Some public health expert Jesus turns out to be!
Ye gads, he doesn’t think it’s important to wash your hands before a meal.

My mother, of blessed memory, would not be pleased.

She would, however, have been quick to note that it was not Jesus himself who was guilty of breaking those public health rules about having clean hands before eating.

It was those damnable disciples of Jesus whom the Pharisees caught with dirty hands! They were the ones who were failing to follow the dietary laws of their scriptures and traditions, which, in fact, carried both public health and religious import. They were the ones who were giving Jesus a bad name.

If Jesus were to be faulted, according to Mom, it would have to be restricted to his supervisory role.

He should have done a better job of teaching and keeping watch on those committed to his care and cause. And that would, for her, apply especially to teaching and oversight on matters that would be in public view.

But Mom would have been entirely sympathetic to Jesus finding a way to cover for his disciples’ publicly aberrant behavior to the onlookers, whether they are the obsessively strict Pharisees or the crowd that had gathered to witness the skirmish.

In fact, I suspect she would have secretly admired Jesus for his fast thinking – of coming up with a new rule that would have gotten his disciples off the hook.

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14-15).

And then she would have commended her Lord and Savior for taking the disciples aside and explaining what the new rule really meant.

After a period of brief reflection, she would have learned from Jesus (as his disciple herself) that this new rule wasn’t just about being able to distinguish literally between that which is required by Scripture and what had been added on in all the following years and decades and centuries of interpreting that Scripture.

Mom would also have been instructed by this example of Jesus urging his disciple to look into the heart of what the Scriptures were teaching – about the real meaning of what God expects of us, as it has been conveyed to us in the Bible.

She would have understood completely that, as important as things might be like washing your hands before you eat and being sure to do exactly that when people were watching, it was infinitely more important to attend to those things that result from who you really are – not just who you are physically but more who you are morally and, in the end, spiritually.

There would have been some wincing on her part about how graphic Jesus was in making this clear – about the “poop” that comes out of our intestines not being nearly as important as what comes out of our hearts in our thinking and acting.

Despite the imagery Jesus employed, she would have been completely on board when it came down to what condemns us and what commends us – what we do to defile ourselves and what we do to exhibit a clean heart, whether it met public health standards.

I even think my mother would have seen the connection between how all of this applies to both our personal lives (as Jesus clearly has in mind when he identifies defilement as “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”) and our political lives.

That becomes especially important when, in a democracy every election period, we have not only to judge candidates for public office and their parties in terms of the positions they take on a variety of policy issues (including public health), but also what is revealed about their political heart – what emanates from their core in the public policies they are proposing.

And it isn’t just the candidates and their parties that are subject to review during these periods of political conventions and campaigns, is it?

In a democracy, “we the people” are also subject to review, both on what we think about a host of public policies and what and where our political heart is.

On that criterion we reveal who we really are as individuals but also, in the end, as a nation.

My mom would have understood, I think, that in every election we have occasion to commend ourselves to one another, to the wider world, and, yes, to God. Or, yes, to defile ourselves.

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.

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