Christopher B. Harbin
We commonly talk about washing our hands. We tell our children to wash up when they come inside from playing, when we call them to meals, and when they use the restroom. We wash for issues of hygiene, health, and tradition. Yet our tradition is very different from the tradition of First Century Jews regarding hand washing. They had no concept of bacteria, viruses, or single-celled parasites invisible to the naked eye. They were unconcerned with cleanliness from this standpoint. They were concerned with issues of ritual purity, of contamination from a religious or ritual perspective. It was from this perspective that Jesus argued they had missed the point of obedience. Would Jesus say the same of us?
They were involved in doing a whole host of "the right things." They followed their traditions regarding what it meant to worship God, to obey God's commandments, to show that they were different from the nations which surrounded them. They were not involved in idolatry. They had shed their affiliations with fertility cults generations ago on their release from Babylonian captivity. They had come to read and even memorize large portions of the Torah, God's word with 613 commandments they attempted to follow rigorously.
If there was one word which categorized Jewish religious practice and set it apart from the actions and attitudes of other nations, it would just about have to be "obedience". They had even worked out an arrangement with the Roman Empire with regard to the observance of Sabbath and paying appropriate tribute to Rome and sacrifice on behalf of Rome and its gods. This was no simple feat for a monotheistic religion set in the midst of a very polytheistic world.
Rome had many gods, as did the other nations. None of them thought it would matter if an adherent of one religion or nation were to bow, sacrifice, and otherwise worship the deity of another nation. In fact, the more common notio ...
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