Unwashed Hands, Unwashed Hair

One Christmas holiday several years ago, my oldest niece, a college student at the time, brought her boyfriend home to meet my parents, her grandparents. The first morning of their visit, Mark came to the breakfast table with a Kansas State ballcap on his head. He hadn’t had time to take a shower before breakfast and was embarrassed to be seen with “bed head.” Unfortunately, my niece had neglected to tell Mark one of the longstanding rules of my childhood home: No ballcaps in the house, and certainly not at the table.

As we all sat down for breakfast, my father looked over at Mark and said, “No ballcaps at the table.” (And it wasn’t because my father was a KU fan and not a K-State fan!) Mark started to explain that he hadn’t washed his hair when my father interrupted him: “Mark, if you want to be a member of this family, then you will follow our rules.” Mark took off his hat, patted his hair down as best he could, and 27 years and four daughters later, he and my niece are happily married with family rules of their own.

The scribes and Pharisees are enforcers of the law, even though it’s virtually lifeless and stifles true religious devotion and worship. When they see Jesus and his disciples eating without washing their hands they don’t see anything besides a so-called religious law being broken. They don’t see anything but their power and authority being questioned.

My father’s “no ballcap rule” was intended to instill respect. It was meant to sanctify the family meal and our participation in it. It all comes down to the value and need of tradition, which is life-giving vs. mindless obedience to laws, which distance people from God and the faith.

Honoring a well-thought-out rule teaches us obedience. We learn to humbly accept what is being passed on to us so that we may be members of a family…God’s family.

Father Tim S. Hickey is a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford currently serving as a mission priest in the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City, in his native Kansas. He is pastor of three parishes in rural Western Kansas.