Clean and unclean
Surely, in our quest for deeper understanding of the man Jesus
and his message, something is to be learned from the people with whom he
frequently came in contact. It is fair to say that these were not usually such
as would have graced the finer synagogues of his day; nor, we might add, would
their modern counterparts be immediately welcome in many of our ecclesial halls.
This comes across rather impressively in catalogue form:
By contrast with all of the above, we find the Lord, so kind
and gentle on most occasions, becoming openly aggressive in censuring the moral
defilement of those who were most scrupulous to avoid legal defilement. Surely,
we are tempted to think, this very "religious" (even if misguided) class
deserved more diplomatic treatment at his hands. But no figure of speech was too
drastic for Christ to use: They were whited sepulchres, full of dead men's bones
(Mat 23:27,28; Luk 11:44); cups clean on the outside, but filled with extortion
and rapacity (Mat 23:25; Luk 11:39). The reason? It may be said there are many,
for the list of charges against the Pharisees is long and varied (Mat
23:3-7,16-18,25-29,34), but certainly one reason is this: that it is dangerous
to find satisfaction in any physical separation from "defilement". "I thank
thee, God, that I am not as other men" (Luk 18:11) is no basis on which to build
- Lepers: "And there came a leper to him, beseeching him and kneeling down to
him.... 'If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean' " (Mar 1:40). "The leper, in
accord with the strict conditions of the law, should not have been so close.
With torn garments and dishevelled hair he should have gone around crying
'Unclean! Unclean!' (Lev 13:44,45), and he should have dwelt alone. The stern
requirements of hygiene caused the Israelites to deny their camp in the
wilderness to those in this condition (Num 5:2). That the man came so close is a
mark, not of callous disregard of the law, but of the supreme confidence which
knew that he would do no injury to the Lord, while the Lord could, if he would,
confer cleansing on him. Jesus, on his part, accepted the position without
embarrassment, and acted with the same assurance. To touch a leper was to
contract defilement; but for the Lord to do so was to bring cleansing without
himself suffering any harm" (NMk 21).
- The Samaritan woman and her neighbors
(Joh 4:1-42): Even the woman at the well recognized that the Jews customarily
had no dealings with the Samaritans (v 9). To the legalistically devout this was
all too literally true; the gospel record finds an exact parallel in the
well-reported sayings of the rabbis: "May I never set eyes on a Samaritan!" or
"May I never be thrown into company with him!" It was said that to partake of
their bread was like eating swine's flesh (A Edersheim, The Life and Times of
Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, p. 401). Most Israelites, in traveling between Judea
and Galilee, went miles out of their way, circling through Perea, to avoid
traversing the loathsome land of Samaria. How this gives weight by contrast to
the statement of John, that Jesus "must needs go through Samaria" (v 4). Not
only did Jesus disregard the traditional proscriptions of the land of the
Samaritans, but also it was necessary that he go there! And necessary that he
wait at the well, and necessary that he ask drink of the woman (unthinkable to a
Pharisee), and necessary that he remain in their city two days (v 40) to bring
to their thirsty lips the true water of life.
- The infirm man at the pool of
Bethesda (Joh 5:1-9): "High on the hill of Zion the immaculately robed priests
observed the temple ritual, aloof and impersonal. In the shadows of its walls
the halt, the blind and the withered waited for the movement of the water" (MP
86,87). Among them was a certain man with an infirmity of 38 years' duration (v
5). By the law such a man, if a descendant of Aaron, would be prohibited from
all official duties (Lev 21:17-23). Extreme body blemishes would exclude any
Israelite from the congregation of the Lord (Deu 23:1). And so the "pure and
undefiled" of Israel went their way to the Temple services, oblivious of the
poor, suffering scraps of humanity who clung superstitiously to the hope of
healing at the pool. Where did the Master's steps turn, upward to the beautiful
ritualized service of Herod's house, or downward to the miserable exiles of
Bethesda? The true scene of his ministry was not among the subtle analysts of
the law but in the midst of suffering, diseased, afflicted mankind, those who
needed a redeemer.
- The harlot, "a woman in the city, which was a sinner"
(Luk 7:37): So astounding was Jesus' acceptance of this harlot's approach and
service, that his host Simon the Pharisee thought surely he could not be a
prophet or else he would push her away and revile her for her sins (v 39). He
knew so little of the spirit of the Saviour! Do we know more?
- The lunatic
(Mar 5:1-21; Mat 8:28-34; Luk 8:26-40): Christ and his disciples came to the
shore at Gergesa, on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, in Decapolis. And
there met them out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. Here was a man
expelled from all society by his condition (insanity), his appearance
(nakedness), and his abode (the tombs); yet Jesus approached him, spoke to him,
even bearing with his fantasies, healed him, and gave him of his own garments
(an unproven suggestion, but quite probable, and filled with wonderful typical
significance)! So impressed, however, were those of the neighborhood that they
begged him to leave (Mar 5:17); a man who consorted with such men as "Legion"
could certainly be no friend of theirs.
