The first 9 verses of Matthew 15, taking Jesus and his disciples to task for not washing before eating, are not included in the readings for Year A, probably because they were lifted wholesale from Mark, and are read in Mark’s Year B. But Matthew’s context is very different from Mark’s. The writer of Mark considers this encounter with the Pharisees as one of the five great controversies that distinguished the kingdom of God revealed by Jesus from the old Mosaic covenant that had become corrupt. As a parable about Jesus, the clean hands controversy in Mark illustrates who Jesus was, and how those who would be followers might participate in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. In every instance, Mark’s Jesus is showing us a radical inclusiveness in sharing the essentials for human survival: healing, and eating. That he surrounds stories of eating with stories of healing implies that without wholeness, there is no sustenance. Matthew, however, is looking to overthrow Mosaic law, not reclaim it. He equates the Pharisees with plants that are not planted by “my heavenly Father,” which will be rooted out. He calls them the blind who lead the blind, both of whom fall into the ditch. Again, Mark’s invitation to participate in the kingdom of God that is readily available to all is contrasted by Matthew’s call for apocalyptic judgment against hypocrites who subvert the covenant.
The first-century controversy over clean hands is not about personal hygiene, it’s about distinguishing who is religiously acceptable: Who is clean or unclean; Who is righteous or not righteous; Who is part of the community and who is not. Twenty-first century western secularists are not interested in rituals of purification that restore relationships with god, or allow a return to society after some accident of injury or illness, childbirth, or burying the dead. Our rituals of purity are most often elaborate mea culpas delivered by political, religious, or entertainment celebrities who have been caught in some act of impropriety. What is “improper” ranges from poor choice of words to extra-marital affairs to conspiracies of silence.
Matthew’s Jesus counters the Pharisees’ implication that his disciples are “unclean” or religiously alien by pointing out their own failure to live up to the spirit of the law. Apparently some of the religious collaborators with Rome dedicated portions of their fortune to “God,” so that they would not have to use those assets to support their parents in their old age. In the first century, to avoid taking care of your elderly parents was tantamount to condemning them to certain death. Not only was this a violation of Torah; such behavior was a breathtaking betrayal of hospitality and family security, both of which were indispensable to survival. Beyond a simple breach of conventional piety, such action would be a subversion of individual and corporate integrity that collaborates with the unjust systems of empire – a crime against divinity.
In both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels, Jesus is clear that a breach of conventional piety such as neglecting to wash one’s hands before eating is far from a subversion of integrity that endangers one’s family and ultimately the security of the community as a whole. “Eating with unwashed hands doesn’t defile anybody,” Matthew’s Jesus says. Neither does garden-variety name-calling, maintaining a lover, indulging in face-saving lies, or any of the other petty trespasses humans indulge themselves in. Petty sin did not lead to Jesus’ execution by the Roman authorities. What led to his execution was his refusal to participate in the crimes against divinity represented by imperial systems, and his audacity in encouraging others to do the same.
Post-enlightenment, post-modern minds no longer experience an intimate involvement with a god – divinity – who holds humanity accountable for its actions. Nor are we able to experience ourselves as inseparable from the natural world. The Seventh Unitarian Universalist principle speaks of an “interdependent web of which we are a part,” but the emphasis is on “interdependence,” not identity. So what is a “crime against divinity” in post-modern times when religion is suspect?
Today’s imperial system is caught in the false dilemma of government deficits versus social well-being. The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United declared that corporations are also human beings, with the same rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – and presumably the rights extended to individuals by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Corporations already control the food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education deemed essential for life. The real threat to distributive justice is not government activity, but our inability to hold corporations accountable for activities that threaten not only individual human security and survival, but the planet itself.
In order to participate in the Covenant that Jesus was attempting to restore, we must be sure that our personal integrity is in alignment with the qualities that define the Covenant: namely, nonviolent distributive justice-compassion, and a willingness to radically abandon self-interest. When one small lie leads to a cover-up, and the cover-up leads to a pay-off, and the pay-off leads to a breach of the tax code, and the breach leads to offers of immunity, and the immunity leads to obstruction of justice . . . and if the whole episode is tied to a shadow organization whose purpose is to make homosexual behavior in a foreign country an executable offense – then we have an enterprise that can threaten the security and the survivability of a society.
The same litany applies to the management of resources that assure food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. When a lie leads to a cover-up – of safety breaches in coal mining, oil drilling or shale fracking, or pharmaceutical trials – and the cover-up leads to a pay-off . . . and the whole episode is tied to an organization whose sole purpose is to make money – then again we have an enterprise that can threaten the security and the survivability of a society.
Our hands may be clean at the corporate buffet. But it’s not what goes into our corporate life that defiles. It’s what comes out. There is a spiritual equivalence between the first century corruption that denied support to aging parents and the twenty-first century determination of corporate capitalists to eliminate the social programs that have assured economic and physical security for the poor and elderly. So far, there have been no mea culpas.