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“The Purity Code”
Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (James 1:22-27)
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
There he goes again, coloring outside the lines, thinking outside the box, giving offense. This is not Jesus’s first testy encounter with the Pharisees over a point of religious practice. He has already taken the liberty of forgiving sins, eaten dinner with a tax collector, healed on the Sabbath, and touched all manner of “unclean” people. And just incidentally, he has cast out demons, cured the sick of their diseases, fed a crowd of 5000 from a single picnic basket, and announced the coming kingdom of God.
And now here he is, in the middle of a controversy over hand-washing. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” This isn’t a casual question: it’s an accusation and it comes from the guardians of institutional religion.
The Pharisees are not concerned about the disciples getting germs in the food by failing to “wash up” before they sit down to eat. This is not the same concern that causes us to shun a bowl of salsa after someone has “double-dipped” his chip in it. The disciples’ hands were not “defiled” because they might be harboring a cold virus: they were unholy, profane, because they had not been washed in the manner prescribed, originally just for the priests but later adopted by some Jewish laypeople, like the Pharisees. In other words, the disciples were ritually impure, which is not the same thing as unhygienic or immoral. Hand-washing went along with what we would call keeping kosher, the system of regulations defining what can and cannot be eaten, the pots the food can be cooked in, the vessels that can be used to serve it, and so forth.
From the Pharisees’ point of view, keeping the Jewish purity laws was not empty ritual observance. It was important that every aspect of life, down to the cooking and serving and eating of meals, be governed by the practices that reminded them that they were the people of God. It was how they kept their faith and traditions alive as a religious minority living in an occupied territory in the Roman Empire. They certainly would not have said that these observances were more important than the scriptural commandments to protect the rights of the neighbor, to honor parents, to refrain from violence, and so forth. But the practices that Jesus called the tradition did have an important function: they served as a “fence” around the Torah, the core instruction, that helped protect it from careless violations.[i] Over time, though, this tradition developed a life of its own, and for many became the main thing rather than the thing it was designed to protect. When Jesus called the Jerusalem Pharisees hypocrites, he was protesting the exaggerated importance they were giving to this secondary tradition.
The problem Jesus saw was that these religious practices were getting in the way of “reaching out to others with the love, justice and mercy of God.”[ii] The downside of the purity laws was that they set up a boundary between the ritually “clean,” those who considered themselves to be closest to God, and everyone else. Ritual purity became a way of excluding people considered unclean or contaminated in some way. (I can imagine that it would have been difficult for people who weren’t fairly well off to keep the purity laws – how would people without their own households manage to observe these rules?)
Mark tells this story of Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees over questions of purity in the context of the early church. The “impure” people in Mark’s world were the Gentiles, presumptuous outsiders who were ignorant of the traditions and practices of observant Jews. In the earliest days of the church, Gentiles coming into what was essentially a movement within Judaism were considered second-class Christians – they were tolerated, but kept at arm’s length. Many Jews believed that Gentiles were loose in their morals and uncouth in their habits. (Probably some of them were.) Others took a more charitable view, but that didn’t extend to eating with them, which would be fraught with pitfalls. We know, for example, that Peter was rebuked for eating with Gentiles, touching off the earliest major debate in the church. Eventually the church dispensed with the Jewish dietary regulations, as Jesus implicitly does by declaring “all foods clean.” Just to be clear, though: Christianity has had its own obsessions with “purity.” For example, it was not until I was in seminary that I learned that much of the opposition to women in ministry was not a belief that women couldn’t do the job nor even the old argument that all the disciples were men: it was that for a few days each month women clergy would be too “impure” to occupy the pulpit or handle the holy things at the communion table. All religious communities have the propensity to get hung up on purity issues.
I have been wondering if this ancient dispute about religious, social and political boundaries has any light to shed on the debates about immigration in our country. Much of the language of opposition to refugees and asylum seekers in our country, especially those from Latin America or majority Muslim countries, has a little of this flavor. Many people are afraid of the “impurities” they believe immigrants introduce into society: immigrants are often accused of bringing disease, crime, sexual promiscuity, and a failure to understand “our way of life.” Many believe that certain groups will not assimilate. These are all assumptions that have been made about immigrants at various times in our country’s history. The immigrant groups change, but the fearful language doesn’t.
These fears of the outsider are very ancient, and they are certainly not unique to our country, though they have had a resurgence here and in the UK and Europe in recent years.
You may have heard the story of Yeni Gonzales and her children, who were separated from her when she sought asylum in the U.S. last May. Her family’s story turned out relatively well, as an immigration lawyer working pro bono and a group of private citizens banded together, using social media and faith communities, to reunite Yeni with her children in New York. Even so, it is a harrowing and horrifying tale. At the detention center in Arizona the detainees were not allowed to shower, brush their teeth, change clothes, or touch each other.[iii] By what seems to be a strange inversion of the purity code, these “impure” outsiders were not granted the basic human comforts of cleanliness and physical contact with others. (The unspoken idea here seems to be that these refugees are so “impure” that it would not matter to them to have this basic dignity denied.)
The Pharisees defended their ancient purity code as “fundamental to the ethnic and national identity of the people,”[iv] but Jesus called into question the presuppositions behind that view.
Jesus must have aroused strong feelings of discomfort in the Pharisees. He set them up to eventually reject him, because his challenge to the norms of the purity system represented to them an unacceptable danger. But the real danger the Pharisees were courting was of getting so locked in to their secondary traditions, their visible boundary markers, that they could place a lower priority on the primary commandments of God – the ones that called for love of God and love of neighbor. As we read in the Letter of James, those who “think they are religious” may be deceiving themselves – “pure” religion is demonstrated in care of the neighbor and resistance to the not-so-charitable inclinations of one’s own heart.
In his challenge to the Pharisees Jesus is asking them: What is this life you are living? Is it bringing you closer to God, and to each other? If it is not, what good are these boundary markers, when the real impurity comes from every impulse of the human heart that destroys human community and gives offense to God?
When Jesus presents that dismal catalogue of impurities that come from the human heart – greed, deceit, envy, pride, and so many more – he is not offering a new set of rules for ethical living. We already have those rules, in the form of the basic commandments of God given to the covenant people of Israel. Jesus is calling for a change of heart – calling us to let go of our most destructive habits of thought as we cling more closely to Jesus Christ, who has the power of God to change us.
Yeni’s story, as I mentioned, had a happy outcome because of the goodness, kindness and generosity of strangers who resisted the unspoken purity code behind the actions that separated her from her children and forced the family into degrading circumstances. These “doers of the word” are among us and all around us. They remind us that a major part of “religion that is pure and undefiled” is to care for those brothers and sisters, whoever they are and wherever they come from, who are in distress.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2018
[i] Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 134.
[ii] Cynthia M. Campbell, “Living by the Word,” August 22, 2006, at https://wwww.christiancentury.org/article/2006-08.
[iii] Story told by Terra Brockman, “Separated at the border,” The Christian Century, August 15, 2018, 26-29.
[iv] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 218.