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Once my children went to preschool and then on to kindergarten, they were very alert to hand washing. Now, of course, I taught them to wash their hands after the potty and before eating, etc., but school and teachers brought that lesson into full force. I do utterly and completely believe in hand washing, but I have also seen my children lick playground equipment, eat chalk, drink bath water they’ve been sitting in, kiss the dog, put their mouth on the handle of the shopping cart (shudder!), and scratch all number of body parts before immediately putting their hands in the mouth. So, I hope I can be forgiven for expressing some doubts about the efficaciousness of the teacher-enforced hand washing, reported through new diligence when the children come home.

(Please always wash your hands. The immune-compromised are counting on you!)

The Pharisees, scribes, and Jesus seem to be having a little discussion about hand washing as well. It seems that Jesus’ interlocutors are quite hung up on the mechanics on hand washing- who, when, why, how long. Yet Jesus raises an eyebrow at their meticulousness about hand washing, when he’s seen them (metaphorically) drinking bath water.

Remember that the Pharisees accept not only the written law and the prophets, but also the oral tradition around the law. So they’re familiar with and probably are having deep conversations about the nuances of each commandment. Yet their dedication in dissecting implementation shows their forgetfulness around the purpose of the law.

The law made a framework around people whom God had set apart- from Abraham through Moses through David through the exile and now into Jesus’ own time. The set-apart way of living was (and is) meant to serve as a beacon, drawing others to those whose life is dedicated to keeping God’s law. Drawn in by the behavior that repairs the world, strangers to God’s story will become new friends to the narrative and then a faithful and trusting participant in God’s work and community in history.

Jesus is not disdainful of the law. Instead, he tells the crowd that what is damaging to the community is not holy detail-orientation, but unholy living and disrespect for others, one’s own self, and God.

What direction are you considering this week around this text?

  • What are some of the “hand washing” habits of your community that get conflated with religion or deep faith practice?
  • How does your community set up standards about “in and out” without realizing it? What do they do on purpose?
  • What does meticulous holiness look like in our culture? How are we “majoring in minors”?
  • How is “law” talked about in your tradition? Is there a way to discuss how a framework of discipline in community can bring freedom? Who would be helped by such a conversation? Who might be harmed?

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