“America is re-learning how to wash its hands,” observed one reporter on a television segment on the possible impending outbreak of H1N1 virus cases in schools this autumn. As the school year begins and we hear warnings about the recurrence of the virus in even larger dimensions than last year, at the top of the list of things to remember (and to be teaching our students), along with covering their mouths when sneezing or coughing and staying at home when sick, is the most important and reliable safeguard: wash your hands regularly!
There is both great irony and wonderful symmetry in the fact that this important practice, and its renewed emphasis in lieu of an impending and potentially serious flu season, coincides with the Gospel reading for Sunday, August 30th (Proper 17B). In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, Jesus encounters the indignation of some Pharisees, who see that a few of his disciples have been eating without washing their hands. Mark spends a considerable amount of time in this chapter on this controversy: in biblical times washing one’s hands was no small matter, and for the Pharisees it was a very big deal. In response, Jesus speaks of what truly defiles a person, and that has more to do with what comes out of a person than what goes into a person. Matters of the heart and the disposition of the heart (the heart being seen in biblical times as the seat of will as well as feeling) are what can truly defile and define a person.
We who have reacquainted ourselves with the need to be washing our hands may well misinterpret what Jesus is trying to say here. I don’t think Jesus is saying that hand washing, be it for ritual reasons or cleanliness purposes, is unimportant. Rather, its use has to be guided by the quality of our inner lives. Once again, I think we see here an example of how Jesus both retains the law yet goes beyond it, making the external practices subject to the direction of and the reframing by the spirit.
His perspective is a very good one for all of us to keep in mind as our country deals with the possibility of a very large flu epidemic. It is the quality of our inner lives that will keep all of this in proportion, calming the fears of many parents and attempting to focus on what truly matters in the midst of that fear. Indeed, it is the fruits of that spirit that will help us in reminding people in our school communities that at times we have very little control over what occurs in our lives, that there are more important things—both for the individual as well as the good of the community—than showing up and carrying on at school while sick.
Washing our hands is very, very important. We cannot hear that message enough in the upcoming weeks. On its own, however, as Jesus reminds, it will not carry the day.