Church of England Diocese of Birmingham Frankley

Washing, Wudu and Worship

29 Aug 2021, 2 a.m.

Please wash your hands before meals and in the present pandemic keep sanitizing and washing them.

Cleanliness is next to godliness because it protects both us and our neighbours. Godliness has a practical outcome.

When cooking meals we need to wash any food bought in the market and use washed cups, pots and pans.

Basic hygiene helps keep us healthy. It seems very strange therefore that Jesus doesn’t support the Pharisees in installing it.

All religions have washing rituals, symbols which remind we need to be cleansed by our holy God before we can come into his presence.

A stoop is placed inside the door in some churches to remind us we need to cleanse our hearts on the way in.

Baptism is also a symbol of our need to be cleansed from and dead to sin and alive to God. At Easter many Christians renew their baptism vows signing themselves with water.

We are responsible for our personal hygiene, and our conscience. We constantly need to return to God, confess our sins and ask for his cleansing.

The psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart.” Both hands and hearts are important.

Moslem and Jewish rituals are lengthy and complex. The Pharisees and scribes prescribed that in Judaism, ritual washing, or ablution, takes two main forms: Tevilah is a full body immersion in a mikveh, or pool often attached to synagogues. It takes place after menstruation or loss of seminal fluid, when someone is a convert to Judaism, when there has been contact with a dead corpse, prior to burial and for men before the three pilgrimage festivals.

Netilat yadayim is the washing of the hands. References to ritual washing are found in the, Old Testament, and are elaborated in the Mishnah and Talmud. According to custom, hands are washed before and after eating a meal with bread; upon awaking in the morning; after using the toilet; before eating karpas in the Passover seder; and before prayer three times a day. On some of these occasions, the water must be poured from a cup; sometimes a blessing is recited. Hands are washed from the tips to the wrists and then from the wrists to the tips.

Pharisees complained because the disciples of Jesus hadn’t observed the ritual properly and were therefore considered unclean.

Jesus denounced them as hypocrites. They put on a false appearance of virtue and religion but acted in contradiction to their stated beliefs.

Jesus criticised them for honouring God with their lips when their hearts were far from him. It is easier to concentrate on externals, those things which others can see rather than what is in our hearts.

We are always aware that we are judged by others on how they see us. Our personal appearance, homes, and what we do are important in creating an image. We can so easily become actors in a play, creating the image others want to see, the one which will give us approval rather than being the people God has called us to be. God always wants us to be truthful about ourselves, our failures as well as our successes. He wants us to be authentic so that what others see is what they get.

Hearts full of love which reaches out in worship to God and care for our neighbours are far more important than appearing to be good.

It’s not just religious people who are hypocrites. We have seen much hypocrisy from our secular politicians during the pandemic. Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings haven’t kept to the rules they set.

Christian hypocrisy has been exposed ruthlessly by the media recently. Hypocritical attitudes of some Christians to marriage, divorce, race, sexuality and shares in companies which cause global warming have been ruthlessly exposed. When we fail to live up to our ideals we need to repent and admit it.

Jesus narrowed the Jewish law down to two precepts, loving God with everything within us and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

The scribes and Pharisees extended the law. They wanted the principles found in the books of Moses defined, expanded, amplified and broken down into thousands of little rules and regulations. They made life more difficult for Jews to draw close to God with their hearts because they couldn’t get the externals right.

Petty regulations and rules always favour the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor.

The Pharisees were teaching human precepts as doctrines. We like the disciples struggle with many rules and regulations handed to us from above, from the church authorities and government. We have Canon law, safeguarding regulations, and targets for becoming carbon neutral and for the inclusion of minority ethnic groups. On top we are expected to spend more time caring for the poor and children. Sometimes it is difficult to keep up with what is required of us and we fail in the externals.

It is important for us to remember when under pressure that above everything else God desires a loving relationship with us.

Islam extended the rules and regulations of Judaism. They wash more than their hands ceremonially in running water before praying five times a day using proscribed movements. This is called wudu.

They have developed Sharia law from the Koran and the Sunnah and Hadith, the sayings and deeds of the prophet Mohammed. Sharia can inform every aspect of daily life for a Muslim, dress, fasting, divorce, what women can and cannot do etc.

The high-ranking Taliban commander Waheedullah Hashimi confirmed that Afghanistan would not be a democracy under the Taliban. They will implement no law but Sharia. During their rule in the 1990s, the Taliban implemented an extreme interpretation of Sharia, imposing oppressive rules for women, amputations for thieves and violent punishments including executions on ‘infidels’, including believers who have left their Muslim faith to follow Christ.

We are yet to see how the new rule will pan out. Sharia law is implemented under the guidance of powerful men. They can choose to be merciful as Allah is merciful.

Jesus drew the crowd of common people together and emphasised the importance of having hearts right with God. Nothing a person eats can condemn, defile or separate them from God. Washing externals are irrelevant. It is the sin within our hearts that defiles us.

Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, slander, pride and folly come from within. They separate us from God and make us unclean. What we allow to grow in our hearts will eventually reveal itself in evil actions which perpetrators often hope they will get away with if no one sees them doing it.

Jesus reminds us that to have clean hearts we need to draw near to God in worship, be sincere and fill our hearts with love for God and our neighbour.