"I Should Not Call Any Man Unclean"
Peter the Apostle Meets Simon the Tanner
For Sunday April 21, 2013
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
The "beloved physician" Luke is the only Gentile to write a book of the Bible. His book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. His plot begins with a tiny and fearful sect of Jews huddled behind closed doors in their sacred city; it ends with a vibrant movement in the capital city of one the greatest empires in history. The final sentence of Acts describes how in Rome Paul preached the good news of God's love "boldly and without hindrance" for two years.
This week's text marks a transition in Luke's narrative, where he ends one section and begins another. He does this several times in Acts by summarizing how the Jesus movement was spreading like wild fire. He writes, "then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord" (9:31). Luke then pivots from Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 to Peter's conversion in the house of Simon the tanner in Acts 10–11.
As he traveled around the country, Peter stopped in Joppa — modern day Tel Aviv. If Joppa rings a bell, you're not mistaken. About 800 years earlier, Joppa was the seaport city where Jonah "fled from the Lord" because as a Jew he was repulsed at God's call to preach to the pagan Ninevites (Jonah 1:30). Luke puts Peter in this same city. He gives him a similar call. Only Peter didn't make the same mistake as Jonah.
The story is really about raising a widow named Dorcas from the dead. But the last sentence includes a revealing detail: "Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon." When he begins a new story about a Roman solider named Cornelius just a few sentences later, Luke repeats himself: "Send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter, who's staying with Simon the tanner." And just in case you missed it, one page later Luke writes a third time: "Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner."
If you go to Israel, you can still visit the home of "Simon the tanner." Why is this incidental detail so important to Luke?
Simon was a socio-economic outcast. He lived on the margins of society. He was a "dirty" man in both a literal and figurative sense. Tanners worked with dead animals. The filth and the stench were awful. Just imagine how Simon looked and smelled at the end of a hot day. He would have been the object of social disdain. Almost anyone would have felt superior to him. But Simon the tanner had joined the Jesus movement, and found acceptance there that society never gave him.
Simon was also a religious outcast. His story shows how the early believers struggled with Jewish laws about ritual purity as Gentiles joined their movement.
For example, we have neighborhood friends who follow Jewish dietary laws to "keep kosher" by eating only what is "fit" or "clean" — from the Hebrew word "kasher." One way to express your relationship to the holy God is by not defiling yourself with "dirty" food. In the case of Simon the tanner, handling animal carcasses was expressly forbidden by Jewish purity laws in Leviticus 11:39–40.
Such dietary and animal restrictions comprise only a small part of a comprehensive and complex "holiness code" that regulated one's personal life in the Jewish community 3,500 years ago. The Levitical purity laws regulated nearly every aspect of being human — birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, jurisprudence, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behavior, agricultural practices, and ethnicity (Gentiles were automatically considered impure). They even prohibit tattoos.
Some of these purity laws encoded common sense or moral ideals that we still follow today, like prohibitions against incest. Others regulated hygiene and sanitation. Still others symbolized Israel's unique identity that differentiated it from pagan nations. Ultimately, though, the purity laws ritualized an exhortation from Yahweh: "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy." It was thought that only people who are ritually clean may approach a holy God. At the center of this purity system, both literally and symbolically, stood the Temple and its priests, where one performed rites of purification.
Scholars debate how much ordinary first-century Jews maintained ritual purity, but the Pharisees about whom we read so much in the gospels certainly did. They repeatedly criticized Jesus because of his casual disregard for ritual purity. Jesus the Jew touched a leper, ignored sabbath laws, touched a woman with a bodily discharge, befriended Gentiles, and handled a corpse. People complained that his disciples ate with "unclean" hands and didn't fast.
Given our human propensity for justifying ourselves and scape-goating others, the purity laws encouraged a moral hierarchy between the ritually "clean" who considered themselves to be close to God, and the "unclean" who were shunned as "dirty" sinners who were far from God. Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people who were considered polluted or contaminated. At a minimum, Jesus redefined ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.
Simon the tanner was at the bottom of this spiritual stratification. And notice Luke's irony. It's in the home of Simon the tanner, a Gentile who handled animal carcasses every day, where Peter the conscientious Jew had his vision of — surprise! — unclean animals. Peter learned that even though purity laws forbid him to associate with Gentiles, "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism."
Marcus Borg argues that Jesus turned the purity system with its "sharp social boundaries" on its head. In its place he substituted a radically alternative social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by egalitarian inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual. In place of the famous "be holy, for I am holy," says Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to "be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."
"No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus' world to make him shun them," writes Garry Wills in What Jesus Meant — "not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed." And not Simon the tanner.
John's text in Revelation this week expands God's vision of inclusion to "every nation, tribe, people, and language." God, he says, will wipe every tear from every eye.
I've found it humbling to ask, "What 'outcasts' do I sanctimoniously spurn as impure, unclean, dirty, contaminated, and far from God?" The mentally ill, people with multiple marriages, wealthy executives, welfare recipients, conservative politicians, or maybe just anyone different from me?
How have I distorted the self-sacrificing love of God into self-serving elitism? What boundaries do I wrongly draw or might I break? I pray to experience what Borg calls a "community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion."
Image credits: (1) J. Richard Stracke, Augusta State University and (2) C. Malcolm Powers, Univ. of Michigan.