30th July 2023 – clean and unclean

30th July 2023 – clean and unclean

We talked a bit about having clean hands.  We might even suggest today that Jesus was in the wrong – they should have been washing their hands before they ate!  In these days after covid and the 20 second rule, it’s hard to believe but did you know, the first doctor to realise you should wash your hands before surgery was in 1847?  And even then, people didn’t believe him.  No one knew of the existence of germs until about 100-150 years ago.  So what do the Pharisees and Jesus mean by clean and unclean?


This wasn’t about hygiene.  It wasn’t about ‘you don’t want to eat the dirt you’ve been touching all day.’  Not for the Pharisees, anyway.  This was about God, about being ‘pure’ to come before him.

The things we are talking about today are totally alien to us.  We just don’t have in our culture a concept of ‘purity’, of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ as religious or ceremonial categories.  For us, clean and unclean are a physical thing aren’t they.  If I go out and play in the mud, I get dirty. I come in, have a wash and get clean.  We might just about grasp the hygiene aspect, as I say particularly since covid – there are times when I need to wash my hands regardless of whether they look dirty because they might be carrying germs, as we saw.  But do we really think God cares about it?

Well, these guys did.

You see, in the OT there were lots of rules about being ‘clean’, and only if you were clean could you go anywhere near anything to do with God.  God was so pure, so holy and his people had to be like that too.  And there were lots of things that made you ‘unclean’ – things you ate, things you touched, things that happened to you.  This wasn’t doing things wrong, any more than getting dirty is wrong, but the stuff of everyday life made you unfit for God’s presence and you had to wash it off; sometimes by literal washing of hands or clothes, sometimes by sacrifices, but you couldn’t be part of the holy community and be ‘dirty’.


We’ll come back to that in a minute.  This very story is part of the reason why we don’t emotionally connect with this story!  Because in Mark’s gospel he puts an editor’s note in this story: ‘In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean’.  And we don’t ‘do’ clean and unclean today.  But we might find that the idea behind it is not quite as alien to us after all.  I’m going to step outside the world of the Bible for a minute and try to find a way that we can connect with the terms, it isn’t exactly what the Jews thought but I want us to try to understand their reaction.  Perhaps instead of thinking in terms of something being ‘unclean’, which is a very formal, sterile term isn’t it, perhaps we might think of ‘disgusting’.  The stuff that makes you go ‘eurgh’.  I won’t eat that, I won’t do that, I won’t touch that because – eurgh.

Think of food.  Think of some of those things that are perfectly edible but – you just wouldn’t!  A few years back there was a big to-do in the news because they found that a lot of hamburgers had been made with horse meat.  About a year ago in church I offered people insects to eat.  We all know that in France people eat snails, in some South American countries they eat guinea pigs.  Physically, nothing wrong with it; but it gives us a physical and emotional reaction that just says ‘no!’  And perhaps you can imagine going somewhere where people put these things on the plate in front of you, and you have to decide whether to stand by your instinctive reaction or to do the unthinkable and eat it.  And maybe you can get some sense of the reaction of the Jewish people when they saw others eating things that were ‘unclean’.

But it’s not just about food, as we’ve seen.  It’s about behaviour.  Let’s watch another video clip.


Sophie and the BFG both agree that some things are just, ‘eurgh’.  That’s disgusting.  Don’t do it.  It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it might just interfere with our relationship.  The actual thing we think of might vary according to our culture or upbringing, but that sense of ‘dirty’ is still with us in some way.

The thing is, when we look at some of the laws the Jews had, we can see that they do have a point beyond ‘eurgh’.  God taught his people hygiene before science did!  A lot of the laws were around disease control in a society that had no medical knowledge.  But, as often happens with these things, the original context is lost and they become laws for their own sake; other laws were written around them, a whole culture is built around them.  Now it’s not just ‘eurgh’ to do this, it is totally wrong, offensive, ungodly.

And what Jesus and his disciples were breaking here wasn’t just OT law, it was society’s expectations.  They were passing wind in public, picking their noses, whatever else we might think of as ‘eurgh’.  It is not acceptable!

And these Pharisees, these goody-two-shoes who never do any of that, pull Jesus up on it.  They sound a bit like people complaining to the parents of a rude child.  ‘We don’t act like that.  Tell them to behave.’

