I Wash My Hands in Innocence

Paula Northwood August 30, 2020

Scripture: Psalm 26:1–8

I have enjoyed taking a deeper look into this Psalm because it is so rich in imagery. The opening words sound as if one is in a court, with God as the defendant’s lawyer. If the author is King David, he is being accused of all kinds of wickedness by corrupt enemies and wishes for a trial to vindicate his character. It may be confusing to read the candid self-descriptions of David about his conduct: David says that he walks in integrity, that he has trusted in the Eternal, that he shall not slip, that he has walked in God’s truth . . . when we know he had an extramarital affair, and his actions resulted in the death of at least one person.

But scholars do not agree on who the psalmist is—probably not David—and it is more powerful to read it as if it applied to everyone: “Defend me, O God” (or in some translations it reads, “Vindicate me”) sounds like a plea of an innocent person. Confident in their personal integrity and unwavering trust in God, the defendant anticipates that a verdict of innocence will be rendered. The opening plea is substantiated by the defendant’s willingness for God to search everywhere, inside and out, to confirm their integrity. The defendant realizes that that some people can appear righteous and yet be involved in evil activity. And this defendant does not associate with them.

Then there is this line, which I found curious: “I wash my hands in innocence.” We have heard so much about washing our hands in the last six months. It is as if we never really knew how to do it properly before. And if you have little children or grandchildren in your household, getting them to wash hands their hands can be challenging. They have all kinds of reasons why they don’t need to do it. Here are a few that I have heard: I haven’t touched any germs today. I washed my hands this morning. My hands smell clean; smell them. It takes too long. I’m too tired and I haven’t used my hands and I don’t plan to.

Scripture regularly uses the image of clean hands to symbolize what it means to live with moral integrity. In another Psalm, the question is asked, “Who may ascend into the sacred places of God? And who may stand in God’s holy place?” and then proceeds to answer the question: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not lifted up their souls to falsehood and have not sworn deceitfully.” Notice how clean hands are associated with a pure heart and the invitation to enter God’s presence.

Throughout Scripture, washing your hands is symbolic for purifying or sanctifying your heart and mind. This symbolism goes all the way back to the construction of the Tabernacle in the days of Moses and Aaron. God instructed Moses, saying, “Make a bronze washbasin with a bronze stand. Place it between the Tabernacle and the altar and fill it with water. Aaron and his sons will wash their hands and feet there. They must wash with water whenever they go into the Tabernacle to appear before the God and when they approach the altar.”

This ritual washing was an important step in preparing the priests’ hearts and minds for service in the Temple. Washing with water symbolized spiritual cleansing, which was necessary to enter God’s holy presence. This is practiced by Muslims today. What’s so important about hand washing?

I imagine the reasons are practical as well as spiritual. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with purity laws. Disease spread quickly in the ancient world. In an age before modern medicine and vaccines, good hygiene was crucial to keep the contagions at bay. That is why purity was a powerful image in a day when washing your hands was not only a smart thing to do but could also be a matter of life and death.

This helps make sense of some of the purity laws in the Old Testament, which dealt with not just moral impurity but actual physical impurity. People with conditions like leprosy or other infectious diseases had to shout “Unclean!” when others drew close. This was something like an ancient version of the “six feet distancing” or quarantine. It was necessary to protect the health of the broader population from an outbreak or epidemic.

There are, of course, other ways to use the phrase “wash your hands.” How well we remember the story of the basin of water brought before Pilate during the trial of Jesus, where Pilate literally washed his hands of the whole affair because he could not find any wrongdoing on the part of Jesus. We can be quick to judge Pilate but how often do we “wash our hands” of some difficult or challenging situation? Have we washed our hands of the folks who stand at street corners asking for help? Have we washed our hands of the folks who are camped in our parks and on the Greenway? Have we washed our hands of the racial tensions in our city? Have we washed our hands of the problems at the southern border? Are there difficult situations where you have “washed your hands” of members of your own family? These are important questions to ask, to ponder . . . but let’s get back to the text.

Our text is concerned with moral purity as indicated by the last two words of this phrase “in innocence.” “I was my hands in innocence.” Wow, is it possible to be that innocent?

In a courtroom, innocence is based on telling the truth. But, as we have learned in the last few years, the truth is hard to come by. Here’s a story: A large family moved to a new city. The family had seven children. (And for those of you who know my family, this is not about them. It could be, but it’s not.) The family was looking for a suitable apartment, but, every time they found one, the landlord was unwilling to rent to such a large family.

After fruitless searching, the father asked the mother to take the younger four children and go visit the cemetery. The father took the other three children and continued the search. They finally found an acceptable place and the landlord asked, “How many children do you have?” The father answered, “Ah well, seven. But four are with their mother in the cemetery.” They got the apartment. You could say the father was not telling the truth, but he was telling the truth.

Anne Hutchinson, an early Puritan spiritual teacher said, “Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth.” And she got into trouble for that and was accused of heresy and brought to trial in 1637. She was found guilty. Her understanding of truth was different than the court’s. Truth is complicated.

An event that happened this week in Minneapolis is a good example of the devastation that can come from misinformation. A shooting happened, assumptions were made and trouble happened, causing a great deal of pain for many people.

We are being fed so much misinformation today that we no longer have any idea about what the truth is. According to our text, being able to live in truth has to do with integrity and cultivating a conscience. We all know that truth depends on your perspective. There may be only one truth, but there are many versions of it. There is something of the truth in all of us but none of us has the whole truth. Our understanding of truth is based on our own experiences and our worldview. As writer Robert V. Thompson has said, “It’s our God-given right to be wrong.” And we are often wrong. How can we move beyond the surface of misinformation and lies to a deeper truth? It is so important for us during this time of global pandemic and political divisiveness.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton has written that there is a “hidden wholeness beneath the broken surface.” I think that hidden wholeness is the truth. We must venture beneath the brokenness in our world. We must listen to each other’s stories and try to find our common truth. Let us dip into that pool of truth and wash our hands in innocence so that we may found pure and holy in God’s sight. May it be so. Amen.