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The Pharisees had a more inclusive interpretation than the Sadducees, but even their broader understanding still left some excluded and outcast. Most of all, their interpretation used the needs of the working class as leverage in their power competition with the Sadducees. In Mark’s stories, Jesus sees through this. Though the Pharisees were relevatively more inclusive, they still benefitted from a classist system that left others on the margins.
Jesus emerges in the story as the prophet of the outcasts, whether they are outcast by Sadducees or by Pharisees.
This is the dynamic we are bumping into in this week’s passage. Handwashing was another tradition used to determine who was in and who was out, who was centered and who was pushed to the margins, who was closer to the top of their society and who was closer to the bottom.
But it was classist and elitist. To put it in terms used by Karl Marx, handwashing was bourgeois. Remember this was way before the discovery of germ theory: it was not about cleanliness as we now understand it. Handwashing in this week’s passage was about one’s dedication to Torah observance or rather their interpretations of and adherence to society’s definition of purity.
And Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter. It is not unwashed hands that are harmful in a society, he says, but “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”
Today, in certain sectors of Christianity, we could apply these same principles. It’s not church attendance, offering size, worship music tastes, watching Fox News as your news media of choice, wearing the political label of “pro-life” or the claim of being a “Bible-believing, born-again Christian” that makes you an insider. Jesus could just as accurately say to us: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
What truly threatens a person’s, a community’s, or a society’s wellbeing are greed, classism, scapegoating immigrants, a distrust of science, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, nationalism, exceptionalism, and supremacist ways of thinking and viewing the world. These are all things that come from within and are intrinsically harmful and destructive of our human communities—our life together. Jesus’ teaching could be broadened here to parallel contemporary analysis of systemic-isms or kyriarchy. Racism isn’t only internal to individuals, for example; it’s embedded in social policy and custom and culture as well as internal bias and socialization. I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.
Lastly, I don’t interpret Jesus here as simply giving his followers a new list of rules that allowed them to go on practicing the ways of marginalizing others, just with a more internalized standard. I see him doing something much different. By naming the things in his new list, I see him calling the very ones who are marginalizing others based on something as silly as washing their hands to do a little introspection and see if there were things within themselves, practices that they themselves engaged in that harmed others or themselves.
What are the things that matter? Why do they matter? What are the things that are genuinely, intrinsically harmful?
And how are we as Christians today worshipping Jesus in vain, holding up elements of Christian culture as the test of who is in and who is out in the midst of our political culture-war, all the while engaging in practices that quite literally in this time of pandemic harm people around us.
What would the Jesus of our story this week say to us today?