Jesus says, ‘No, you don’t act like that.  You never eat food that’s been dropped on the floor, even under the 5-second rule.  What you do is much worse.  You do all these things to look great, to look respectable, to keep ‘tradition’ – but you’re always looking for loopholes, for ways to get what you want, to serve yourself.  You’re acceptable in society, you please other people but you’re not acceptable to God, because you’re not trying to please him.’

I’m sure you know the story of the Good Samaritan.  The man attacked by robbers and left by the side of the road, a priest came along and walked by on the other side, a worker in the Temple also walked by, before the Samaritan came along and helped.  It has been suggested that the reason that these two did not stop is that they did not want to make themselves ‘unclean’.  They were so concerned with being officially, ceremonially acceptable to God that they didn’t care for the man in need.  Doesn’t God want love and mercy more than keeping their hands clean?

Just like we had repeatedly from the prophets, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for ‘doing’ all the right religious things while inside they were as bad if not worse than everyone else.

So Jesus uses this image of clean and unclean, prompted by the criticism of the Pharisees, to explain that obeying the rules of ‘don’t eat, don’t touch, don’t associate with’ isn’t going to make you ‘pure’, ‘holy’, or ‘godly’ – those things are just outward dirt.  They wash off, like the stains in our first advert.  They don’t make you bad people, they don’t make you unfit to associate with God.  What makes you unfit to associate with God is the state of your mind, your heart, your spirit.  If that is dirty, if your motives are impure, if your intentions are evil and you are captivated by pride, envy, greed; these things make you unclean – they lead to all kinds of sin and death, and can’t just be washed away with a bit of soap or alcohol gel.

Not only that but this kind of uncleanness pollutes the community.  It’s catching!  Hang around people who are immoral, who think this is an ok way to behave, and you start to think like them and follow their example.  This is the uncleanness and the impurity that needs to be cleansed, to be avoided, to be overcome.

We are going to sing again.

During this song I’m going to invite the children up here to do some finger painting.  And you need to try not to get messy!


So we talked about how those outside things don’t make us acceptable or unacceptable to God.  Washing our hands, following tradition, fitting in with society doesn’t make us clean before him – and not doing any of that doesn’t make us ‘unclean’.  What makes us unclean are those things in our heart – anger that makes us mistreat each other; lust that leads to adultery or sexual immorality; greed and envy that lead to theft, slander, gossiping.  And we said that this is catching.

It’s not just that people catch it from us, but that living in the world we catch it from other people.  Let me demonstrate.

The children have been doing finger painting, as cleanly as they can.  Now I want you to come and wipe your fingers on my top.  Then wash your hands, and then you can wipe them dry again on me.

Wear old t-shirt.  People get me messy. 

Every time they are mean to me, that gets me a bit messy.  Every time people or circumstances make me angry; every time I see an advert and want it; every time I want something I can’t have; every time I feel jealous of someone; every time I get a compliment and start to feel pride, it just gets me a bit grubby.  And over time, the dirt and the mess builds up, inside and out.

I can’t clean that.  I can try, I can scrub and wash, I don’t think this shirt will ever be the same.

What can I do?

The bad news is that there’s nothing I can do.  The good news is that Jesus can.  Just as the Jews would sacrifice a goat or a bull to purify themselves from any uncleanness, Jesus sacrificed himself to purify us.  Ironically, it was a messy business.  They would take an animal, kill it and sprinkle the blood on the people to purify them of their sins.  It didn’t physically wash them, but it cleansed them.  Perhaps today we might think of it like hand sanitizer versus soap!  We wash our dirty hands with soap and that should get the dirt off (if we do it properly).  We use hand sanitizer and it doesn’t necessarily get the dirt off but it kills the bacteria.  The blood of the animal killed the contagious bacteria of uncleanness in the community; the blood of Jesus kills the bacteria of sin in our lives, not on the outside but on the inside.  The Bible says he takes our dirty garments and clothes us in his righteousness.

Take off T-shirt

Jesus cleans us from the inside out, and that’s part of the symbolism of baptism, a sign of the cleansing that has happened within us.

Isaiah 1: 18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

And that’s a reason to celebrate!

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