No Scrubbing Necessary

Jesus Didn’t Wash His Hands

Will Ryan / 9.8.21

Matters of cleanliness took on a renewed importance about 16 months ago with the onset of the pandemic. People disinfected everything they could get their hands on (including groceries), but as we learned more about how the virus is transmitted, our need to sterilize waned and the need to put on masks (and get a vaccine when offered) waxed. One thing that hasn’t left is the common understanding of how important it is to wash our hands. 

When and how to wash your hands has always been a debated topic. It’s even a controversy Jesus addressed in his day, debating with some local leaders over proper adherence to social customs. Jesus was kind of dirty, actually — neither he nor his disciples washed their hands. The local leaders were aghast, but not because they cared about hygiene.

Everyone had always washed their hands before eating because then they would be ritually “pure” or “clean,” acceptable to God. This wasn’t a big “L” Law (part of the hundreds of Mosaic laws in the OT), but a little “L” law. It was more of an accepted social convention. An interpretation of the Law, but treated as if it had the same sort of authority. The right kind of people washed their hands. The kind of people God blessed. 

This isn’t an idea we’ve moved away from in the almost 2000 years since Jesus walked the earth in flesh and blood. Every community has rules handed down that structure how things are supposed to go and rules to follow to maintain a “pure” status and live how people are supposed to live. Keep your yard clean. Don’t smell bad in public. Always tip your waiter. The laws can be so old people actually use the phrase “it’s the way we’ve always done it.” Or they can be as new as this year with the shifting expectations for masks and social distancing.

But Jesus tells us that the laws we use to maintain purity can’t save us. The source of our problem isn’t when we fail to follow a law (or Law). No, the impurity the law attempts to keep at bay already resides within our hearts. Like mold in a basement that quickly spreads to the whole building, sin cannot be eradicated with the air-freshener of the law. 

James K.A. Smith talks about this in his book You Are What You Love. It’s the idea that all our actions come from what we love or what our vision of the “good life” looks like. “The human heart is a compass, orienting us to some vision of ‘the kingdom,’ our telos.” Every single one of us is a lover, living our life toward some goal we think will give us peace and happiness.

But if Jesus is right, and our hearts are malformed (the seat of all “evil thoughts”), then the “good life” we are striving for is bound to be a mirage. We aim for paradise and arrive at a deadly hellscape. 

The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly condemned the Kings and leaders of Judah for their misplaced ideas of what constituted the “good life.” They sought comfort and security in idols, wealth, and a false sense of peace. Their “good life” looked like one of luxury. Thankfully, God told Jeremiah the world wasn’t without hope; there will come a time when the Law isn’t some benchmark we always fall short of because of our malformed hearts. Instead, our hearts will be transformed. 

No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jer 31:33) 

Christians have long seen Jesus’ death and resurrection as the fulfillment of the prophet Jeremiah’s words (See Hebrews 10:12-18). Jesus’ sacrifice once and for all, for the sins of the world, changes our hearts (and our goals). It’s a promise that circumvents the visible realm of the law. It does not travel a straight line that can be measured or predicted. A transformed heart may not even be perceptible to other law-abiding citizens.

God doesn’t wait for us to transform into something worthy. God doesn’t wait for us to adhere to all the different standards of purity our particular communities might hoist up as that which makes us clean.

When the moment comes (yet again) and you’ve broken every rule, stomped on the way things have always been done, or been made to feel like you’re an insult to tradition, take heart. God isn’t a mortician who makes the departed look slightly less deceased. He gives life to the dead. No scrubbing necessary.