Forming Faith Blog

Cleanliness & Godliness? (February 16, 2020)

Water pouring on a person's hands. The Pharisees were more concerned about ritual cleanliness than cleanliness of the heart.

Epiphany (or the season after Epiphany) is quickly coming to an end, which means our theme looking at the power of God’s kingdom is almost finished. This unit started with a Gentile plagued by a legion of demons, moved to two healings, and then to a triple story of Jesus rejected in Nazareth, the sending out of the twelve, and Herod killing John the Baptist.

The first two stories here deal with issues of cleanliness and uncleanliness, even if the topic was not directly mentioned. The Gerasene was a Gentile, living in a gentile territory, among the tombs, and near swine. It’s basically nothing but uncleanliness. The woman with the hemorrhage was unclean because of her contact with blood, and she shouldn’t have even been in a crowd, much less purposefully touching a rabbi’s clothing. Then, since dead bodies were unclean, Jesus touching Jairus’ daughter would have also made him unclean.

Washing Your Hands?

One clear issue that needs to be addressed when you teach or preach this passage from Mark 7 is: what’s wrong with washing your hands? Or food from the market? Or dishes? These are all important practices and the last thing that we need is our kids getting a biblical argument against handwashing. However, this was well over a thousand years before the development of the germ theory of disease. The sort of washing that started this argument is not about preventing disease; it’s about the religious concept of cleanliness.

Unclean vs. Clean

But, what does it means to be clean or unclean? A brief search through the research materials easily available to me shows that this is a very complex topic. Great. Just what we need. The basic notion that I gathered from this is that there are two main categories.

First, you have ritual purity. In order to worship in the temple and other areas, you need to be ritually clean. The source of uncleanliness is often having contact with something that is unclean. The solution is often to wait and take a ritual bath.

The second is about moral purity. Here, it is your actions that make you unclean (or as we typically call it, sinful). Clearly, just taking a bath isn’t going to cut it. This requires repentance and God’s forgiveness. This can relate to water (see baptism), but here, water without the Word is nothing.

Ritual Impurity

The Pharisees here were neither addressing hygiene nor moral purity. They were squarely speaking about ritual cleanliness. This is also what’s at stake with the Gerasene, the woman, and the girl. In defense of the Pharisees, they didn’t make up the concept of ritual purity. There are whole segments of the Torah (mostly in Leviticus) about this.

Legal Interpretation

One of the difficulties of trying to live according to any sort of law is that it is not always clear how to apply it to every specific situation. Laws/rules need to be interpreted. That’s the point of the U.S. Supreme Court and others. The longest-lasting laws are those which are general enough to survive many different situations throughout a long period of time. So, the Pharisees are using a set of interpretations and applications set down by previous rabbis and scholars. The first problem Jesus has here is not so much with the existence of human traditions/interpretation. The problem is when they come in conflict with God’s way.

The Problem with Tradition

So, tradition is not itself bad. That’s great to hear, since there is a lot of our Christian worship and thought that comes to us from tradition. However, the problem comes when these traditions come into conflict with God’s laws. In general, we should use the greatest commandments: do these traditions help us love God and love others, or do they get in the way? Jesus accused the Pharisees of valuing their traditions over following God’s way, the way of the kingdom.

Inward vs. Outward

The second point Jesus argues is about the relative weight of ritual purity over moral purity. He clearly thinks that the Pharisees are spending too much time focused on ritual cleanliness and not enough time on moral cleanliness. This is what Jesus is talking about in Mark 7:14-23. Ritual purity is pretty much all about external sources of impurity “infecting” a person. Moral purity is about what a person does, the fruits of their minds and hearts. Jesus weighs moral purity so heavily that he basically removes the concept of ritual purity entirely.

Laws and God’s Way

The main application question from this passage is which laws/rules/traditions prevent us from living God’s way.

  • Do any of our church traditions get in the way of loving and worshipping God or loving and welcoming our neighbors? You can probably come up with a list of these in about thirty seconds. What here can be identified and changed?
  • We can even look closer to home at our personal “rules” and “traditions:” expectations and habits. Do any of these prevent us from living God’s way?
  • Can we look at civil laws in this way? What do we do in a situation when a civil law comes into conflict with the way of life and action that God calls us to? Challenging a congregation’s beloved traditions can be very difficult, but there are significantly more risks involved with civil disobedience. How do we talk about this with our children and youth?
Free Resource

This is somewhat the thrust of our free activity this week called “Rules, Rules.” This has been created as an introductory activity for this lesson in our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) curriculum. This can be adapted in multiple ways for many age groupings and settings.

May you experience the power of God’s kingdom this week!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)


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For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings! Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence