These days we see a great emphasis on our being clean and also keeping our environment clean. We are being told to cultivate clean habits, to wash hands before meals, to avoid eating food on the roadside, not to spit, not to litter, to dispose of garbage properly. New products keep coming up in the market with a promise that they would give us a cleaner skin, breath and hands, or cleaner water, clothes and homes. Even our computers and phones need to be cleaned up regularly and the junk files removed.
Of course, that cleanliness is next to godliness has been known since ages. God likes people and things to be clean, and the Old Testament is full of instructions about what is to be regarded as unclean and how cleansing is to be done.
Jesus, however, placed the purity within us on a higher pedestal. The Bible reports an incident in which Jesus who had just finished speaking, was invited by a Pharisee to dine with him. (Luke 11:37-52) Jesus went in and reclined at the table. The Pharisee was surprised to see that Jesus did not observe their practice of washing hands and even crockery before eating. Jesus sensed his discomfort and said that it was pointless to clean the outside of the cup and dish, while the inside remained dirty. He explained that it did not make sense to follow rituals that cleansed us outwardly while we continued to be greedy and unjust within.
There was a similar incident that involved Jesus’ disciples. (Mark 7:1-20) Here Jesus made it clear that food cannot defile a person as it does not go into the heart but into the stomach and then goes out of the body. He clarified that “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 – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Surely it is hygienic to have clean hands and clean bodies, and it is our responsibility to keep our environment as clean as we can, but God also expects us to have clean hearts and minds. External cleansing is not sufficient to wash away internal uncleanliness.