The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: C

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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 one's faith.

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).

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