Macbeth Effect



Isaiah 1:18-19

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”


When I was in seminary, in the introduction to preaching class, I remember old Dr. Greene saying that after preaching on a Sunday and after shaking hands with all those good folks, the first thing you should do when you get home is wash your hands. I don’t always do that, but it is just common sense really. The first defense against that summer cold or some other funky disease involves keeping your hands clean.

I even heard about a session that asked the preacher to use hand sanitizer before communion. That seems a little extreme.

You might be interested to know that new studies have shown that a connection between cleanliness and godliness goes deeper than germs. Dirty hands, in fact, seem to correlate with dirty soul.

It is amazing to me what people will study. We have all these academic types, and they need to do something in their spare time, so they do all kinds of studies, some useful and some not.

Researchers Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University have studied guilt and cleanliness. They define it as the “Macbeth Effect” after the famous scene in Shakespeare’s play where Lady Macbeth obsesses over washing her hands after committing cold-blooded murder. People who feel guilty want to wash their hands.

Zhong and Liljenquist conducted several experiments with college students, separating volunteers into two groups. In the first group, students were asked to recall times in the past when they did wrong, while the other group was asked to remember times when they did right.

In one round of experiments, each group was then asked to fill in the blanks to complete words such as W__ __H and S__ __P. The students who had been thinking about their bad behavior were more likely than the others to spell out WASH and SOAP rather than WISH and SOUP. Again, the group that was thinking about the bad things they had done were more likely to pick an antiseptic wipe over a pencil when offered the choice of either as a gift.

Zhong and Liljenquist realize that they have not discovered anything new. They are just confirming what people across many cultures have known for centuries. Whether you are in Beijing or Boston, it is not unusual to describe a person who commits a crime as having “dirty hands.” Cleaning one’s hands is a kind of psychosomatic way of cleaning the soul, a concept that has its roots in a wide variety of spiritual practices.

Zhong says, “All of the major religions of the world incorporate physical cleansing at the core of their religious ceremonies. To approach God, you have to cleanse yourself physically.” We are reminded of the Christian rite of baptism, which symbolizes spiritual cleansing.

The Bible often uses the image of cleansing as a remedy for the guilt of sin, though it has less to do with ritual than with a change of attitude of heart and mind. Isaiah 1:2: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.” Isaiah warns the people of Judah and Jerusalem that disaster awaits them unless they return to God and that means not just by going through the motions of ritual worship, but by a complete cleansing of a society stained by the sin of apostasy and injustice.

Isaiah had been called to be a prophet “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 1:1; 6:1). This was about 740 b.c. The Bible tells us that Uzziah was cursed with leprosy because in his pride he usurped the authority of the priest and offered his own sacrifices.

Subsequent kings who reigned during Isaiah’s ministry fared little better. Jotham worshiped God, but also worshipped Baal. Apparently he was trying to cover all the bases. Ahaz practiced child sacrifice. Hezekiah, on the other hand, reigned faithfully for 29 years, providing a positive chapter in the royal lineage, but he was followed by Manasseh who reversed many of his father’s policies and led Judah farther away from God.

No wonder then that Isaiah says: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." (v3) God said to Judah, You are not as smart as a so-called dumb animal. Even a donkey or an ox knows its master, but you do not know yours. I have the feeling that God might say the same thing to us. Do you know your master?

Isaiah equates Judah and Jerusalem with “Sodom” and “Gomorrah.” Those ancient cities today symbolize sexual depravity, but Isaiah may have something more in mind. For prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, Sodom’s sin was primarily about pride, excess, and especially failing to meet the needs of the poor and needy.

So Isaiah says in v4, “O nation full of sin, a people weighted down with crime, a generation of evil-doers, false-hearted children: they have gone away from the Lord, they have no respect for the Holy One of Israel.” In v5, God seems puzzled by their idiotic meanness. He says. Why do you want to be punished some more? Why do you stupidly keep on in your evil ways?

V7 gives us a date for this prophecy. We read, “Your country has become waste; your towns are burned with fire; as for your land, it is overturned before your eyes, made waste and overcome by men from strange lands.” In 701 B.C., the Assyrian army, led by Sennacherib, invaded Judah, laid waste the land, burned the towns, and laid siege to Jerusalem. Sennacherib did not take Jerusalem, but he certainly destroyed Judah before the grieving eyes of the people pent up in the city.

