How does a discussion about hand-washing in Mark 7 relate to church abuse? In this edited version of a sermon delivered at Alma Church, Bristol in February 2020, Helen Paynter reflects on what defiles.

In around 1670, a Dutch scientist called Anton van Leeuwenhoek, looked down the lens of his microscope and saw what he later described as “wee beasties” wriggling around. He was one of the first people to identify what we now call germs. Bacteria.

Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

Shockingly, it was to be another three hundred years before the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis made the startling discovery that if physicians came directly from conducting autopsies in the mortuary to the bed of a labouring mother, the mother was much more likely to die of fever. Semmelweis instituted the simple procedure of hand-washing with chlorinated lime water when transferring between the dead and the living, and as a result he reduced maternal mortality from 18% to 2% overnight.

Hand-washing is an excellent thing. I have in my possession a Level 2 Food Hygiene certificate that proves that I know this fact. I also have a medical degree that tells me so.

So when the Jewish leaders criticised Jesus and the disciples for failing to wash their hands before they eat, you might have thought that they were in the right, for once. Surely a bit of basic hygiene can only be a good thing? Wash your hands before you eat. Especially if you eat with your hands, which is the middle-eastern way.

The problem is this. Nobody knows about germs in those days. It will be over sixteen hundred years before Van Leevenhoeck sees his wee beasties. It will be almost two thousand before Semmelweis makes doctors wash their hands.

This conversation has nothing to do with hygiene at all.

It is about purity, which is a different thing entirely.

Purity codes are one of the ways that a society expresses who it is and where its boundaries are. Every ancient society had its purity codes – probably modern societies too, though we may think we are more sophisticated. These purity codes are expressed as taboos, as customs, as ways of living that are and are not acceptable.

The Jewish purity codes of Jesus’ day were very complex. Part of this was because they had inherited the Old Testament laws. You know those bits of your Bible that you probably skip over? I’m talking about the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, mainly. The bits that told the people of Israel how to act if they developed leprosy, or had mildew in your house. The bits that told them about how to purify themselves after menstruation and seminal emissions. The bits that talk about what foods could and couldn’t be eaten. These are the biblical purity laws.

But one of the influential Jewish groups of Jesus’ day had a complex set of laws that they used in addition to the biblical ones. These would later be written down as something called the Mishnah. But in Jesus’ day they were held and memorised by some of the rabbis. These oral laws were known as the tradition of the elders.

Now, there were a number of Jewish groups in Jesus’ day. A bit like we have political parties, except these were centred on religion, not political ideology. And not every Jewish group adhered to these oral laws. The main group that did was called the Pharisees. By contrast, another group called the Sadducees didn’t subscribe to the tradition of the elders.

So, to recap from the passage in Mark:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the legal experts who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders – that is, the oral law.

So the conversation wasn’t about hygiene. It wasn’t even, really, about purity. It was about politics. Religious politics. Why aren’t Jesus and his disciples following the tradition of the elders? Was Jesus a good Jew? Who gets to define what a good Jew really is? The Pharisees and legal experts have come all the way from Jerusalem to check Jesus out.

Because having this charismatic young rabbi going about flagrantly ignoring the oral laws was deeply undermining to the power of the Pharisees. On the other hand, if they could get him to toe the party line, it could be a real propaganda victory for them.

Jesus is in the middle of a power struggle. As happens so often in the accounts of his life, someone is trying to manipulate him to their own ends.

And as he always does, Jesus refuses to be manipulated. He’s not playing their games. He’s not going to be co-opted to bolster anyone’s political power. He is a genius – sharp and perceptive and brilliant in his capacity to respond wisely in the moment.

And in just a few words he uncovers the root of the issue.

Isaiah had it right, he tells them.

This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

So the issue at hand is not hygiene. It’s not purity. It’s not even politics. No, the deep, root issue is the orientation of the heart – towards God, or away from him.

And the Pharisees, for all their appearance of piety and religious devotion, were not as orientated towards God as they liked to seem.

Jesus gives an example, quoting one of the oral laws that the Pharisees loved to deploy. If money that could have been used to support elderly parents was designated “Corban” – that means set aside for divine use – then it was exempted from the parental obligation. It stayed in your possession, but it was officially earmarked for God. It’s a bit like having an off-shore account. A legal loophole to keep hold of your money.

