Clean and Unclean

By Thabo Makgoba

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 15:1-20

15 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 8‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Meditation

Many of our moral problems seem most acute when sets of rules conflict. – David Cook

As Jesus’ ministry in Galilee seems to be causing a stir even in Jerusalem, we see a growing conflict with the Pharisees over the nature of true religion. Recognized for emphasizing the importance of oral tradition passed down through the ages as well as of the Torah, they were meticulous about the need for washing hands before eating. In response, Jesus points out that in following tradition, the Pharisees at times teach “human precepts as doctrines,” asking them, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Down the centuries we have seen Christians fall into the habits of the Pharisees. In Africa especially, we have seen Western cultural accretions of Christianity promoted as the will of God, destroying sound local customs which promoted cohesion in pre-colonial communities. At its worst, this cultural imperialism which has given our faith a bad name suggested that our 19th century ancestors had to dress as the Victorians did to be accepted as Christian.

What attracts me about our faith is the image of Jesus as a Palestinian of Jewish faith, breaking conventions, upturning the tables of the money-lenders, riding humbly into Jerusalem on a donkey, uninterested in secular power and empire, and simply preaching that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: love God and love neighbor. Especially in this season of coronavirus — a season of distress, need, anger, fear — there is no greater commandment than these.

The Most Rev. Dr. Thabo Makgoba is Archbishop of the Diocese of Capetown, South Africa; metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Southern Africa; and chancellor of the University of the Western Cape.