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The divisions we create (September 3, 2023)

Why is the Pharisee amazed that Jesus ate without washing his hands in Luke 11:37-44? What does this have to do with us? Daniel Frayer-Griggs reflects on this.

Outlook Standard Lesson for September 3, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Luke 11:37-44

“Wash your hands!” If you think back to your childhood, you probably remember your parents telling you to do this before meals. Or, if you’re a parent, you’ve almost certainly required your own children to do the same. I know I have. And there are plenty of reasons to enforce this basic practice. But this passage isn’t about hygiene, and the Pharisees weren’t concerned with germs. In fact, they knew nothing about the microscopic bacteria we fret over. And there’s nothing in our Gospels to suggest that Jesus was opposed to washing in general (see John 13:1­-10). There’s something else, something far more significant, at stake in this Gospel lesson.

The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism deeply devoted to the study and interpretation of the Law of Moses. And they were rather scrupulous about practices surrounding table fellowship, which involved not only questions regarding how to prepare for meals and what to eat, but also – and perhaps more importantly – with whom to share those meals. For some, handwashing and other rituals marked a boundary between who was “in” and who was “out,” who was included in God’s covenant and who was excluded from it. This attitude, by the way, is what makes Paul so angry when he hears that Peter is no longer eating with Gentiles in Galatians 2:11-13.

Here in Luke 11, when Jesus accepts the invitation to the Pharisee’s table and begins eating without first washing his hands, the Pharisee is “amazed” (v. 38). While this amazement may seem like a disproportionate response to something that seems rather mundane to us today, it underscores just how important this convention was to the Pharisees. So Jesus uses this encounter as an opportunity to share his vision of God’s justice and contrast it with what some of the Pharisees were teaching.

Some Pharisees appear to have been drawing lines between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” lines based on visible practices and conventions that might help them climb the social ladder so they might have “the seat of honor in the synagogues” and be “greeted with respect in the marketplaces” (v. 43). Jesus draws a different line. For Jesus, the line between what truly matters and what is of little importance is between the internal and the external. When we leave the dinner table to wash the dishes, we don’t just wash the outside of our bowls. To do so would be absurd. Rather, we make sure to wash the insides so that they’re clean the next time we use them. For Jesus, it’s what is within a person that really matters.

And it appears that what truly upset Jesus was not what some Pharisees were doing, but what they were not doing. He says they focus on tithing the smallest of herbs but they “neglect the justice of God” (v. 42), which as Jesus envisions it, is more about inclusion than exclusion. It widens that circle of who’s “in.” Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, he welcomes those who are marginalized, and he preaches good news to the poor. Creating social boundaries based on class, ethnicity, and gender is contrary to Jesus’ vision of justice (see Galatians 3:28).

We ought to handle passages like this with care. One concern I have about texts that critique certain practices of the Pharisees is that they can – and historically have – led to uncharitable caricatures of Judaism. It’s important to remind ourselves, then, that Jesus’ condemnation of the inappropriate focus on the mundane while neglecting the weightier matters of justice echoes some of the great prophets within Judaism. Jeremiah, Isaiah and Amos all chastised those who publicly offered sacrifices in the temple while committing evil practices behind closed doors (Jeremiah 6:20; Isaiah 1:11-15; Amos 5:21-23). The problem is hypocrisy, and that’s something we are all guilty of from time to time.

In the spirit of reconsidering where we draw dividing lines, I’ll close with a quotation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. In this account of his imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp, Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his [sic] own heart?” Jesus’ words, like Soszhenitsyn’s, promote not a self-righteous arrogance that allows us to judge and even demonize others but rather a posture of self-critical reflection that requires us to ask difficult questions about whom we include, whom we exclude, and why.

Question for discussion:

With whom would you feel uncomfortable sharing a meal, and what does that tell you about yourself?

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