The great unwashed

30 August 2015
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17B (RCL)
Song of Songs 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It is easy for us to think that the Pharisees are getting hung up on trivial matters, and that Jesus is scolding them for their triviality. Washing hands and cups and pots can seem like small matters, but in fact these sorts of rituals structure the social universe. I learned this the hard way on one of my trips to the Diocese of Lui, in South Sudan. Among the Moru, one does not eat without washing hands. In our guest compound, there was a pot with a spigot sitting on a table, where we all washed our hands before coming into the payat to eat.

However, when we went out into the various archdeaconries and were invited into a payat to eat, someone stood at the entrance to the payat with a pitcher and poured water over our hands as we entered. The guest of honor entered first, and the person pouring the water was considered the most “junior” member of the dinner party. At Lozoh, we entered the payat without washing hands. I noticed, but did not give much thought to that fact. After some conversation, when the meal was ready, a young woman with a pitcher entered the payat on her knees. I thought she was offering drinking water. She came to me first, and as I had my own water bottle, I declined her offer (preferring to drink bottled water to water of uncertain provenance). She went to the next guest, who held out his hands over the floor, whereupon, she poured water over his hands. I had committed a huge faux-pas — I was clearly the guest of honor and had refused the hospitality of my hosts. It took some scrambling to correct the mistake, but she did wash my hands (never mind how awkward I felt having my hands washed by a woman on her knees).

Hand-washing for the Pharisees was about much more than hygiene. It drew a clear distinction within the social universe between Jew and non-Jew; Pharisee and non-observant Jew. The Pharisees are scandalized that the disciples of Jesus are eating with “those sorts,” the sorts who do not wash hands.

We leave out several bits of the reading from Mark. In the first bit, Jesus compares the tradition of hand washing with the tradition of “Corban,” declaring any support one’s parents might have expected as gift to God. It is the economic consequences of this tradition that trouble Jesus. Parents could end up impoverished in their old age in the name of piety. In the second elision, Jesus makes a scatological joke. It’s not what goes in to a person that makes them unclean, for what goes in goes to the gut, not the heart, and from there passes into the latrine. We all poop — we are all unclean — it is what comes out that makes us unclean. The list of things which come from the heart, when Jesus finally gets around to enumerating them, is quite impressive. But we can probably all find ourselves on that list somewhere at sometime. Jesus is interested in the social and economic dimensions of whatever passes for hand-washing among us, whatever creates the distinction between us and “those people.”

If we are to take the message out into the world, and eat whatever is set before us, we have to be ready to eat with the manners of those to whom we are bringing the gospel of peace.

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