Matthew 27:24-31We ended last week in the upper room with Jesus. As we have continued this week, we have seen him betrayed, arrested, and brought to trial. As I read back over this narrative – especially in Matthew 27 – I noticed a theme that I had not really seen before. The chapter begins with Judas:
New International Version (NIV)
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
The Soldiers Mock Jesus
27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
3Judas—the one who had betrayed Him with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver—saw that Jesus had been condemned, and suddenly Judas regretted what he had done. He took the silver back to the chief priests and elders and tried to return it to them.and then…
Judas: 4I can’t keep this money! I’ve sinned! I’ve betrayed an innocent man! His blood will be on my hands. (The Voice)
5Judas threw down the money in the temple, went off, and hanged himself. 6The chief priests looked at the silver coins and picked them up.The priests take Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, and Pilate listens to their accusations and questions Jesus as well. Pilate is perplexed by the situation and is even advised by his wife:
Chief Priests and Elders: You know, according to the law, we can’t put blood money in the temple treasury.
18Pilate knew the chief priests and elders hated Jesus and had delivered Him up because they envied Him. 19Then Pilate sat down on his judgment seat, and he received a message from his wife: “Distance yourself utterly from the proceedings against this righteous man. I have had a dream about Him, a dream full of twisted sufferings—He is innocent, I know it, and we should have nothing to do with Him.”And finally, we see an exasperated Pilate. He has found no guilt in the man Jesus. He has offered a common criminal in exchange for Jesus’ life - and still the crowd cries for the blood of the Nazarene. With no other way to appease the growing blood lust, Pilate literally washes his hands and absolves himself of responsibility.
It seems that there is great concern with most of this narrative’s characters with the purity and cleanliness of their hands. Judas seeks to erase the blood from his own hands as he casts the payment for his betrayal at the feet of the priests. The priests are unwilling to place the money back into the coffers from which it came because it has now become “blood money”. Pilate’s wife dreams of the coming sufferings of an innocent man and pleads with her husband to avoid staining himself with Jesus blood. And finally Pilate literally washes his hands and turns Jesus over to the mob with these words:
Pilate: You will see to this crucifixion, for this man’s blood will be upon you and not upon me. I wash myself of it.And there it is… finally… someone willing – even eager - to wear the stain of this man’s death. Willing not only to wear it but to pass it on to their children.
Crowd: Indeed, let His blood be upon us— upon us and our children!
The phrase “Plausible Deniability” entered our vocabulary in the mid 1970s and has been used a great deal since, especially in the political realm. The idea behind it is that those in the highest places of power are insulated from certain unsavory activities so that they are able to believably deny participation in questionable activities. If you are a fan of mafia movies or series like “The Sopranos” then you know that the mob works in much the same way. A form of this idea seems to be at work in this story. Everyone involved; from Judas to the priests to Pilate seem less concerned with Jesus guilt or innocence than in protecting themselves from being dirtied in the whole messy affair. Everyone wants to walk away from this story with clean hands.
But what if dirty hands are a good thing… what if holiness is found in dirty hands?
One of my favorite songs is a tune written and recorded by the Indigo Girls. The song is called “Hammer and a Nail”. Here’s a bit of the lyric:
…even my sweat smells clean -Glare off the white hurts my eyes
Gotta get out of bed, get a hammer and a nail, learn how to use my hands
Not just my head, I'll think myself into jail; now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose - Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose
The idea is pretty simple, really. Most of the stuff that brings life and fulfillment and peace… most of these things get your hands dirty.
When I was a kid I had a mom who believed in work. Physical labor. HARD physical labor. We owned 20 acres but our house was built in the back corner of the property with only about 20-30 feel from our back door to deep, thick, southeast Arkansas forest. My mom wanted a big pretty back yard. So… she called the guy who owned the woods behind us and got permission to clear and landscape it – about 100 yards beyond our own property. And when I say she got permission for us… I mean me. I spent two months (or so) on that job and suffered exhaustion, a horrible case of poison ivy, and used several bars of lava soap. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time. I can’t say that I remember it fondly but I can say that, once it was done, it was really nice. Pathways through the larger remaining trees. Flower beds. It was really nice. And my hands were really dirty. Also worth noting that, due in large part to my mother’s belief in physical labor, I graduated high school at 135 pounds with a 30” waste. A young man once told his father, who was a farmer, that he had decided to go to college to pursue the “higher things” because the higher things could be pursued in the shade.
The book of Acts is a story of a people who got their hands dirty. Who risked and worked and sweated to carry the kingdom as far as they could reach. Unfortunately, Christianity quickly became defined by what we believe rather than by what we do. You don’t have to spend five minutes on the internet to figure out that that has not changed much in the last 1700-1800 years. Doctrines don’t get our hands dirty. Arguments over theology rarely put earth under our fingernails. The word “Liturgy” does not mean “what the people believe” or “how the people think”. In means – the “work of the people”.
Our history is filled with Saints who were not afraid of dirty hands. In today’s reading we see the story of Maximillian Kolbe, who hid Jews during World War II and was eventually executed in the camps at Auschwitz. Or Russian Saint Basil the Blessed (the Holy Fool) who shoplifted and gave to the poor in order to shame the miserly rich and who openly rebuked Ivan the Terrible for his violent behavior toward his own people. We see the ink stained hands of the Irish Monks who transcribed the scripture at Kells. Father Damien, Mother Theresa, Bonhoffer, Corrie Ten Boom… Hands that touch and embrace the leper, the AIDS victim, the prisoner, the orphan. Dirty hands… Holy hands…
When Jesus left his disciples on the mountaintop, he left them with a task… a great commission. He told them - not to get their beliefs straight or to establish sound doctrine. He told them to “CHANGE THE WORLD.”
Augustine, no opponent of theological and doctrinal purity said that any interpretation (of scripture) which leads us into living a life of love has been interpreted "goodly" even though not correctly. In other words… If what we believe about the bible leads us to do the work of the kingdom – then our theology, no matter how messed up, has done its work. If I can paraphrase the entire book of James: “don’t tell me what you believe – show me what you have done – show me the dirt on your hands.
We change the world when we get our hands dirty in the mess of a friends divorce – in a homeless camp in the middle of Chenal – when we love folks that don’t look like us or believe what we believe. We get our hands dirty when we decide to grow something of our faith instead of settling for a processed, pre-packaged version of somebody else’s faith.
There is another character in today’s passage who was not motivated by an effort to escape the blood on his hands… Jesus
In him we see what the work of the kingdom looks like. In His stained hands we see the sacrifice involved in being more than a hearer of the word but a doer. We see the sweat and blood mingled on his brow. We see the dust of the road to Calvary caked on his legs and chest in a muddy mixture of earth and sweat and blood. We see a God who was willing to get His hands dirty in order to show us how the world is changed.
My life is part of the global life; I'd found myself becoming more immobile
When I'd think a little girl in the world can't do anything
A distant nation my community, a street person my responsibility
If I have a care in the world I have a gift to bring
May we be a people who believe that we are responsible for one another.
May we find the beauty in thinking less and doing more…
TALKING less and doing more.
and may we joyfully take the dirty, stained hand of those around us into our own earthy grasp and continue to tend the earth and change the world.
His Kingdom Come…