About a hundred years ago in India, a Christian holy man named Sundar Singh told this story:
There was once a village girl who daily removed the spider webs from her house. One day as she was doing this she prayed, “O God, as I am cleaning this room, please also cleanse my heart.” Then she heard a voice saying, “Daughter, you will have to cleanse the room again and again as long as the spiders remain. It is better that you drive the spiders from your house.” Unfortunately, she was not able to drive them out because they were hidden from her and too clever to be caught.
This story could be a metaphor for the condition of the room of our hearts. We want to drive out the spiders and creepy things, but they can seem too many and they elude us.
From the beginning humans have sought all sorts of rituals and rules to protect ourselves, and to drive out the creepy things from within and among us. But there seems to be no end to the list of things that worry us or creep us out, and we seem to be unable to eliminate them. As a result we re-interpret the rituals and rules over and over again in a vain hope that these re-interpretations will protect us from the creepy and grimy things that worry us so.
Yet this perpetual tweaking of the rules only creates a new tangle of webs as we are tempted to either add a word to what as been passed down to us; or to take away from it. This sort of perpetual tweaking is what Jesus is responding to during his earthly ministry.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking specifically of the purity codes. Those codes that dictate how one remains ritually pure and undefiled. In the case of hand washing, if we have been doing hard dirty work, of course it makes sense to wash our grimy hands before we eat. But the religious leaders have taken a sensible precaution and turned it into a rule; one they treat as if it is God’s command. If thought of as a command, this hand washing can be taken to extremes. Such as the story of the Rabbi who is placed in prison by the Romans. Daily, he uses the water given him for hand washing rather drinking. As a result he nearly dies of thirst. God wishes the best for us; however, in our spider-filled sense of piety, we just about kill ourselves.
Consider, on the other hand, the 3-second rule. You know the one we use to rationalize the salvage a tasty tidbit that has fallen on the ground. It’s akin to my mom’s explanation that getting dirty is a form immunization, and there is the old axiom, “you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
Just what is the reasonable balance between common sense and command? Does the balance lie in the Pharisee’s question, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Or does it lie in the disciples’ ignorance and disregard of tradition, or the peck of dirt rule?
Like the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is an educated religious leader, and he knows the rules. So where does he stand on the issue?
Well, consider that Jesus does not call disciples from among the educated elite and religiously sophisticated. Instead he calls together working people: fishermen, women, a guerilla fighter, a tax collector, people of ill repute; and he asks them to follow him – not the rules. These disciples don’t know the religious system, and Jesus doesn’t teach it to them because its webs will only get in the way of common sense – of seeing and hearing God’s will, which is worthy of consuming – of taking into oneself.
Still, Jesus – personally – does not disregard the rules of orthodox behavior. With the exception of healing on the Sabbath, Jesus tends to observe the rules rather than to disobey them. We have evidence of this today, as it is only “some of his disciples” who are noticed eating without washing. It seems that Jesus is not guilty of defiling himself, but he doesn’t prompt his disciples to do so. I think Jesus sets the stage for this question – this confrontation.
By drawing attention to the washed and unwashed, Jesus is inviting the Pharisees and scribes to ask him, “Why do your disciples … eat with defiled hands?” Jesus invites the question so he can point out how the re-interpreted traditions of the religious are wasted on those who are simply looking for the plain sense of God’s will in Scripture, and trying to take it in and live it out.
In responding to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus uses this quote from Isaiah to reveal his inclination to the common sense of God’s will:
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
These human precepts – these convoluted interpretations of the rules obscure the plain sense of Scripture. They are akin to chasing after spiders with a broom. You may get a few spiders, but others will scurry out of sight only to rebuild their distracting webs while you are not watching. In chasing after spiders we begin to lose sight of the plain sense of Scripture. In our flailing at the spiders and their webs we often become more entangled and lose sight of God’s will.
Generally there is a sincere desire behind these re-interpretations of the rules to be scrupulous about religious details, but instead of clarifying the rules, they seem to become entanglements that distract us from the common sense of God’s will.
After addressing the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus turns his attention to the crowd. He makes it plain to them: “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. … For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” So, rather than miring oneself in the webs that surround us, we should tend to the cleaning and removal of the spiders and creepy things from our interior: the rooms of our hearts and minds. We do this by immersing ourselves in Scripture, by taking in the plain sense of God’s will, as revealed by Jesus Christ, into our hearts and minds, and by allowing the healing light of confession to shine in the dark spaces where spiders lurk.
How we live our life is the proof of our faith. “It is better that [we] drive the spiders from [our] house” to make room for God’s will, which is answering Jesus’ call to plain discipleship. So come, partake of Jesus. Take the living Word into your mind and body that he may abide there and reveal the plain sense of God’s will.
 John 7:5
 Mark 7: 15 & 21