All Washed Up
Never in the history of the world has there been a people so obsessed with external cleanliness as we are, obsessed with what goes into or onto a person. We have declared a war of substantial financial proportions on smells: billions are spent annually on deodorizing everything that might remind our noses that human life is going on in our homes and work places. Store shelves display dozens of brands of toothpaste, the main selling point of most being that they will get breath fresher or teeth whiter, or reduce the characteristic effects of smokers’ teeth and breath...that they will help prevent tooth decay comes almost as an afterthought.
There are racks of different brands of mouthwash that will cure “morning breath,” soaps that will guarantee our romantic happiness, laundry detergents that make clothes smell not like the people who wear them but like a forest, deodorants that remove human odors from every imaginable body part and some we would just as soon not imagine, perfumes, colognes, and on and on.
The point of this litany of modern hygiene is to say that the Jews of the first century were certainly not the only culture with an affinity for governing the personal hygenic habits of people. While our culture’s rules concerning the things that make a person unclean may not be stated as law, they are no less fully enforced. And they don’t always have to do strictly with health concerns any more than the Pharisees’ did.
If you think I’m off base, imagine sitting next to someone in a hot room, someone who has mowed the lawn on Thursday, neglected to shower for a few days, and who couldn’t find a clean shirt to wear this morning. The censure of our noses would likely be immediate! Yet, even though we might be offended by a little human body odor, many of us no longer notice the smell of smoke and exhaust that invades our cars when we sit at a traffic light. The irony is that the exhaust fumes carry many more potential hazards to our health than a little B.O. It turns out that we, too, have rules for social cleanliness no less elaborate than the rules of the ancient Pharisees.
We may be like the Pharisees in another way. We tend to divide up our lives into what they thought of as clean and unclean areas. Some areas of life are touched by our religious faith, others are not. Right? Well, not according to Moses: “No other nation...has a god so near when needed as the Lord our God is to us.” The nearness of God. It was this very nearness which convinced Jesus that there was no area of life from which God excluded himself, or from which we needed to try to exclude God. Jesus had experienced God as one so close, so intimately involved with life, that there was virtually nothing which could separate us from God’s concern for us. Not eating the wrong food, not running with the wrong crowd, not even the lack of a bath.
The central drama of the Bible always has to do with God’s intimate concern for people, God’s desire to be near at hand when needed. It was this desire to be near that made God come close to the people in the Exodus, in the years of travel in the wilderness, in the years of the kingdom, in the exile from the promised land, in the very event of the incarnation, when Jesus was born as God’s own passionate expression of concern with us and among us.
The commandments of God, far from being the stark legalisms which would create distance between God and people, were intended to establish a relationship, to make divine love available, to bring God close.
When we try to remember what it is that made Israel great we are hard-pressed to discover anything except for one thing: an awareness that God is present with his chosen people. This is the source of the greatness of Israel, certainly not her wealth — which was puny, her military power — which was almost laughably short-lived, not her artistic achievement — which was practically nonexistent. The sole measure of the greatness of Israel was in her awareness that God comes close to people, makes covenants with people, desires to be near at hand to them when needed. And it was when Israel began to forget this that her troubles inevitably arose.
When Israel began to divide her life in two, one side saved for the world of commerce and business and trade and the marketplace and human interaction, the other side for the life of faith and devotion to God, then her troubles began to mount. God is not Lord of only this or that shred of our lives, God is satisfied only as Lord of all life, all of it: the good, the bad, the smelly, the pure, the parts we would like to see included in our letters of reference and the parts we hope no one — not even our closest friends — will see, the face that we put on for the folks at the cocktail party, and the face we wear when we awaken in the middle of the night with unsolicited thoughts of our own death, the shiny new shopping mall in the newest section of town, and the dreariest streets in bad-town where none of us would be caught dead in the middle of the night for fear that dead is exactly how we would be caught.
If we cannot believe this, that God is Lord of it all, that everything in all of life is the object of God’s affection and redeeming love, then we likely do not believe the witness of the gospel.
I remember a cartoon that a friend gave me years ago. An old fashioned school marm was addressing her class of elementary students from behind her imposing desk. The students, intimidated in the distance, were listening intently as she said, “The Board of Education requires me to teach you a unit on sex education and other disgusting filth.”
Jesus said, “There is nothing that goes into people from the outside that can make them ritually unclean...” that is, nothing so dirty that God will not want to have anything to do with us. Apart from the fact that our sexuality is one of God’s good gifts to us, no perversion of that or any other experience in life is so degrading but that God can work in the midst of it to redeem it. Nothing is so tragic, so humiliating, or so emotionally overwhelming but that God is capable of making love possible in it and through it.
Jesus went on to say, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” What matters to God is not adherence to some external set of rules and regulations, but the heart. Unlike our conception of the heart as the seat of emotions, it was considered in Jesus’ time to be the seat of the will, where we make everyday decisions about our relationships with others.
What separates us from God is not God’s unwillingness to look upon us if we engage in some frivolous misbehavior, not our dirtiness, not our failures and shortcomings, but our unwillingness — in our attachment to our favorite shortcomings — to look upon God. What separates us from God is not God but us. That is the tremendous gift of freedom God has given to us, that even in the presence of the overwhelming power of God’s love — a love capable of outdistancing the Egyptian army in the desert and bringing the people to the promised land — we still hold the potential to deny, to keep God’s love at bay, to turn away, to prefer darkness to light.
We might think, with all our sophisticated hygiene, with toothpastes and mouthwashes and cleansing agents, that what can ruin us is what we put into our mouths or bodies. Here we learn that the key to divine health, at least as it pertains to the deeper dimensions of life, is what comes out of our mouths, for it is there that we express what is deep within our hearts. Into our mouth may go the best, freshest tasting gel, but it is for naught if what comes out is the slandering word which destroys another person.Pray with me that out of our mouths may come instead the word of faith. That all our lives may be one, and the whole lot committed to God, who in Jesus Christ longs to be one with us in every phase of our existence. May we hold up our whole lives before him, so that what comes out of us may be faithfulness, honesty, respect for life, contentment, truthfulness, and humility. And join me in thanking God that when we fall short of these standards, he is faithful enough to us to correct us, forgive us, and empower us to live transformed lives.
 Deuteronomy 4