Proper 17, Year B
There are all kinds of irresponsible caricatures drawn from pulpits about what Judaism and Pharisaism was and/or is like, and I expect that too many of them will be drawn this Sunday. This Sunday especially, we need to remember that there's a reason that, for example, Jewish ministries on college campuses are called "Hillel House" after the man who's probably the most famous Pharisee (other than Paul of Tarsus, whom Christians call St. Paul) in history: to my knowledge, all branches of Judaism today are descended from Pharisaism. When we Christians use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or speak of Pharisaism as a religion of empty ceremonies and heartless enforcement of rules, we are using rhetoric that insults today's Jews and Judaism. Such rhetoric is not only insulting, but also profoundly misleading.
Pharisees in Jesus' day didn't hold to a religion that said that God was more distant or less loving or merciful than the god we proclaim. Anyone who looks up words like 'love/loving' and 'mercy' in a decent concordance that includes the Hebrew bible will find plentiful evidence that the Pharisees taught that God is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," and "forgiving iniquity and sin." Neither did the Pharisees teach that God is distant or that human beings can't have an intimate relationship with God, as anyone who reads the Psalms can witness. Indeed, the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, taught that God could be present in anyone's kitchen, workplace, and bedroom as God is present in the Temple. Nor did the Pharisees confine God's love to Jews or suggest that one had to be born Jewish to know or follow God, as this passage from the Numbers Rabbah (8.3) on proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism) suggests:
The Holy One loves proselytes exceedingly. To what is the matter like? To a king who had a number of sheep and goats which went forth every morning to the pasture, and returned in the evening to the stable. One day a stag joined the flock and grazed with the sheep, and returned with them. Then the shepherd said to the king, "There is a stag which goes out with the sheep and grazes with them, and comes home with them." And the king loved the stag exceedingly. And he commanded the shepherd, saying, "Give heed unto this stag, that no man beat it"; and when the sheep returned in the evening, he would order that the stag should have food and drink. Then the shepherds said to him, "My Lord, thou hast many goats and sheep and kids, and thou givest us no directions about these, but about this stag thou givest us orders day by day." Then the king replied, "It is the custom of the sheep to graze in the pasture, but the stags dwell in the wilderness, and it is not their custom to come among men in the cultivated land. But to this stag who has come to us and lives with us, should we not be grateful that he has left the great wilderness, where many stags and gazelles feed, and has come to live among us? It behooves us to be grateful." So too spoke the Holy One: "I owe great thanks to the stranger, in that he has left his family and his father's house, and has come to dwell among us; therefore I order in the Law: 'Love ye the stranger'" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
-- The New Testament Background, pp. 208-209
Jesus criticized Pharisees, to be sure, but even when he was doing so harshly, he acknowledged their zeal in evangelism, in letting Gentiles everywhere know that the God of Israel would receive them gladly -- take a look at Matthew 23:15, in which Jesus specifically says to Pharisees, "you cross sea and land to make a single convert." Nor were the Pharisees uninterested in justice for the poor; they taught that scripture passages like this week's reading from Deuteronomy mean that God made the Hebrews a people and chose them specifically so they could be a community that did things differently from the nations, including caring for the poor, and in a way that could make the people of the God of Israel a light for the whole world.
In short, Jesus didn't criticize Pharisees so passionately because they were the furthest from his point of view; he criticized particular Pharisees because in so many ways their thinking was so very close to his. In other words, Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees is a quarrel between brothers -- which, as anyone who grew up with siblings knows, can be the most animated kinds of arguments.
So what, then, was the substance of Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees? I've said a great deal so far about what it was NOT, but little about what it was. The short answer is, I think, the main point of this week's gospel reading, and it's a point that ought to be very challenging for us too. The Pharisees weren't concerned only with purity laws; they are, after all, the people who lobbied longest and hardest for prophetic books like Isaiah to be counted as scripture. And their position on purity laws was one that, I think most Pharisees were argue (if you'll forgive my saying this in anachronistic terms), was an inclusive and progressive one. Sadducees would say that the purity rules that priests (and you had to be a male without deformity born into a priestly family to be a priest -- it wasn't something one could choose or decline) were supposed to follow surrounding their periods of service in the Temple were just for those born in a position that would bring them into God's holy place. The Pharisees were making Judaism and the sense it offered of being in God's presence accessible to anyone by saying that anyone could be a Jew and a Pharisee, and any place could be holy to God if only people would treat it as such. That point is the core, I think, of Jesus' agreement with his Pharisaic contemporaries.
