Matthew 15:1-11 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat." He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honour your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But 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. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'" Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."
The ritual washing of hands lies deeply embedded in the religious practices of Jesus’ culture. What had historically begun as a hygienic precaution had been elevated into a sign of religious observance. Hands were thought to become unclean from more than dirt. Touching or associating with anyone termed “sinners” could make one unclean – which covered association with a range of humanity that included people too poor to pay their religious sacrifices, through to people who were deemed unwelcome in the temple because of a physical defect or because of a foreign ancestor.It seems that the followers of Jesus had decided not to wash their hands every time they met a religious outcast. It would also seem that they made no secret of this – and so Jesus was warned by the religious leaders that they risked the chance of being excluded from the religious circle by association. Jesus bluntly answers that the real unclean-ness lies in the heart that refuses to be touched by compassion for human suffering.
Prayer: Lord God. Purify my heart from thoughts of superiority and self-righteousness. Fill me with compassion for those who need to be touched by your love. Amen.
The Last Sunday after EpiphanyListen to Jesus Christ
Scripture reading taken from A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants p.100