Let’s get something straight — washing our hands is something we should all do on a regular basis. I am sure we have all experienced the shock and horror of being in a public washroom and witnessing someone walk out of the stall and straight out the door, without even seeming to consider turning on the tap. Trust me when I say I am likely as appalled as you; however, even our potential zeal for such behaviour cannot be compared to that of the Pharisees during Jesus’ day. For the Pharisees, hand washing was not merely a means of eliminating germs, it was a spiritual act of obedience that they fulfilled with great pride. After all, they were merely following the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2). When they discovered that Jesus and his disciples were eating one day without having washed their hands, they were quick to bring a sharp rebuke to him.
“Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat” (Matthew 15:2).
Jesus answered them with a sharper word of rebuke: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).
If you would ask my advise, I would say that if you are going to try to rebuke Jesus, you better be prepared to be rebuked in return! However, Jesus’ immediate rebuke is not what I want to focus on — instead, I want to get to the heart of the matter. Jesus went on to say, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (verse 11).
What matters, as far as Jesus is concerned, is not what is on your hands, but what is in your heart. “Whatever comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (verse 18). Jesus challenges the perspective of the Pharisees. They were consumed with physical matters; Jesus is consumed with spiritual matters. They were measuring the success of their dinner party by whether or not people properly washed their hands; Jesus was measuring the success of the dinner party by what was in people’s hearts. Since Jesus Himself is referred to as the Word of God made flesh, I am sure He had these words from Proverbs 4:34 in mind as he spoke with the religious rulers: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
I wonder how much time we spend thinking about the everyday, ordinary tasks before us compared to the eternal, weighty matters of the heart.
I wonder… have we become more mindful of the germs on our hands than the sin in our hearts?
Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft” and more (verse 19). What guardrails have we established to protect our heart from things that have a much more adverse effect on us than germs? Don’t misunderstand me — I’m still a huge advocate for hand washing and good hygiene. But in light of Jesus’ wise words to the Pharisees, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed the mark. Perhaps we would all be better off if we spent more time examining our hearts than the quality of our hand soap.