to prevent cross-contamination by preparing different kinds of food on separate surfaces. All these traditions, and many others, were part of living into the Abrahamic covenant in which God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into “a great nation.” They’re all part of giving people longer lives, cutting down on communicable disease, increasing the birth rate. So these traditions are connected to the covenant, they are means of living into the covenant, but they are not the covenant itself. And to claim that they are is untruthful.
As humans, we have to figure out how to live in the world, how to live into right relationship in the midst of our own circumstances and physical conditions. We have to come up with precepts. We need our human precepts “[The Pharisees] … stressed the religious importance of study and denied that knowledge was the prerogative of the priesthood. Their own membership was by no means homogeneous, and they all tended to popularise the Jewish religion and decrease the exclusive importance of the Temple cult.” Source: World Union of Jewish Students, www.wujs.org.il
“Fundamentally, the Pharisees continued a form of Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to mundane activities in order to sanctify the every-day world. This was a more participatory (or "democratic") form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively; whose leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement. In general, the Pharisees emphasized a commitment to social justice, belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and a faith in the redemption of the Jewish nation and, ultimately, humanity. Moreover, they believed that these ends would be achieved through halakha ("the way," or "the way things are done"), a corpus of laws derived from a close reading of sacred texts. This belief entailed both a commitment to relate religion to ordinary concerns and daily life, and a commitment to study and scholarly debate.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees
But we are hypocrites when we teach our human precepts as divine ordinance. Human precepts have to do with external circumstance and condition, and those things change over time and are not the same for everyone.
You know what is the same for everyone? The desire, the craving, to be right. This is why, as Anglicans, we say, “the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation.” This is why nearly 70% of our Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Holy Scripture. And we still manage to wander off into the brambles of making a priority of our own “rightness”, with alarming regularity, just as the Pharisees did. The problem is that the Pharisees’ concern was not for the disciples’ health. Their judgment was about defilement, and defilement is not a physical reality, it’s a spiritual reality having to do with adherence to ritual tradition. The good news is, Jesus tells us, our external circumstances cannot spiritually defile us. Our changing conditions cannot defile us. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Nothing that happens to us can defile us. Intentional actions that are death-dealing, actions that break relationship, actions that are unloving: these are what damage our spirits and defile us. Our human precepts are good and useful as long as they help guide us away from these actions and lead us into actions that are lifegiving, relationship-building, and loving. Using human precepts to pass judgment, to ostracize, to shame one another is not loving and it is not in accordance with God’s law. Beloved James writes But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. … [T]hose who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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. [James 1:22-27] “Unstained by the world”: James is not talking about all the terrible things that the world can do to us. Nothing that is done to us can defile us. To keep ourselves unstained means that we keep on following Jesus—whatever happens, we keep on caring for the orphans and widows, we keep on feeding the hungry and touching the lepers and welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the homeless, the alien—we keep on following Jesus, and in a world that insists on shouting fear and screaming blame and selling hatred, we keep on speaking Good News.