I don’t know how many Pharisees there were in the first century. And I don’t know how many how many went around kvetching about the stuff Jesus did and said but I think it was probably just a few. There were others who were probably kvetching about the stuff that other non-authorized leaders were doing and saying and then there were some, maybe even most, who found nothing to kvetch about.
In Mark’s story, the ones with Jesus were upset that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. But let’s be clear, this story was not about dirty hands. No one was concerned about the spread of the common cold. This was about tradition. The hand washing had long since ceased to be about hygiene. And if those grumbling Pharisees demonstrate Jesus’ cavalier attitude toward “the way it’s always been,” maybe others would stop paying him attention.
And really, it wasn’t so much about the law and tradition so much as it was the way he was always leaning toward the culture’s most disagreeable sorts. The long-standing tradition was clear: if there was to be any kind of forgiveness at all, there first had to be repentance. All those rules (and there’s 613 of them) were there to show you just how messed up you really were and just what you had to do to get un-messed.
Jesus went and put the cart before the horse. The Pharisees were like the demonic schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” screaming, “You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.” You have to follow the rules before you can be part of the community. Jesus turns it on its head, and all the wrong sorts are welcome to the table, even those with dirty hands.
Sadly, much of Christianity has yet to get that message. “Repent and be saved” they shout. Jesus did the salvation part first. We are invited to the table of grace with dirty hands, and nourished by the bread and wine we are finally freed to seek to be what we were created to be.
Amelia Boynton Robinson died this week at the age of 104. She was nearly beaten to death as she marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma Alabama in support of the Voting Rights Act in what has been called “Bloody Sunday.” Last March, she crossed the bridge again, 50 years later, this time in a wheel chair, holding the hand of the United States’ first black President. In an interview last December she said, “Only until all human beings begin to recognize themselves as human beings will prejudice be gone forever. People ask me what race I am, but there is no such thing as race. I just answer: ‘I’m a member of the human race.’ ”