I’m trying to teach my kids to wash their hands, but it’s a battle. They just have trouble making the connection between clean hands and staying healthy.
In the early twentieth century Typhoid Mary had the same problem. Her name was Mary Mallon. She was a fiery Irish-American woman who worked as a cook in and around New York City, and every household she worked in seemed to suffer an outbreak of typhoid fever.
Doctors discovered that her gall bladder was shedding great amounts of typhoid bacteria. She admitted that she never washed her hands when cooking, but she didn’t see the point, as she was healthy. They confined her for a while and put her to work as a laundress for the Riverside Hospital, and in 1910 — after she promised to give up cooking and only work as a laundress — she was released.
It wasn’t long before she changed her name to Mary Brown and took a job as a cook. For the next five years, she stayed one step ahead of the doctors and the law, spreading disease and death in her wake, until they caught up with her on Long Island. Authorities placed her in quarantine on North Brother Island in the Bronx for the rest of her life, and she died of pneumonia in 1938.
The Bible connects clean hands with spiritual health. Hands are a fitting symbol of purity because we eat with our hands, so they are often washed. But also, we do most of our work with our hands, making them a symbol of action. Hands reveal our true attitudes and values. Therefore, visible hands are a powerful symbol of our invisible heart before God.
This is why priests under the Law of Moses were required to undergo the temple ritual of washing their hands before approaching the Lord’s altar (Ex. 30:17-21). Job said, “The righteous holds to his way, and he who has clean hands grows stronger and stronger” (Job 17:9). Psalm 24:24-25 reads, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart…will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” James cries, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (Jas. 4:8).
Pilate called for water and washed his hands at the trial of Christ, as if to say he was not responsible for Jesus’s unjust death on the cross (Matt. 27:24). But this was only a show. You have to do more than run a little water over your hands to be cleansed. The hands are only a symbol of the invisible heart. And your heart can only be cleansed through Jesus who died for your sins.
Clean hands stand for spiritual health. Only those washed by Christ are clean.