“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Psalm 24:3-4a
Whoever coined the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” would have loved Japan. Every morning, like clockwork, one can witness innumerable home owners and shop keepers vigilantly removing every trace of offending dirt, trash or stray leaf that invaded their designated territory overnight. Venture into the nearby train station, and there you can observe an army of cleaning personnel engaged in the never-ending task of mopping floors, polishing walls and windows and wiping down escalator handrails. Outside, white gloved taxi drivers maintain spotlessly clean vehicles for their customers and inside, the Japan Rail staff scurry around tidying up bullet trains in under seven minutes . To acquire these important life skills, students are required to clean their own classrooms and scrub the hallways as a part of their school curriculum.
Neighborhoods periodically schedule an o-sōji (大掃除), or “big cleanup” using volunteers to spruce up their local parks and common areas. Local churches and many small businesses follow the same pattern by routinely putting o-sōji’s on their calendar and everyone is expected to participate. Perhaps some of this emphasis on cleanliness is derived from the Shinto religion, which places great emphasis on purity, where visitors are encouraged to wash their hands and face before entering a shrine to worship. This practice, referred to as “harae” (祓), is a form of purification that attempts to establish a pure soul and mind in the worshipper. This is done through a symbolic washing with water or by having a Shinto priest shake a carefully constructed wand of white paper streamers over a person, place or object for good fortune. The rudimentary idea is that if you want to enter the presence of the gods and seek their blessing on you or your possessions, cleanliness is a prerequisite.
As the psalmist meditated on the holiness and purity of God, he wondered how it was possible for anyone to approach the Creator of the Universe, in whom not the slightest trace of impurity or defilement existed. Such a quest seems impossible, like the scaling of a lofty, inaccessible mountaintop. Only those with clean hands and a pure heart dare to attempt such a climb, but the uniform testimony of scripture is that no one has such qualifications as no one is without sin (Romans 3:23). In addition, no religious ritual can remedy this shortcoming. Thankfully, by the grace of God, in spite of our dirty hands and impure hearts, we are able to enter into God’s presence through the death and resurrection of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who serves as the appointed mediator between God and man. (I Timothy 2:5) His cross testifies of the love of God to redeem us and an empty tomb provides proof of His power to make that a reality. Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, but only God can provide the cleaning we so desperately need.