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“You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them” (Leviticus 15:31).
“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come … “ (Mark 7:18-23).
Many years back, my sister, Tarri, lost the diamond from her wedding ring. We talked about it together when I was admiring the new ring on her left hand. It was nice, but nowhere near as beautiful as her wedding ring had been. She told me that when she realized it was gone, she had looked everywhere, and then looked everywhere again. Todd looked. The boys helped her look. But after several weeks of looking, she concluded the diamond was lost for good.
And then one day, maybe six months after she’d replaced her wedding ring, when she was pulling clothes out of the laundry hamper to wash them, something shiny caught her eye in the bottom of the hamper: Her diamond.
Somehow, back when she’d been in the middle of washing clothes, her precious diamond had popped out of its setting and settled at the bottom of the hamper.
Today’s correlating passages (and honestly, only the Lord could have lined up Leviticus 15 and Mark 7 in the same day’s reading), gives us a similar story.
Back in the beginning of their relationship, God established a pattern of washing which gave the Israelites a sanitary edge over all other people groups. Long before anyone had termed the word “germ,” God taught His people how to avoid them. And it served them well. When 25 million Europeans died from the Black Plague in the mid-14th century, a comparatively small number of Jews died from the disease. Historians like to say this was because they were ostracized in most communities and kept to themselves, but a quick look at God’s commands concerning washing and the dealing of corpses suggests otherwise. The Jews were simply much more sanitary people.
But was personal hygiene God’s real motive for laying down such specific instructions? It wasn’t, of course. It was a ritual meant to convey a more poignant truth: Show the world that you’re mine. Be holy as I am holy.
That’s precious. Like families sporting “Smith Family Cruise of 2019” t-shirts as they walk the decks of an enormous ship, God gave an outward sign to show the world that these people belonged to Him. We know that for a fact because of what God said to Moses and Aaron right in the middle of this passage: “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them’” (Leviticus 15:31). Every time they performed a ritual washing, the Jews were reminded again that they belonged to God. And any outsider observing that ritual washing would know the same thing.
But over time, the ritual turned into religion, at least for some. The problem is, those “some” were the spiritual leaders of Israel. If hand-washing was a sport, the Pharisees were gold-medal grand champions. Did that mean they were the most like God, and the closest of His friends? Hardly. Somehow, in the midst of all that washing, they lost what was precious. Their pious show of washing was no longer a means of identifying with God and drawing near to Him—it was a means of looking better and more important that the rest of God’s children, and a way of lording power over them.
Jesus had nothing against cleanliness. You can’t read this passage in Mark and conclude that. Rather, Jesus took issue with the fact that the Pharisees were content with external cleanliness, but gave no thought to the condition of their hearts. He pulled no punches when He turned to them and said, “”Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” This is an elaboration of what He called them in Matthew 23. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Clean on the outside; dead within.
Did the spirit of the Pharisees die in the desert many centuries ago? No, that spirit is alive and well anywhere that men and women value external evidences of purity over internal proofs. Whenever someone tries to convince another that salvation comes through the formula of “Jesus + this” or “Jesus + that” (read: head coverings, dressing up for church, speaking in tongues/not speaking in tongues, worshiping on this day over that day, etc.), you can be sure you are face to face with a modern day Pharisee.
Don’t be one who loves ritual more than relationship. Don’t let the precious be lost to the perfunctory. Draw near to the One who has the power to clean you inside and out.
“Our Savior kneels down and gazes upon the darkest acts of our lives. But rather than recoil in horror, he reaches out in kindness and says, “I can clean that if you want.” And from the basin of his grace, he scoops a palm full of mercy and washes away our sin.”
— Just Like Jesus: Learning to Have a Heart Like His (The Bestseller Collection)