The disagreement was about what it was that made a place holy, what it was that constituted purity. This Sunday's gospel shows Jesus teaching something with potentially radical implications. It's not that purity doesn't matter. Getting people to treat everything and everyone as pure would, in my opinion, be hopeless in any culture, and probably not desirable either. Sometimes I ask students to make a list of the purity rules they follow. At first they usually object that they don't follow any, but then I offer some examples. Most of us grow up being taught not to eat or leave the bathroom without washing our hands. Oh, but that's just about germs, right? Our purity rules are just about health and science, and those are the only purity rules worth following. But we generally think it's weird or even offensive to prepare food in the bathroom -- a rule that's not at core about germs, as studies have demonstrated that the bathroom is generally the least germ-ridden place in our houses. But guests would be puzzled or grossed out if they thought I'd prepared their dinner in the room I used to defecate. I'm not saying that's bad or stupid -- I'm just saying that we ALL have purity rules that we follow.
And that's why I think what Jesus does in this Sunday's gospel is so brilliantly subversive. Jesus redefines purity in terms of "what comes out of a person" -- of qualities we demonstrate in relationships.
It's brilliant because it would have been someone between fruitless and counter-productive for Jesus to say anything like "purity doesn't matter." Human beings just aren't 'wired' culturally to be that way -- and being the kind of person who will say "that just isn't appropriate," especially when we feel and say it on a gut level, can be very helpful in some circumstances. But Jesus is proposing that intentionally, in community, we 're-wire' ourselves, building a subculture that trains us to feel as much 'ick factor' about carelessly wounding remarks as most of us were taught growing up to feel about carelessly (or, if you have to have it in 'scientific' terms, unhygienically) prepared food. Jesus is proposing that we intentionally build a culture that worries about whether our behavior is feeding grudges or a spiral of violence in the same way -- but with considerably more intensity -- than most of us were brought up to worry about food practices feeding bacteria. And building that kind of culture requires that we engage intentionally with one another in the kind of gentle, consistent, persistent, 24/7 formation in community that, in most healthy households, gradually teaches children about washing hands and being careful with meat and potato salad. That would be a radical move. Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view churches if every congregation put as much care into seeing that our children aren't infected with racism or pride as we generally want them to put into seeing that they're not infected with salmonella at the potluck?
That would be cool. But that's not the most radical implication of what Jesus teaches about purity.
The most radical implication of Jesus' view of purity is something that St. Paul picks up and applies to his view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most views of purity that anyone would count sensible know that if just one impure thing comes into contact with something pure, that transmits the impurity -- in other words, both things will now be impure. If just a wee bit of litter from the catbox makes it into a cake, that cake -- not just a piece of it, and regardless of what scientific tests demonstrate that some part of it is free of bacterial nastiness -- is not going to be seen as suitable to serve to guests. That assumption about purity often carries over into how we treat people, though. There are some things people can do that render them in relational terms "radioactive" -- treated as untouchable, lest we "catch" their bad reputation and/or bad conduct. But what if purity is every bit as transmittable as impurity? What if purity can actually overpower impurity? In St. Paul's view, a woman -- a person the culture sees as easily made impure -- can actually render her whole household "pure," holy, a place where God is powerfully present and powerfully at work. That attributes a great deal of positive power to the woman.
And that's an idea I'd say Paul got from Jesus, and specifically as a solid inference from passages like this Sunday's gospel, as well as from Jesus' consistent example. It is possible, Jesus teaches us, to live in such a way, to display in our relationships a quality and consistency of love, that something the world writes off as irredeemable is transformed into something bearing witness to God's power to redeem. If it's "what goes in" that makes someone impure, then people need to guard carefully against coming into contact with the wrong sort of person, lest they come into contact with the wrong sort of things. But if what flows out of people in loving relationship with one another radiates purity, then we are freed to live making decisions based on love and not in fear. That is an incredibly radical, liberating, transformative insight -- one I'm always trying to take in more deeply.
