Ancient Israel was a society and a culture ruled by strict laws governing what was clean and what was unclean. These distinctions were fundamental to what it meant to be an Israelite; you could say they lay at the very heart of Israel’s identity as a nation.
A couple of examples. If you had leprosy, you were unclean. What’s more, you had to announce this fact to everyone around you by shouting “Unclean, unclean!”. (One can only imagine how devastating that must have been to a person’s self-esteem.) And you had to live “outside the camp”: you were effectively excommunicated from society.
Now, since leprosy was a life-threatening disease, you might think the Israelites were somewhat justified in strictly separating themselves from lepers. But what about this: equally strict rules applied to women when they had their period, or when they had a discharge outside of their period. They were unclean, and anything they touched became unclean. They could only be made clean again by observing strict rules and offering sacrifices at the temple through the mediation of a priest. (No doubt it wasn’t easy being a woman in that culture. But just so the men don’t feel left out, similar rules applied to any man who had a nocturnal emission.)
There were also, of course, unclean foods and unclean animals. And perhaps the ultimate in uncleanness was a dead body, which no one, not even a priest, was allowed to touch.
Furthermore, uncleanness was catching. The prophet Haggai tells us that if anyone became unclean by touching a dead body and then went on to touch any kind of food, the food he touched would become unclean as a result. Interestingly, he also tells us that the reverse was not true: bringing unconsecrated food into contact with consecrated food did not make the unconsecrated food clean. One might say that uncleanness was more powerful than cleanness.
So many rules determining who was clean and who was unclean, who was in and who was out, who was acceptable and who was unacceptable. To be unclean was to be unholy, to be effectively excluded from God’s people. Uncleanness was like a disease that could be caught and spread.
The Pharisees took these purity laws extremely seriously; indeed, they equated godliness with how strictly one observed such rules. And just to be on the safe side, they added plenty more rules to separate out the godly from the ungodly. To rules identifying the physically unclean, they added further rules identifying the morally unclean. Prostitutes, tax collectors, publicans: these were all undesirables who needed to be kept outside the gate of respectable society.
Into this world came Jesus. And what did he do?
– He healed a woman who had suffered with an issue of blood for twelve years. All she had to do was touch the hem of his garment, and she was healed.
Notice that, in each of these cases, Jesus effectively transgressed the Levitical purity laws by touching that which was unclean. And notice also that, far from being made unclean by touching them, through his touch Jesus made clean that which was previously unclean. It was as though he not only discarded the purity laws; he completely reversed their effects.
Jesus’ flouting of the purity codes was not only limited to touching those who were physically unclean. Remember the undesirable types – prostitutes, tax collectors and publicans – who were labelled morally unclean by the religious elite? Jesus seemed to go out of his way to share his table with them. Now, you need to understand that, in that culture, to share a meal with someone was to demonstrate respect for and solidarity with them. To do this with someone considered morally repugnant was an act of radical inclusion.
No wonder the Pharisees and religion scholars felt so threatened by Jesus. They sat atop a huge pyramid of regulations, and derived their authority and status from observing and policing them. And here was this upstart from Galilee who claimed to speak in the name of Israel’s God, yet who openly spurned all their precious rules.
Wherever he went, Jesus touched, included and embraced those who were marginalised, excluded and considered unclean. He did so because he was not afraid of being contaminated by their physical or moral condition. He did so because he recognised that the purity codes had served their purpose and were no longer needed. And, above all, he did so because he was showing that this is what God does: he welcomes, includes and embraces all those who are shunned, rejected and condemned to remain outside the gate.
And don’t forget that those who Jesus went out of his way to embrace were those who were demonised and rejected primarily by the religious elite, the very ones who were widely considered the most godly and pious members of society.
So let me ask you this: in light of recent news in the Christian world, can you think of any categories of people who are labelled unacceptable and beyond the pale by leading Christian voices, whether directly or indirectly, and whether deliberately or tacitly? And can you ask yourself whether you’re more concerned with maintaining implicit and explicit religious purity codes or with extending God’s radically inclusive love to all kinds of people considered “unclean” by the world and, sadly, by the church?
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
[ Image: susanlee828 ]
(This post was largely inspired by a sermon by Brian Zahnd titled “The Unkosher Christ”.)