In this weekend’s Gospel we hear about the Pharisees and in fact all Jews scrupulously washing their hands and asking Jesus why his disciples did not do the same. For the Pharisees there were definite and rigid rules for washing hands before every meal and between each course of a meal.
First, the hands had to be shaken to remove any remnants of sand and dirt. Then hands were held with the finger tips pointing upwards. Water was poured over them running at least down to the wrist. The minimum amount of water was one quarter of a log, which is equal to about one and one half eggshells full of water. While the hands were still wet, each hand had to be cleansed with the closed fist of the other. The fist of one hand was rubbed against the palm and surface of the other. But the water was now unclean because it had touched unclean hands. So, the hands had to be held with the finger tips pointing downward and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off the finger tips. After all that had been done the hands were clean.
Jews believed that if they did wash their hands, they were not guilty of poor hygiene but were unclean in the eyes of God. To eat with unclean hands was to leave yourself open to the possibility of losing your wealth or suffering some type of illness or destruction. Rabbis who did not wash their hands were excommunicated. And there are stories of Rabbis, who were imprisoned by the Romans, who died of thirst because they were more concerned about washing their hands with their ration of water than drinking it for survival. All this goes to show us that the spirituality of the Pharisees was rooted in regulations and ceremony. Their spirituality was not rooted in a deep love of God, their neighbor, or themselves. Jesus recognizes this and quotes the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”
Like the Pharisees, we have a ritual for washing our hands. We wash our hands before meals for good hygiene and whenever we finish some work. In fact, I sometimes wonder if we, like the Pharisees, ritualize our hand washing with the use of things like soft soap, nail brushes, and hand lotions. I sometimes wonder when I wash my hands if I am following the rules and regulations that my mother taught me or if I am acknowledging something that is deep within each and every one of us—a spirituality which directs, guides, and connects us to God, namely, a spirituality of work.
First, we need to understand that our work, no matter what it might be, has an inherent purpose. That purpose is to bring us to sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. To accept a job, to do our work well, to bring our work to completion takes more than technical skill and persistence. It takes a sense of ownership in the work we are doing. It takes pride and recognition of its own value. Work calls for respect from the discipline it requires. If the discipline of our work is not valued and honored, then despite our best intentions, our work is less than it should be. This is often seen in manufactured products that are designed, fabricated, tested, and then recalled because someone did not take their work seriously.
Second, we need to understand that the purpose of work is to bring the world where we live to perfection. If our work involves producing a product, then it means building the best product possible. If our work is service, then those services ought to be done because they show our respect and reverence for other human beings. If our work is in administration, then our work involves helping employees to be responsive to the needs of people they serve.
Because with the creation of the world God created work, the work we do should bring us a sense of satisfaction. Not because we do something great but because by its nature work is sacred. In the Buddhist tradition there is a story of a woman who finally became enlightened. When she asked what the difference was, she described it this way: “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and I hauled water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and I hauled water.” I think that the spirituality of work is much like this. We can be doing exactly the same work before we begin practicing the spirituality of work as we do afterward. But both our spirituality and our work are changed by the very act of making a connection between the two.
In our lifelong struggle with the meaning of work in the context of our faith, I believe that we will discover the spiritual dimensions of our lives as people who do work. But this demands that we reflect together on the meaning of our work not just on Labor Day but every time we wash our hands.
Fr. Bob Kelly