Many years ago, a sweeping history of Australia was published called The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, by Robert Hughes. It told the story of how England shipped convicts to Australia’s harsh terrain in the 18th and 19th centuries, making it a continent not only wrested from its indigenous people but built by basically convict labor. One could be sent to Australia for seven or even fourteen years for stealing a loaf of bread—just like the “crime” that was the centerpiece of Les Miserables. Those who were deemed to have broken the law were seen as unredeemable.
Some might say everyone who breaks the law is a criminal who deserves to be punished—and even cast out. Those who say things like that, at the same time, we probably all know people who behave unethically while using the law as a cover, and also people who break the law in order to follow what they consider to be the greater dictates of their consciences. Laws are meant to strengthen societal bonds and relationships—not tear them apart.
In our gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus’s critics are scandalized by the fact that Jesus’s followers do not perform the ritual washing of the hands all the way to the elbows that was the tradition that developed from the Torah over the centuries. Yet, their criticism stems not from concern, or the wish to help someone who does not know better. Instead, their criticism means to cast doubt on the holiness of this holy man and his followers. If they don’t even wash their hands before eating, how good of a teacher must this Jesus be?
And three years ago, when we last read this pericope, most of us viewed handwashing in a much different light than we do now, as deep into COVID19 as we now are. Most of us, before COVID19, gave handwashing a half-hearted effort at best. And now we have all been taught to scrub our hands up to our elbows while singing “Happy Birthday.” Twice.
Jesus reminds us that purity for purity’s sake, stripped of context, becomes an idol on its own. Jewish purity laws were, and in some communities still are, very strict. Sometimes, keeping the law becomes a display of false piety, unmoored from the spirit and purpose of the law at its inception—it wasn’t to make a big show of yourself; it was to demonstrate care for the neighbors and our willingness to be obedient before God. It was about indivisible community, not individualism.
Ultimately, this argument is about authority and tradition. Jesus points out that tradition is all well and good—until it starts interfering with mission. We’ve lost our way when purity is valued over efficacy—when purity is valued over helping people.
We have been given a similar opportunity to demonstrate that lovingkindness and sense of appreciation of the value of our neighbors’ lives. We have the opportunity to live by grace—in humble acknowledgement of the grace we ourselves have received, honestly acknowledging the profligate love that is at the root of such radical acceptance and forbearance. To see no one as unredeemable.