Today message from Matthew 15: 10-20 is a story of Jesus responding to critics. The issue was ritual purity, in this case a shallow, perfunctory hand-rinsing. Now before you feel that this ancient washing was done for germ reduction, you must understand that there was no such knowledge prior to the nineteenth century. There is no evidence that Jews or any other ancient culture understood germ theory, the science of how microorganisms cause infections.
Sure, people in ancient times could see bits of surface dirt just as you and I can. But it isn’t what you can see on your skin that kills you but rather the unseen, microscopic bacteria and viruses. Moreover, if hands are washed in contaminated water then the main source of sickness remains. Ritualistic hand rinsing is better than nothing, but not to the extent of judging people as god-hating sinners if they fail to do so. Go away pesky Old Testament priest because neither God nor science is on your side.
The fundamentalists pestering Jesus thought that people had to undergo elaborate, inconvenient rituals just for the sake of . . . what? Oh, because God supposedly told them to do it. The context of Jesus’ message covers the issue of dubious food regulations and the vast swamp of Old Testament law. In Jesus’ day as much as now, there remains a peculiar belief that certain foods are intrinsically impure and spiritually polluted. This is just one area among many where there’s profoundly wrong thinking. Jesus was criticized by the legalists of his day because he was perceived as a progressive, an innovator, a role detested by fundamentalists both ancient and modern.
Illegitimate religious rules are a life-and-death matter for many who have surrendered themselves to others’ control. Examine many world religions and you will find beautiful souls defaced by beliefs and practices that impose needless burdens, including what kind of food is permitted, how it must be prepared, etc. God has much better things to do than micromanage such rubbish. If anything, what guides peoples’ eating is the proper concern of nutritional science. People of faith must be wary of imposed, one-size-fits-all religious rules that undermine individuals’ autonomy and that also contradict both science and good sense (there’s a lot of this going on in our culture lately).
The idea that God wants to impose arbitrary food restrictions is nothing more than a matter of human control, masked by the power of prohibitions that undermine individual liberty and freedom of conscience. Proponents of legalistic ritualism argue that their god demands obedience—end of story. Thankfully, Jesus as the true God warns us to not confuse strictness with truth. Reactionary critics argue that scientific evidence is irrelevant, because people aren’t supposed to question the denominational officials, the Brahman priests, the Islamic imams, the rabbis, or whoever tries to control the soul. For followers of God however, love and truth are always the surest guide.
People mired in captive thinking cite the need for community cohesion, which rules help enforce. However, imposing narrow boundaries on how people think and act is counterproductive. Often it is religious institutions, not society at large, that becomes the beneficiary of ruinous religious rules. History painfully reveals how religious authorities delightfully execute their task as privileged enforcers, those who police order for personal and institutional gain. Such nonsense occurs whenever religious persons support demagoguery.
O.K., so here we are wondering what to do with the mess left by competing views of what God wants. Do we march through life with jackboots on a tight, rigid path or do we advance with fits and starts while embracing revisions and adjustments? Truth would have us avoid blind adherence to any suffocating tradition. Often, folks forget why it is that they do something and instead embrace beliefs and practices kept alive by the momentum of habitual mindlessness. Further, Jesus’ teaching implies that if a religious rule or ritual does not enhance life then it should either be discarded or optional.
As always, the remedy to spirit sickness involves sober examination of what one does, paired with a willingness to revise beliefs and practices in the wake of new evidence, all for the sake of love. This is another way of saying that all people can benefit from becoming more mindful, which is a form of responsible awareness. Mindfulness helps people holistically connect productive thinking and compassionate behavior.
Ready to wash your hands of such germy controversies revealed by today’s message? God’s encouragement is to not abandon your struggle for life and liberty. And as ever, the challenge for people of faith is not to substitute outward compliance for inward righteousness. –Reverend Larry Hoxey