22nd Sunday of the Year — The Meaning of Washing

SCRIPTURES & ART: The place that needs purification, first and foremost, is the heart.

Jan Lievens (1607-1674), “Pilate Washing His Hands”
Jan Lievens (1607-1674), “Pilate Washing His Hands” (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, found in John 6, has been the subject of the Gospel for four of the past five weeks. Ostensibly, that Eucharistic catechesis has concluded and we moved back to reading Mark. Not quite. …

Today’s Gospel is also about eating, specifically, about whether Jesus’ disciples observe proper Jewish ritual purification prior to a meal.

The Gospels speak a lot about banquets and feasts (Luke 14:15-24; Matthew 22:1-14), especially as foretelling the Eucharist and precursing heaven. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet …”

Against that setting and the almost enforced optimism of American culture, we might be prone to read today’s Gospel too superficially, condemning the “rigid” as “sick” pretenders to “the chair of Moses.” That would distort Jesus’ teaching.

Early in his academic career Karol Wojtyła wrote two essays about chastity and purity, noting that human experience often associates purity with washing and cleansing. That connection is not accidental: people typically recognize the gap between what is and what should be, between virtue and myself, the dissonance between what is demanded/appropriate and where one is at.

Jesus himself recognized it and wanted us to make the effort (with his grace) to close it: after inviting everybody to the royal banquet, the king just does not “take the guests where they’re at” but, in fact, excludes the guest not appropriately attired for that wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14, esp. vv. 11-14). That banquet is not “inclusive,” since the guests who declined the king’s invitation are also found “not worthy to come” (v. 8).

Cleansing is important. In the wake of COVID-19, Americans have become scrupulous washers. Go into the bathrooms of most federal buildings and there’s a poster on the wall with instructions how to wash your hand (“Wash for 20 seconds. Need a timer? Sing ‘Happy Birthday” through twice!”) At the height of the pandemic, we were asked, “Why is the raccoon the mascot of the pandemic? Because he washes thoroughly and wears a mask!” 

Of course, washing can be obsessive. One symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder is incessant handwashing.

But abusus non tollit usum — that something can be done wrongly doesn’t mean something can’t be done. That people can overdo something doesn’t undermine the fundamentally healthy insight that there is often a gap between the standard and “where we’re at,” and that comes out particularly in the moral world.

Jesus gets at precisely that point in today’s Gospel. He’s not an iconoclast who simply shatters Jewish traditions (“Do not think I have come to abolish the Law …” — Matthew 5:17). Jesus “fulfills” the teaching in today’s Gospel.

What makes man impure is evil. Evil comes from within man, not from without. While the world (and the flesh and the devil) can tempt a person, the decision to do evil comes from inside, not outside. It comes from the heart. 

Which is why the place that needs purification, first and foremost, is the heart.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees on the question of ritual purification. They note that “some of Jesus’ disciples” (Mark 7:2) failed to observe that ritual and ate “with defiled hands” (v. 5b). As their teacher, they ask Jesus why. As if often the case with the Pharisees, their question stems not so much from honest inquiry as a quest for a “gotcha” moment (cf. Matthew 22:15).

Jesus calls their bluff (and them “hypocrites”) by digging more deeply into the question. Ritual cannot replace rectitude: one does not stand right with God by ritual observances devoid of proper interior dispositions (“they honor me with their mouths but their hearts are far from me” — Isaiah 29:13). That doesn’t negate the observances but does demand internal coherence, the correspondence of one’s intentions with one’s actions. 

Ritual is not magic. God is not “placated” by ritual actions; what we do and what we value or love need to be one and the same.

That is why there has been a lot of demand this year about addressing the question of Eucharistic coherence. Receiving the Eucharist, publicly declaring one’s “communion” with Christ, requires a corresponding set of faith and moral commitments that embody that communion. 

The distinguishing feature of Judaism and Christianity is that God’s relationship with humanity is based on moral terms. That’s not to say that God is some arbitrary celestial lawgiver who measures his love on the basis of adherence to some capricious set of Commandments. 

Rather, God himself is the measure of love, truth, fidelity — all that is good. God is goodness himself. So one cannot have communion with Goodness without some likeness, because love is about discovering one’s self in the other. One cannot discover one’s self in God if one accepts lies, theft, infidelity or murder … not because God made those rules, but because one has nothing in common with the one with whom we seek communion. 

That is what Eucharistic coherence is about: the Bread of Life demands corresponding moral conversion on our parts. Communion is about heart speaking to heart (cor ad cor loquitur), and those hearts cannot speak when what comes out of the human heart defiles him. “Sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile the person” (Mark 7:21-22). Note that sexual sins are not highlighted (even though “sexual immorality” leads the catalog) nor are they omitted. The measure of moral evil in the sexual area, as in other areas, is not simply intention.

That is why I chose Jan Lievens’ “Pilate Washing His Hands” to illustrate today’s Gospel. The episode of Pilate trying to acquit himself of complicity in Jesus’ death comes much later in the Gospels (Matthew 27:24). 

Pilate hopes that his ritual ablution may diminish his responsibility for Jesus’ execution: “I let it happen,” rather than “I made it happen.” Or “I let it happen to prevent a riot.” Whatever rationalization might be put forward, truth knows that Jesus would not have been crucified without at least Pilate’s acquiescence. Christians have recognized that every Sunday for millennia, when they recall the name of the Roman procurator of Judea.

No amount of ritual water pouring will compensate for perseverance in moral iniquity. Pilate hopes to be Lady Macbeth: “a little water clears us of this deed.” But Macbeth himself knows the truth: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” The answer is: no.

Lievens, a 17th-century Dutch painter and contemporary of Rembrandt, exhibits many of the characteristics of the Dutch Golden Age in painting, especially the use of light and darkness and the light focus on the center of action. Here it is Pilate, looking out at us, and his attendant diligently focused on pouring the water Pilate hopes will ritually cleanse him of the defilement in his heart. Jesus stands in the back distance, surrounded by armed guards. 

Pilate wants the water of his urn to be sacramental. But it’s not Baptism, and thus does not wash away guilt. And even the sacraments are not magic: one is forgiven only of personal mortal sin only if one does not clutch it, and one cannot “pick and choose,” holding on to this mortal sin while “abandoning” that one. Either I love … or I don’t.

Even despite “all great Neptune’s ocean …”