What makes us unclean?
Posted on September 3, 2015
Last Sunday, I preached. Those familiar with the service style at St Matthew’s will not be surprised to hear that though I love preaching, my opportunities are limited. So to preach at St Paul’s Bendigo was welcome. Thanks Dean John!
The occasion was Refugee Sunday, and the New Testament lectionary readings for the day were from Mark 7 and James 1. The day and the readings were particularly apt given Bendigo had just ‘hosted’ a meeting of the United Patriot Front, who were using Bendigo as a rallying point for their brand of anti-Islam fear-mongering. In addition, St Paul’s had been a target of their rage in the last week.
I suspect that Dean John invited me to speak because I have been somewhat active in advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, though my efforts are really quite small. I could give what amounts to a lecture on the issue. Possibly some of you may find that interesting, but I do not believe more information is going to change anything.
However, I DO believe in the power of the good news as we find it in the Bible: the reality of God entering Creation in Jesus Christ, showing us his way of life and love, and clearing the way for us through his death and resurrection. If we are going to find a way to respond in a Christ-like way, then we need to start with the Bible. The Gospel reading today is particularly apt for Refugee Sunday.
It seems our times are saturated in food. Our TVs are flooded with reality shows like “MasterChef” displaying delicacies prepared by ordinary people, and at the other extreme, public shaming of those who eat too much, on shows such as ‘The Biggest Loser’, where the obese show us the terrible food they eat and then are punished through taking part in military-style exercise regimes. There are campaigns against obesity, sugar, fat, meat, halal certification, chocolate, junk food, and advertising about food. It seems that as the options for food in our day have increased, so too has our anxiety about it, and our need to control it.
But this obsession with food is not a modern fad. In Jesus day, too, there were those who obsessed about food, and eating it. They were worried about WHAT you ate: pork in particular, as well as sea creatures without fins or scales. Also prohibited, I am glad to say, were geckos and eagles. They were worried about HOW you ate: that you ceremonially washed yourself, the food and what you ate from. And they were also worried about WHO you ate with: you needed to have the right kind of people at the table. No Gentiles, no sinners, no-one who was unclean.
These concerns had originally come from the Purity Code, a set of laws in the Hebrew Bible that aimed to keep the people of Israel pure in the Promised Land, surrounded by peoples who worshipped other gods. In the Pharisee’s minds, they were faithfully keeping to the law of Yahweh. They were motivated to do this because they believed that by doing all these things they would know who were the true Israelites, and who were just impostors, there to deceive the faithful and dilute the chosen people of God. If you broke these traditions, if you ate the wrong food, did not wash, or ate with unclean, defiled, people, then you yourself were considered unclean. Suddenly, there would be doubt about whether you were REALLY a truly faithful Israelite. And this drove the Pharisees, maybe out of concern, maybe out of a malicious intent to trap Jesus to ask “Why don’t your followers wash?”
Jesus makes the claim that being the people of God is not just for a chosen people, it is an invitation to all.
Jesus has a shocking answer for them – they are keeping all these laws, but really these were just ‘traditions of men’, and they had in fact veered right away from the ‘commandment of God’. And what is that commandment of God? Jesus says: “nothing from outside a person can make them unclean, but only that which comes from within a person”. What is he talking about? Anyone who’s experienced gastro after eating something off would say he is talking against common sense.
We find a pointer to the answer when we look at Jesus’ own attitude to the Purity Codes. WHAT did he eat: We don’t find Jesus explicitly eating so-called ‘unclean things’, but Mark claims that he ‘declared all foods clean’. HOW did he eat: We find Jesus’ disciples not washing ceremonially, which suggests that Jesus also did not – this is the very point the Pharisees pick up on. WHO does Jesus eat with: This is the point where Jesus really turns the Purity Laws on their head. He makes a point of eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, those in debt – all those who were outside the pale for the Pharisees, who were an affront to the purity of the nation.
Jesus claims something different to the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus makes the claim that being the people of God is not just for a chosen people, it is an invitation to all. It’s not outsiders who will make you unclean through their unclean foods and lack of washing and their sin.
Really, what you eat and how you wash and who you eat with…these have nothing to do with purity. No, it is what comes from our own hearts that makes us clean or unclean. It is our OWN fornication, theft, murder. Our own adultery. Our own avarice. Our own wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. It is our OWN. Jesus calls us away from blaming the outsider in our day: the sinner, the refugee, the brown-skinned, the fallen. That’s simply using them as scapegoats to hide our own knowledge – that WE are in fact envious, wicked, proud, deceitful.
In the next two stories he drives home the point by extending his kingdom words and deeds to outsiders, non-Jews. He drives out a demon from the daughter of a Gentile woman, and takes her side in the theological argument they have. He heals with deaf and the mute man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis. Jesus is not abandoning the Law, but he is drawing our attention to the parts of the Law that speak to the Way of the Kingdom, where all are invited and welcomed, especially those are vulnerable, especially the refugee, and the widow and orphan (as James reminds us).
I started by speaking of the power of the Gospel, and Refugee Sunday. At its heart the Gospel is what we find in the kingdom words and deeds of Jesus. And THIS story of Jesus says: don’t fear the refugee. The power of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God with us – we don’t need to fear. Where do we start to practically respond to this? The issues seem overwhelming, with volatile protests occurring, no reasonable discussion, and a flood of need.
I think we start with the Gospel – in other words, with the Kingdom words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus was not a politician, he was not a policy developer. But he did begin a community of welcome, love, courage and food. Yes, food. Every time we gather, the practice of communion reminds us that we are a community that follows a Saviour who ate well, and who ate with all the wrong people.
Let us demonstrate that welcome, love and courage by inviting the refugee, and all outsiders, to sit at our table – invite them to the tables in our houses, and to the table of our Lord.