And there's one further insight from Jesus' view of purity that might be more radical still. If purity is something radiated out by how we are in relationships, then we actually NEED other people for a life of holiness. For example, if true purity is about exercising forgiveness, then we NEED to take the risk of staying in relationship with people the world thinks are hopeless to experience God's holiness. If true purity involves exercising compassion, then suffering in the world isn't proof that God doesn't care, but is an opportunity to experience and proclaim just how much and in what ways God does care. If true purity is about relationship, then the challenges facing us as a church of flawed and bickering people are an opportunity to understand God's grace more deeply and proclaim it more powerfully by insisting that reconciliation be the first, middle, and final word. Is that possible? If Jesus is right, if what's "out there" doesn't make us impure and purity flows out in relationship, then past or present nastiness already "out there" is beyond what can be transformed by God's holy and holy-making love. That's Jesus' teaching in this Sunday's gospel; that's the example we have in Jesus' manner of life, which posed a profound challenge to his Pharisaic brothers much as it challenges the church today.
Thanks be to God!
This is wonderful. Thank you for this post, which I will surely read more than once! I really like your point that Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees was a brothers' quarrel, not an enemies' quarrel -- and I appreciate your explication both of what Pharaisaic Judaism stood for, and of Jesus' radical teachings about purity.
Posted by: Rachel | Sep 1, 2006 6:40:46 PM
Thanks for your thoughts about this week's Scripture. You've gone to a wonderful depth here and I'll spend time well beyond this Sunday contemplating the dynamics of contagious purity.
Posted by: Carrie | Sep 2, 2006 1:44:36 PM
One of my best friends in college ran out of soap, so he went into the shower room and picked up all the leftover flecks of soap left on the floor, and squeezed them together into a little bar of soap that would get him through a few days until he got around to the market. We all thought he was being gross, but his response was, "It's soap, and soap is clean by definition." That story has served to remind me that, just like in Jesus' view which you mentioned, purity has more power than impurity.
Thank you for your consistently fine work. It is always a challenge and encouragement to me.
Posted by: Mike Nyman | Sep 2, 2006 1:52:02 PM
Purity laws are subjective, depending on culture, but their universality shows that they come from a deep part of our humanity. Jesus acknowledges that depth (doesn't say "there is not purity or impurity), and then goes on to help us understand how it should be understood, not as relating to that which is subjective, but stemming from that which is objective -- spiritual truth.
"Yes," he is saying, "there is purity and non-purity, but that which defines the one and the other is Godlikeness, not culture, and your purity comes from your spirit and intention, not the food your eat or your story or place" (though, of course spirit and intention can be revealed sometimes in these things, which is probably why we tend to look to them as signs of purity).
...this is where my mind is going with your thoughts. Contagious purity is attractive, and certainly there is lots of truth in your words. The teaching is powerful.
If I may probe more deeply, though, might not the idea of "contagious purity" directly contradict Jesus' teaching that it's not what is outside a person that makes them pure, but what's inside? Being around Jesus didn't make Judas pure, obviously. Plenty of bad men have had godly wives, surely. I have read your words once only so I may misunderstand. You've got me thinking. :)
Great blog. Thanks!
Posted by: Phil+ | Sep 2, 2006 8:41:54 PM
Good blog, and the idea of Jesus arguing most vehemently with those who were closer in mind to him is really refreshing and thought-provoking. I found as I got my theological education, that I was more apt to engage in feverish debate with other Christians than with folks of different faiths.
And the purity idea--when my daughter was a teen and I worried about her travelling with the wrong crowd, she asked me very pointedly if her good influence couldn't rub off on them as quickly as their bad influence would rub off on her? Made me think!
At the end of the blog, did you mean to say that the nastiness out there was NOT beyond God's love?
Posted by: Louise Robson | Aug 26, 2009 12:15:04 PM