Good Habits

Wherever Jesus goes, people gather. On the street, in houses and synagogues, in villages and cities, people gather, bringing the sick and the possessed, hoping that they might touch the fringe of his cloak. Wherever Jesus goes, people gather, because his presence is healing.

Others gather, because Jesus’ presence can be profoundly confusing, even disturbing. Today’s passage from Mark tells us that some people are watching Jesus closely, keeping an eye on him and his followers and what they do and fail to do. What they notice is that Jesus loves to break bread with just about anybody. They watch him break bread with five thousand, and they notice his smile, how he breaks the loaf and gives a piece of bread to any and all; he doesn’t even hesitate when the person he eats with is clearly a crook, or a prostitute, or a stranger from across the border. And it’s not just his eating habits.  He also has a rather unique way of observing the sabbath, or some would say, not observing it. You watch him and there are moments when you think he’s the most devout person you’ve ever met, and then you stumble upon a scene where he acts as though religion means nothing to him.

The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism, and their passion was to live holy lives; they sought to sanctify every dimension of daily life. They took seriously that God had chosen Israel to be “a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). The big challenge they saw was, how to be a holy nation when foreign occupiers determine so much of public life.

In a context like that, the small, daily, at-home activities take on greater weight and importance. Every meal becomes a sacred ritual of remembering, “We are God’s people.” Every moment of every day becomes an occasion for blessing the Lord God of Israel. You open your eyes in the morning, praising God for the gift of light. You go about your daily work, praising God for the gifts of strength and skill. You open scripture, praising God for the gift of the commandments. You break bread, praising God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor. You tuck in your sons and daughters at night, praising God for the gift of children. And you go to bed, praising God for the goodness of day and night, springtime and harvest, work and rest. It’s a beautiful practice. You sanctify every moment by living it with attention to God’s gifts, commandments, and presence.


Marcia Falk spent years writing a book of Jewish prayers; it was published in 1996. In it, she comments on the practice of handwashing that some Jews observe and others don’t. The reason for washing one’s hands has long been that they’re about to touch bread.

“The rabbis saw bread as a double symbol – of God’s gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity’s sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was an reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.”

Every table an altar, every meal an act of worship, every host a priest. Marcia Falk writes that “In the case of its use before a meal, [handwashing] was originally intended, among other things, to reenact the priestly purification ritual performed when offering a sacrifice at the Temple. One might say that mandating the washing of hands before eating, the rabbis turned every meal in the daily life of ordinary people into a sacred event.”[1]

In the days of Jesus and the early church, these practices were still emerging and occasionally hotly contested, especially in the church where Jews and Gentiles had to determine which traditions to continue and which ones to abandon.

In Mark’s story, some Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem questioned Jesus, because they had noticed that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. They weren’t concerned about their personal hygiene or health. Handwashing was a matter of piety and faithfulness. Pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal, a simple ritual inspired by priestly rules, established and maintained the boundary between holy living and the common world of pagan idolaters and other disorders.

Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, others apparently did. In Mark’s account, however, the lines are clearly drawn. He even adds an editorial comment saying, “all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands,” which isn’t entirely true, but makes for great drama.

Jesus shows little patience in this scene. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” some Pharisees ask, rather innocently, I would say, but there’s no room for innocent questions in this drama.  Jesus calls them hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.

If anyone questioned you and me whether we live by God’s word or by human tradition, we would obviously say, God’s word. But many of us would want to add that God’s word is available to us only through human tradition. The word and command of God is not a voice from heaven or a book that fell from the sky, but a voice that speaks to us in the voices of Moses and the prophets, in the life and teachings of Jesus, in the proclamation of the apostles, in the stories of the gospels, and in the voices of friends and strangers. We listen for and obey the word of God, but our understanding and obedience will always depend on how we interpret the words spoken and written by human beings.

The people questioning Jesus about the practices of his disciples wanted to honor the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). To them being associated with God meant avoiding any association with ungodly people and things. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with keeping an eye on that line between what is holy and what is not, and not allowing it to get blurry?

In Mark’s story, Pharisees and scribes with a passion for holy living saw Jesus eating with sinners. They saw him crossing the line; but they didn’t see that he crossed it to bring reconciliation. They saw him crossing the line when he cured a man on the sabbath; but they didn’t see that he crossed it to bring redemption, so the man would be part of the sabbath peace. They saw Jesus breaking bread with five-thousand – but, no, they didn’t, not really. All they saw were some disciples who hadn’t washed their hands first. They missed the miracle altogether. Suddenly their holy passion seems petty-minded. They could only see what their tradition allowed them to see. They didn’t take into account that sometimes God will say and do something unheard of. It’s something that happens all the time, and to all of us – not just some Pharisees.

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “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.” Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love. Words and attitudes do defile a person’s innate sacredness and snuff the flickering flame of dignity and hope. There are things outside a person that by going in can defile. But we can’t pretend that we can keep it all away. We can’t pretend that we can create islands of holiness in the threatening sea of unholy chaos that is the world. We can’t pretend that the line that divides the holy and the unholy can be drawn in a way that we’re always safely on the inside.

The line runs through the very core of our being. “It is from within,” says Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The trouble, says Jesus, doesn’t arise from a world hostile to the holiness of God’s people. Evil cannot be walled out or fenced in or locked away or bombed out of history. The trouble arises from the human heart. From my own heart, not from people whose piety is different from mine.

If I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, then that’s where my attention will be, and I will learn to watch, and avoid, and accuse, and condemn others. But in the company of Jesus I learn to look at my own heart with greater honesty, and the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be.

I still love the notion of sanctifying every dimension of life. You open your eyes in the morning, thanking God for the gift of light.  You go about your daily work, thanking God for the gifts of creativity and community. You eat your meals, thanking God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor. You go to bed, praising God for love received and love given. It’s a beautiful practice to sanctify each moment by living it with attention to God’s gifts, commandments, and presence. And that attention, together with the practices that sustain it, shapes your heart, the very core of your being.

Protestants have been highly critical of ritual, for good reasons, but we have dismissed them as empty too quickly. Rituals are not just outward actions, but practices that can help us live more faithfully. Think about the good habits that help you remember that you belong to God and God’s people. And if you can’t think of any, come and see me sometime.


[1] Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)p. 428 and p. 426