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No Outcasts Cast Out:
From The Politics of Purity to The Call for Compassion

For Sunday September 3, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Song of Solomon 2:8–13 or Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9
           Psalm 45:1–2, 6–9 or Psalm 15
           James 1:17–27
           Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

Jesus heals the woman with a flow of blood.
Jesus heals the woman with a
flow of blood.

           Last weekend at my daughter's soccer team lunch, one mom gently reminded her daughter to remove the cheese from her Subway sandwich. "It's still not kosher," Hannah laughed, "but at least it's a little better. Does anyone want some extra cheese?" I admired Hannah's care to follow Jewish dietary laws to "keep kosher" by eating only what is "fit" or "clean" (from the Hebrew word kasher). To some people, following such purity laws (halakha) as a way to express your relationship with God might appear trivial, but in Mark's Gospel for this week we see how ritual purity and holiness codes formed the background context for the mission and message of Jesus.

           The dietary restrictions that my friend observed comprise only a small part of a comprehensive and complex holiness code that regulated personal and community life for the emergent Hebrew people 3,500 years ago. By one count there are 613 mizvot or "commandments" in the five books of Moses (the Torah). The purity laws of Leviticus chapters 11–26 specify in detail clean and unclean foods, purity rituals after childbirth or a menstrual cycle, regulations for skin infections and contaminated clothing or furniture, prohibitions against contact with a human corpse or dead animal, instructions about nocturnal emissions, laws regarding bodily discharges, agricultural guidelines about planting seeds and mating animals, and decrees about lawful sexual relationships, keeping the sabbath, forsaking idols, and even tattoos. The Levitical purity laws encompassed nearly every aspect of being human—birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, jurisprudence, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behavior, and certainly ethnicity (Gentiles were automatically considered impure).

           Some of these purity laws encoded simple common sense or moral ideals that we gladly follow today, like prohibitions against incest. Others regulated hygiene and sanitation. Still others symbolized that Israel was to maintain a unique identity that differentiated its people from pagan nations. Ultimately, though, the purity laws and holiness code ritualized an exhortation from Yahweh: "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2, NIV). When the Psalmist for this week asks, "Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?" the "proper" response is that only people who are ritually clean may approach a holy God (Psalm 15:1). At the center of the purity system, both literally and symbolically, stood the Temple, where one performed rites of purification.

Jesus heals a paralytic.
Jesus heals a paralytic.

           Scholars debate just how much or how little ordinary first-century Jews concerned themselves with maintaining ritual purity, but the Pharisees about whom we read so much in the Gospels certainly did. Throughout the Gospels they repeatedly confronted Jesus because of his flagrant disregard for ritual purity. Jesus the Jew touched a leper (Mark 1:41), his disciples did not fast (Mark 2:18f), he ignored sabbath laws (2:23f), he touched a woman with a discharge and handled a corpse (5:21–42), and immediately after this week's story he healed two Gentiles (Mark 7:24f).

           In the Gospel reading this week, which some scholars consider the most important of all the "purity" texts, Mark recounts a clash between Jesus and the Pharisees about food purity. Why, asked the Pharisees, did Jesus's disciples eat with "unclean" hands? Mark includes two parenthetical explanations to his Gentile readers who otherwise might have been clueless: "The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles" (Mark 7:3–4). Then, in an aside that we might find trivial but his readers would have found shocking, Mark writes that "Jesus thus declared all foods 'clean'" (Mark 7:19). Nor should we miss the central accusation in this clash, that the Pharisees considered Jesus and his followers as ritually unclean sinners.

           Given the human propensity for justifying our own selves and for scape-goating others, the holiness code and purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually "clean" who considered themselves to be close to God, and the "unclean" who were shunned as impure sinners who were far from God. Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated. In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status. In Marcus Borg's view, Jesus turned the purity system with its "sharp social boundaries" on its head, and in its place substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by radical inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual. In place of "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 19:2), says Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to "be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36, my emphasis).

Jesus, the paralytic and the Samaritan woman at the well, 13th-century Ethiopia.
Jesus, the paralytic and the Samaritan woman at the well,
13th-century Ethiopia.

           "No outcasts," writes Garry Wills in What Jesus Meant, "were cast out far enough in Jesus' world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?" In a tragic irony, of course, some Christians have considered Jews accursed, not to mention gays. I've found it a humbling exercise to ask what categories of "outcasts" do I sanctimoniously spurn as impure, unclean, dirty, contaminated, and, in my mind, far from God. The mentally ill, people who have married three or four times, wealthy executives, welfare recipients, people who hold conservative political opinions, or maybe people with AIDS? How have I distorted the self-sacrificing, egalitarian love of God into self-serving, exclusionary elitism? What boundaries do I wrongly build or might I bravely shatter? 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."

For further reflection:
* How do you understand Revelation 14:4 that pictures heaven to include 144,000 males "who have not defiled themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure?"
Who are you tempted to exclude as impure and unclean?
How do we embrace both holiness and compassion, instead of choosing one or the other?
What does the hierarchy or stratification of impurity look like in your community?
Watch the film An Uncommon Kindness (2003) about the Flemish priest Damien de Veuster, who ministered to the abandoned lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

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