But in this instance, the loophole was harming members of the family. In a society without a welfare state, without pensions, it was the son’s responsibility to care for his parents in their old age. Designating your money as “Corban” was a neat way of getting around this. Of maintaining the appearance of piety – indeed, of seeming more pious – but actually allowing parents to become destitute.

And there was a law about that. An actual, written, biblical law. One of the ten commandments, in fact:

Honour your father and mother.

So, Jesus points out, the Pharisees were using their traditional laws to get them out of keeping the real law. They were operating in this legal grey zone rather than living in the way that God had clearly taught them to live. They were bolstering their appearance of religious devotion, but actually slackening their commitment to God and his laws.

This conversation wasn’t really about hygiene. Or purity. Or even politics. It was about the orientation of the heart. It was about the appearance of religion or the reality of a heart orientated towards God.

To drive the point home, Jesus gathers the people around him and tells them this:

Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile them, since it enters not their heart but their stomach, and is expelled… What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For from within, out of the heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

If Jesus had understood germ theory, he couldn’t have put it more clearly. Natural infection comes from the outside. It enters by means of what we eat, what we breathe in, through a breach in the skin perhaps.

Infections start on the outside and work their way inwards. But it isn’t that sort of infection that we should be worrying about, says Jesus. It’s the rottenness that comes from the inside and works its way out.

It would be much easier if this were a conversation about hygiene. We know about germs and hand-washing. We understand cross-contamination in the kitchen. We have alcohol gel and can even use face masks if we need to.

It would be okay if this conversation were about ritual purity. We have learned that Christians do not have to obey the Jewish purity laws.

It would be fine if this conversation were about first century Jewish politics. The squabbles and power struggles are long dead and do not affect us.

But unfortunately, this conversation, at root, is not about any of these things. It’s about putting on an outward show of being religious but inwardly being orientated away from God. It’s about the having appearance of health but actually being rotten on the inside.

It’s about internal conversion, not outward adherence.

Unfortunately, it’s not something we can wriggle out of. This is a living word for you and me, today, in the twenty-first century.

Here’s the reason. When Jesus quoted Isaiah, he went a bit further than the part I quoted above:

This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain they worship me.

In vain they worship me.

That is terrifying! When we fail to worship with our hearts, to be converted at our core, God will not accept our worship.

This isn’t a one-off idea, a throw-away remark by Isaiah that Jesus picks up on. In fact, the prophet Isaiah says it several times:

Isaiah 1: When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Image: creative commons

Isaiah 29: This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain they worship me.

Isaiah 58: You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.

And Isaiah 59: The LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.

It’s not that he cannot hear you. It’s that he will not. Isaiah most certainly wants us to get the message, and it’s not something we can leave in the Old Testament. Isaiah had it right, says Jesus.

Let’s name it. God hates hypocrisy. And he won’t hear the prayer of the religious hypocrite. At least, he won’t listen until the hypocrite prays the humble prayer ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.’

For this God of ours is very long-suffering. He is very tender. He is a God who loves to forgive. Who loves to restore. Who longs for the prodigal to return. Even when that prodigal is a religious hypocrite. There is always a welcome to be found in the father’s arms. There is always mercy in his heart.

But we should heed the warning, nonetheless. Let us not be caught on the wrong side of this. Let us not be people whose prayers go unheard, whose worship is in vain.

I’d like to point out two applications of this. Two places where the rubber hits the road for us in the twenty-first century.

The first one is probably quite obvious. It’s about our private conduct and our public face. It’s about whether our secret behaviour matches up to our religious persona.

It is not the outward things that make a person pure or not, says Jesus. It is about the core attributes:

Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.

It’s about how our hearts are orientated when nobody else is watching. It’s about whether our spending honours God. It’s about whether our motives are Godly. It’s about whether we are proud in our hearts. It’s about whether we genuinely love our neighbour or secretly hope for their downfall. It’s about whether we speak truth when we are unlikely to be caught out. It’s about our private conduct with members of the opposite sex. Or the same sex. And about what’s going on in our heads as well as in our bodies. It’s about how we use the internet late at night when nobody else can see.

