Some people don’t like to get their hands dirty—and I am one of them. I was the last one you would find building sandcastles as a kid. As an adult, I will gladly pay someone to change my oil. There’s something about getting my hands dirty, sticky, gritty, grimy, and greasy that grosses me out. I’m glad Jesus wasn’t like me–He got his hands dirty. What if the Church got its hands dirty like Jesus?
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
As a carpenter, Jesus put literal blood, sweat, and tears into his work. He was familiar with sawdust coating his sweaty skin, and sand in his eyes. He knew that if you’re going to make something beautiful, you’ve got to get yourself a little dirty. But I’m not talking about furniture and dust…
Jesus was always getting himself dirty for the sake of making something beautiful in the lives of people. Here are four examples:
- When he met the Samaritan woman at the well, he was fully aware that asking her for a cup of water made him dirty. It was scandalous for a Jewish man to talk with an unclean Samaritan woman. But Jesus risked that scandal to have an influence on her life.
- Jesus developed quite a scandalous reputation for the company he kept. He could have surrounded himself with people who appeared righteous. You might have made friends with his fellow rabbis. Instead, he went to dinner parties with sex workers, addicts, and turncoats. Why did he do this? To make something beautiful in the lives of people whom nobody else would touch.
- People in Jesus’ day saw lepers as unclean. Not just gross and scabby, and not infectious the way we understand the spread of disease. Lepers were ritually unclean. To touch a leper meant that you became tainted for a time, unable to worship in the temple. But when a leper asked Jesus for healing, Jesus reached out and touched him. He didn’t have to do this. Other passages demonstrate that Jesus could heal with a word. But Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty and make himself ritually unclean. He did this to show the man that lepers are not untouchable, and to demonstrate that it’s okay to get our hands dirty for someone else.
- Jesus allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands. His accusers were not interested in germs. They were concerned about ritual contamination from the work that the disciples did among the poor, diseased, and sinful crowd. But Jesus didn’t care about their unwashed hands. He expected them to get dirty in the work to which he called them.
Getting Dirty for Others
I will probably always have an aversion to dirt under my fingernails. But I try to be like Jesus in his willingness to get his hands dirty in the other way. So I make it my business to spend time with people experiencing homelessness, addiction, and criminal problems. I breathe the ambient smoke of their cigarettes. Sometimes I walk away a little smelly after an unexpected hug. I talk with them in their own language, which means dropping an f-bomb from time to time. And I even let politics get influenced by my desire to help the poor, which makes me unclean in the eyes of the religious right. But in doing so, I hope that makes me a little more like Jesus.
There’s something about church walls that keeps us from getting our hands dirty. It’s like, once you’re washed by baptism you think it’s your responsibility to stay clean. But Jesus expects us to get dirty doing his work in the world. Speaking in spiritual terms, Jesus said, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.” By this bath, Jesus meant that the grace of God cleanses us of all notions of sinfulness.
People often misunderstand the need for continued foot washing as a need for ongoing forgiveness of sin. But in reality, all our sin is completely forgiven. What Jesus was referring to is the psychological dirt you pick up from the world as you go about living like Jesus. If touching the untouchable means you get your hands (or feet) dirty, then God’s grace makes sure the mental and emotional dirt doesn’t stick. You don’t have to worry about the world’s contamination. Do the work of Jesus, and he will keep you clean.
What If the Church Had Dirty Hands, Like Jesus?
Historically, the Church has worried too much about sin and corruption from the world’s influences. Instead of cloistering ourselves behind church walls, we need to be more concerned that we aren’t in the world enough. What if the Church got its hands dirty like Jesus? How would things change? We’ve been too worried about keeping our hands clean, and not interested enough in getting them dirty for the sake of others. So, If we’re going to be like Jesus, we’ve got to get a little dirty so that others can be made clean.