Doing Dishes

Though most of the material posted here will be new, I will also post some gems from my archives. With that in mind, here is a newly edited version of one of my more popular talks on daily living, which I gave back in 1999 when my children were still young. I hope they will forgive me for posting it so many years later.



­The theme “Doing Dishes,” came to me one evening last week when I was . . . doing dishes. We had spaghetti for supper that night—which can be quite exciting with a three-year-old and a nearly two-year-old! So there I was, standing at the kitchen sink after supper. Some of the dishes were piled up in the sink. The rest were on the kitchen table, where our family eats our meals, or scattered around on various countertops. First I washed what was already in the sink. Then I began to work my way outward through the kitchen, gathering and cleaning the various plates, cups, bowls, and silverware.

The moment I laid eyes on my younger son’s post-spaghetti bowl, I knew I wanted to talk about the Bible verse where Jesus says, “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean” (Matthew 23:26). As I looked at that bowl I said to myself, “Obviously Jesus never did the dishes for my two boys!”

Yes, the bowl had the remains of my son’s spaghetti on the inside. I would have to wash the inside of it.

But that bowl also had spaghetti sauce on the outside.

It even had spaghetti sauce on the bottom.

And there were distinct signs of spaghetti in a one foot radius of tabletop around where he was sitting—not to mention on his chair and on the floor underneath.

Let me tell you, I had a lot more to clean than the inside of the dish!

Well . . . some of us are messier eaters than others. My older son, at 3, does a much better job of keeping the food either in the bowl or in his mouth—though his accuracy is still not 100%. My daughter, at 9, has long since perfected the art of keeping the mess on the inside of the cup and dish. As we grow up, we learn to contain our messes so that there is not so much cleaning up to do. Or at least, that’s the idea. My daughter still does a great job of scattering various projects throughout the entire house. And now that I’ve brought it up, I must confess that my study is not the tidiest room in the house.

Still, whether we are neatniks or like to arrange our stuff in piles all over the place, by the time we reach adulthood most of us are fairly good at keeping the outside of the cup and dish clean while we are eating. Jesus was speaking to an adult audience. When we are washing dishes for adults, we do primarily have to wash the inside of the dishes for them to be entirely clean—perhaps giving the outside just a quick once-over to be sure.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t really talking about doing dishes at all. The genius of his teaching was that he took common, everyday activities such as doing dishes and used them to illustrate the deeper issues of spiritual life. Our mind holds onto the concrete image of washing cups and plates, helping our spirit to hold onto insights that can help us live in a more thoughtful and loving way. If we can associate our everyday tasks with the everyday tasks of the spirit, none of our daily activities—even the menial and repetitive ones—will be a waste of time for us spiritually. As we are doing the dishes, we can grow spiritually by doing our inner dishes as well.

Let’s take a deeper look at dishwashing and see what help we can get from Jesus’ words about it.

What does it mean to do the dishes spiritually?

To steer our minds toward an answer to this question, let’s take a look at a section from the book of Exodus in the Bible. This is a snippet from a much longer section of over a dozen chapters describing how the ancient Jewish Tabernacle (a sort of portable temple) was to be set up:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.” (Exodus 30:17–21)

In other words, the ancient Jewish people used a wash basin as part of their worship of God!

Christians use a wash basin as part of their worship too. However, it is called by a slightly fancier name: a baptismal font. This basin dutifully keeps its post in the front of many Christian churches week in and week out.

Of course, the baptismal font is not used for washing hands and feet, nor for doing dishes. But the symbolic act of washing holds an honored position in Christian ritual and life. The sacrament of baptism, which is a ritual of washing, is how Christians welcome newcomers to the faith—whether the newcomers are infants, children, teenagers, or adults. The act of spiritual washing is so important that Christians re-enact it symbolically whenever someone new joins their ranks.

To understand the deeper meaning of this ritual of washing, let’s turn to Emanuel Swedenborg’s teachings about “correspondences”—the living symbolism that describes how spiritual realities express themselves in physical objects and events. When it comes to rituals of washing, the spiritual meaning is clear. Just as we must wash our bodies regularly to get the dirt, sweat, and smell off of ourselves, we must also regularly wash our spirits. We must use the water of spiritual truth to purify ourselves of any faulty attitudes or mistaken notions that we may have picked up along the way, and that cling to us just as dirt and sweat cling to our bodies.

Similarly, when we do the dishes we use water and soap to wash the remains of our dinner off the dishes so that they will be clean for the next time we use them.

Doing the dishes may seem like a waste of time day after day. But just think what would happen if we didn’t do the dishes. If the leftover food stayed nice and fresh on our plates and in our bowls, it might not be so much of an issue. But have you ever come across an old bowl or plate of food that was forgotten in some out-of-the-way corner of the house or the refrigerator? Ugh! Sometimes it’s so bad you just want to throw it away dish and all, and be done with it! When it comes to dishes, not washing them regularly results in all sorts of mold and rot too fierce to mention.

The same thing happens to us psychologically if we never bother to do our spiritual dishes. Spiritually, our cups and dishes are the everyday ideas that we use to help us nourish our souls.

A good example of a spiritual dish is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” (see Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). This is an idea that we can live by every day. And it is an idea that contains good things, just as a cup or dish contains good things to eat.

What good things would we like people to do for us? Many of them are very simple: a kind and supportive word when we’re feeling down; a friendly, listening ear when we have something on our mind; some help on a project around the house that we haven’t been looking forward to; maybe even a hand with the dishes! These are some of the spiritual foods of human kindness that we can put onto the plate of the Golden Rule in order to serve up a meal that nourishes our souls.

Yet when we enjoy these meals of human kindness with one another there is usually some messiness left behind. Perhaps when we lent that helping hand we patted ourselves on the back and said, “What a good boy (or girl) am I.” Perhaps when we lent that listening ear we were a little too sure we had all the answers to the other person’s problems, and gave unwanted advice instead of sympathy. Perhaps when we offered that kind word or did that kind deed we mentally filed it away: now that person owes me one.

We’re all human. We all have mistaken attitudes that cling to our spiritual dishes like the sauce and bits of noodle left over from a spaghetti dinner. Just as we need to wash the dishes after each meal, we also need to wash our spiritual dishes every day to keep the fierce psychological mold of self-righteousness and self-pity and the consuming mental fungus of pride and insensitivity from growing inside us.

  • Each time we start chalking up brownie points for all the good things we’ve done today, we need to quickly wash our spiritual dishes.
  • Each time we start feeling resentful because nobody is doing for us what we’re doing for them, we need to wash our spiritual dishes.
  • Each time we start thinking we know what’s best for the people around us, we need to wash our spiritual dishes.

Yes, it’s a chore to keep using the water of our spiritual beliefs day in and day out to wash away the less-than-noble attitudes that regularly cling to our thoughts. It’s a chore to do the dishes each day.

But let’s not forget what those dishes do for us day after day: they help us feed our bodies so that we can do our work, pursue our goals, and be with our loved ones. Doing our spiritual dishes may seem like a chore. But keeping our attitudes fresh and clean every day is what enables us to keep moving toward our spiritual goals. Doing our spiritual dishes makes it possible for us to keep our minds and hearts fed each day with the fresh, nourishing spiritual foods of understanding and kindness.


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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