Nobody can police these things. Nobody is likely to discover most of them. And so we can go on from week to week, month to month, year to year. Seeming Godly. With the appearance of goodness. But God sees what is really there. God is not fooled. If there are undealt with things in our private lives, these are the things that make us impure. This is the rotten core that matters, much more than outward appearances of health. These are the things that will prevent our prayers from being heard.

Let me say it again. God is a God of forgiveness. He is a God of mercy.

If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

But in order for us to benefit from that we need to address them and confess them. To lay aside our hypocrisy. To turn from them. To admit our inner rottenness, our moral failure, our guilt. To receive by gift what we cannot claim as right.

But there’s a second application that may not be so obvious. And it’s to do with institutions rather than individuals. In particular, it’s to do with churches, denominations, and other organisations that claim to operate in the name of Christ. And it’s to do with what’s going on at the core of these institutions. Whether they are honouring God in the secret places as well as the public ones. Or whether there is a deep rottenness at their heart.

This week, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made a public statement – a confession, we might call it – that the Church of England is deeply institutionally racist. I honour his integrity in bringing this issue sharply into the light. Racism is a rottenness in the church’s history. Where it is still present as a secret prejudice, a hidden power structure, it must be dug out. It is not external things that defile the church, but deep, hidden, secret rottenness.

Just a year ago, the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States was indicted in a report on sexual abuse by clergy. Since 1998, roughly 380 clergy and lay leaders had faced allegations of sexual misconduct, with 700 identified victims.

Such abuse of power, such exploitation of the vulnerable, is a secret rottenness at the heart of more than just the Southern Baptist denomination. We know of the widespread abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic church for decades. Many of us will have watched the documentary recently about Bishop Ball and the ring of abusers that he led in the Anglican church.

Again and again we have heard and read of victims being silenced, of perpetrators being quietly moved to another place where they can continue to do harm, of criminal prosecution being side-lined, of influential men – and it usually is men – being privileged over the voices of their victims. Abuse is a rottenness in the church, and it must be dug out. It is not external things that defile the church, but deep, hidden, secret rottenness.

Or we could point to the systematic side-lining and silencing of women in many churches and some denominations. This is not simply about whether women are permitted to exercise their God-given gifts in ministry and preaching – though that matters a great deal – but about structures of patriarchy that operate to keep women submissive.

I have recently been researching domestic abuse within churches. I have heard of many churches where women are told that God will judge them if they leave their abusive husbands. That they have to forgive – and that forgiveness means returning to a man who might very well kill them. They have described being groomed by the church – yes, I’ve heard the word groomed several times – to accept subservience in the home. That they have been taught that their true vocation is simply to facilitate the calling of their partner. That they have been ignored and not taken seriously when they complain of abuse.

Domestic abuse rates, incidentally, are pretty much the same inside the church as in wider society. Of course domestic violence is not always perpetrated by a man against a woman, but these are the stories I have heard in a church context. This is a rottenness at the heart of many churches, and it must be dug out. It is not external things that defile the church, but the deep, hidden, secret rottenness.

Sometimes the secret sins of a church are less dramatic than these things. Power struggles and internal politics. A lack of generosity with funds. Gossip and spitefulness. Exclusivism and cliques. Deeper commitment to particular styles of worship than to true heart worship. Consumerism. Critical spirit. Such things may not be evident to the onlooker, but can still be present. It is not external things that defile the church, but deep, hidden, secret rottenness.

Now, I don’t say any of these things as an accusation against any particular church. But I hold up Jesus’ words, as I do to myself and to my own church, and invite you to check yourselves against them. Is all as it should be in your private life? Is all as it should be in your church?

Because we cannot expect that our voices will be heard in heaven unless we are honouring God with our hearts as well as with our lips, with our secret lives as well as with our public personas.

Semmelweis’s discovery of the importance of hygiene was life-giving to the many women who laboured and delivered their babies in Vienna in the nineteenth century.

In the same way, attention to the purity of our hearts, to the orientation of our own deep interiority, may be life-giving. Not simply for us, but for the world that God has called us to bless.

Hand-washing and church abuse
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