Isaiah is speaking to this situation. People were asking, Why has this happened to us? Isaiah says, I have the answer, but you are not going to like it. You have broken your relationship with God by your evil way of living. You have made the covenant of the Lord into a dead ritual when it should be a way of holy living. God says I have no interest in any rituals that are devoid of holiness.

Listen to these verses: “(11) What use to me is the number of the offerings which you give me? says the Lord; your burned offerings of sheep, and the best parts of fat cattle, are a weariness to me; I take no pleasure in the blood of oxen, or of lambs, or of he-goats. (12) At whose request do you come before me, making my house unclean with your feet? (13) Give me no more false offerings; the smoke of burning flesh is disgusting to me, so are your new moons and Sabbaths and your holy meetings. (14) Your new moons and your regular feasts are a grief to my soul: they are a weight in my spirit; I am crushed under them.” (Isa 1:11-14)

Talk about an indictment. God said stay out of my temple. Leave me alone. I don’t want to have anything to do with your nastiness. In v15, God says, I am not going to answer your prayers, because the hands you lift up to me are “full of blood.”

Like a Lady Macbeth walking around with hands still figuratively dripping the evidence of murder, Judah had bloody hands stained by injustice toward the poor. They did not care about people who were hurting. They did not care about people in trouble. The movers and shakers of Judah were good capitalists. They wanted to make all the money they could and if you couldn’t or didn’t, that was just tough. It was a society without mercy or kindness. It was a society without love.

Orphans and widows were especially vulnerable in Israelite society because they had lost the protection of their families and they got no protection from the law, so they were easily exploited and abused. The irony here was that the nation of Judah itself was like an orphan, a little country at the mercy of people with big armies. You would have thought that they would have learned from their national situation and treated their own people better, but they did not.

We have a phrase, “caught red-handed.” It means that the criminal has been caught with totally convincing evidence of their crime. The murderer is caught with the blood still on his hands. There is no doubt whatsoever of his guilt. The people of Judah were caught red-handed in the way their society systematically oppressed people. Their guilt was not in doubt. They deserved punishment.

But there is some good news here. God is not like them. God is not an oppressor, even if they deserve oppression. God is merciful. God offers them a way back into the covenant relationship. In vs16-17, he says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” He said, stop doing evil, start doing good. Living a holy life is not optional behavior for a believer. You cannot do some ceremony in a temple, you cannot just go to church on Sunday, and think that makes you right with God. If you are mistreating people, you are not right with God. If you willingly participating in a society or group that mistreats people, you are not right with God. If you go along with evil, then you are evil.

But let us go back to our researchers for a moment. Zhong and Liljenquist conducted another experiment to find out how people would react after they had been cleansed. Students were asked to sit at a computer and type out a description of a past moral error. When they were finished, some were offered an antiseptic wipe under the guise that they had just used a public keyboard. Every one of the students who received a towelette used it. Another group did not receive towelettes after reflecting on their past misdeeds.

The researchers then told each student that one of their colleagues was desperately in need of help in the form of unpaid volunteers for another unrelated research project. The request was actually part of the study — a test to see which of the now “cleansed” students would donate their time to someone in need. Seventy-five percent of those in the “uncleansed” group offered their help, while just 41 percent of the “cleansed” group were willing to help. We might call this the “Pontus Pilate Principle” — the idea that once someone washes his or her hands of a personal sin, they have no other obligations.

God made it clear to the people of Judah that this kind of behavior was not good enough. Their red-handed sins would be cleansed — turned from blood-red stains to the white purity of “snow” and “wool” if, and only if, they were obedient to God.

God calls for repentance, and repentance means that we stop doing whatever evil we have been doing. God calls us to repent of our personal sins. Each of us needs personal cleansing and renewal for the sins we have committed against others and against God.

We also need to remember that sin has a larger corporate dimension. We have to be willing to look at the systems in our society that marginalize the poor and vulnerable. We are called to stand for truth, to be prophets to our society. We are condemned if we shut our eyes to the sufferings of others.

But we do not have to be condemned. If we repent of our sins and turn back to God, the promise is "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Scarlet and crimson are not bland colors, they stand out. You cannot miss them. And they are permanent dyes. They represent the sins of Judah. They represent our sins. But the promise is that our sins, which are blatantly obvious and apparently permanent, can be forgiven, can be removed. If we turn back to God, we receive God’s love and forgiveness, and we shall be like fresh snow and cleansed wool. Amen.



Harder, Ben. “Practicing moral hygiene: Study links guilt and the urge for clean hands, (Now pass the towelettes, please.)” The Washington Post, October 10, 2006, HE01.



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