- The woman with the issue of blood
(Mar 5:25-34): Here was another condition which, like leprosy, rendered the
sufferer unclean (Lev 15:19-30). As Jesus went on his way, she pushed her timid
way through the crowd: "If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole." This
was the reverse of the legal restriction, which should have been: 'If I touch
his garment, he will be unclean also.' How great was her faith! She knew what
manner of man Jesus was: a man who could touch the unclean, and yet remain pure;
a man whose law superseded that of Moses; a man to whom mental impurity was far
worse than legal defilement.
- Gentiles: Of several examples, we note here the
case of the Syrophoenician woman (Mar 7:25,26; Mat 15:21-28). Coming on the
heels of the Lord's discourse about the true source of defilement (Mar 7:1-23;
Mat 15:1-20), and in disregard for the traditions of the elders, this incident
in which Jesus heals the daughter of the Gentile woman thus carries extra
significance. Though the woman was not a Jewess, her faith exceeded by far that
of Jesus' countrymen. As in the other cases we have noted, an external condition
of separation was of no consequence to him who came to save the "world" and to
call sinners to repentance.
- Publicans: Two of this hated class figure
prominently in the gospels: Zaccheus, "chief among the publicans" (Luk 19:2),
and one of the twelve, Matthew (Mat 10:3; Luk 5:27). These servants of the Roman
oppressors were held in such low esteem generally that the word "publican" had
become practically synonymous with "sinner" (Mat 9:11; Mar 2:16; Luk 5:30). Yet
Jesus found friends among this class; perhaps some real-life publican was the
model for the Lord's account of contrasting prayer styles, for the admonition of
those who "trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others"
(Luk 18:9-14). On the opposite side, we have the rabbinical attitude toward the
publicans: They were excluded from being judges and witnesses in legal affairs.
They were seen as a criminal race, to which Lev 20:5 applied (about those who
committed "whoredom with Molech"). It was said that there never was a family
which numbered a tax-collector in which all did not become such. And they were
seen as so evil that it was permissible for the righteous to lie to them to
protect their property from taxation (Edersheim, op cit, p 516).
- The dead
(Mar 5:35-43; Joh 11:1-46; Luk 7:14): Here was the ultimate defilement, the dead
body (Lev 21:1; 22:4; Num 5:2; 9:6,10); even from this Christ did not shrink. We
know he could raise the dead by a word, as he did with Lazarus. But he did not
hesitate to take the dead daughter of Jairus by the hand (Mar 5:41). His was the
"personal touch" of sincere love. As always, it seems, the consequences of legal
"uncleanness" were ignored as irrelevant beside the greater issues of his
ministry. The Lord of life came near to death, partaking of mortality, bearing
the burdens of those who grieved and the curse of the law, "tasting death" on
behalf of all men.
To go about preoccupied with the "sins" of others, ever
mindful of how their shortcomings may reflect upon us by association, is to
fight a "paper tiger", while the true enemy goes free. "Let a man examine
himself" (1Co 11:28). Those things which are outside the man cannot defile him,
but that which comes out of the man, from a self-righteous heart, defiles the
man (Mar 7:18,20).
How far are we really removed from the foolish prejudices and
traditions of the Pharisees? Have we altogether reversed Christ's standards,
downplaying his emphasis on moral defilement -- in a slow drift into the world's
thinking -- and seeking to cover our inadequacies by an undue concern for legal
"defilement"? We vicariously associate, through television and other media, with
the worst the "world" has to offer by way of movie "stars", sports "heroes", and
rock musicians; and, unconsciously perhaps, we absorb the spirit of this
licentious and materialistic age. Then we dress in our finest clothes and drive
our new automobiles to places of worship on Sunday morning, where we
meticulously draw our "skirts" about us and withhold the Bread and Wine from
someone who is just slightly too "sinful" or not quite well enough "informed"
for our standards ('We thank thee, Lord, that we are not like these other men'),
and somehow we feel that in this we are doing God service.
We must be careful that the means by which all believers are
commanded to remember the Lord's death until he returns does not become a
ritual, with supposed efficacy in the object itself, by which we establish our
"purity" in a negative sense. "Negative holiness" can save no man. Neither can
the proximity of a "sinner", even one so close as to partake of the same cup,
endanger our "fellowship" with one who was ever and always the friend of
"sinners", who embraced lepers and lunatics, harlots and dead bodies -- yet in
the best sense was still "holy, harmless, and undefiled" (Heb 7:26).