Purity Problems — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:1-23; 14 Pentecost B 2021

Jesus hits a home run with his feeding miracle, and how do the opponents respond? They launch into a critique of the handwashing etiquette of the disciples. His opponents immediately call his authority into question by pointing to the “bad manners” of his followers.

“Purity in matters of food was as important as anything in postexilic Israelite practice,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “though what is under discussion here is the Pharisaic expression of Israelite custom rather than the Law of Moses. Here Jesus rejects the former in favor of the latter” (page 221).

The primary practices Jesus advocates in this text do not focus on external purity. Instead, the first practice is to honor the full intent of God’s commandments rather than blurring that intent through the vagaries of case law. Exceptions and equivocations can multiply to the point that the heart of the commandment no longer matters. When self-interest drives that process, there is no limit to the possible abuses than can ensue.

Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com

The second practice is to focus on relational holiness rather than physical purity. Jesus focuses on the filial relationship to parents. He then expands that to an examination of the human heart, the source of “evil intentions.” Many of these evil intentions result in the breaking of community, the exclusion of the stranger, and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Defilement has more to do with maintaining community integrity than it does with maintaining bodily purity.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. The story we tell may be about land or food or clothing. But those material things always represent the difference we construct between people: the insiders and the outsiders, the honorable and the dishonorable, the natives and the foreigners, the good and the bad. We humans love hierarchies, and we will fixate on almost any feature of existence in order to establish a pecking order with us at the top and someone else at the bottom.

I lived in Denver, Colorado, for a few years in the early 1980’s. That was the time of the “Native” bumper stickers. Colorado was a popular place for pilgrims seeking their version of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” They (we, for a while) came from all over the country and all over the world to enjoy the skiing and the columbine, the low humidity and high meadows. It was difficult to find someone who was actually born in Colorado and still lived there.

The few folks who made up the aristocracy of birth began a movement expressed on green bumper stickers decorated with a background of mountain peaks and displaying the title “NATIVE.” This designation placed them above the rest of us mere mortals who had the misfortune to be born somewhere else and to feel the need emigrate to God’s country.

There were several edges to this label. “Natives” were, according to some, inherently better than the interlopers and better-suited to their home state. The non-natives were invaders who brought with them all sorts of foreign ideas, customs, and priorities. They (we) were dilettantes who came for the skiing and left when the snow turned to mud. The natives were the only ones really deserving of the best real estate and were deeply resentful of all the outside money that drove up the prices and reduced the inventory.

Non-natives were, somehow, “impure.” Only later did most of us find out that the original idea for the “NATIVE” campaign originated with a transplant named Eric Glade. After a few years the campaign petered out, but the message stuck with me.

It takes very little for us humans to whip up a caste system, out of whole cloth if we need to do so. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Isabel Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she concludes, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

It is one thing to have a system that maps out the relationships in life in such a way as to provide a framework of meaning and purpose. But human beings, over time, find it nearly impossible, I think, to resist the temptation to use that system to establish a caste system which affords advantages to the in-group that sponsors the system.

It was one thing to point out that there were still a few “Native” Coloradans hanging around in the sea of newcomers. That was just a fact. And those “natives” could indeed offer some insights into life along and among the great Rocky Mountains. If the “Native” label were regarded as a gift, an asset, something to be offered up for the good of all, it might have been a salutary thing. But it was claimed as a resentful privilege and a mark of preferred purity.

It wasn’t long before a few people noted the astonishing and immoral presumption in the label as well. The real “natives” of the land weren’t white people who happened to have been born within the boundaries of Colorado. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land long before Colorado was even a consideration. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land when the ancestors of the pretenders were still expelling the Romans from northern Europe.

Every human hierarchy is constructed on a false foundation. Jesus understands this, names it, and challenges the presumptions of the purity system in Israel at the time. It’s not the covenant itself that he challenges. It is the way the purity system is now used to underwrite systems and structures of power, to serve self-interest rather than God, and to sustain the divisions constructed to uphold the system in the first place.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. No, that’s not quite right. Purity rules are always about power in the end. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, the purity system was based on rules that had meant something quite different in Bronze Age Israel and in Iron Age Judea. Now that system was being used to police the poor, to control women, and to prop up the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. Regardless of their intentions, the Pharisees participated in that caste system, and Jesus challenged that participation.

Jesus emphasizes how God approaches us – through our hearts. He argues that purity rules, at least in the “Traditions of the Elders,” had become the tail wagging the dog of right relationships. These rules had become a tool of the religious/political/economic elite to control the people.

In what ways do we church “insiders” use “traditions of the elders” to control access to our Christian congregations? We may say that “all are welcome here” but are “all” really welcome here? In most congregations, the honest answer is “no.” We exclude people through a variety of conscious and unconscious norms designed for the comfort of the insiders and the repulsion of those who might want to get in.

I don’t think it’s trivial that Jesus takes on the hand-washing practice and expands it into a major theological and ethical issue. If, in fact, the practice originates with the Roman colonizers and is a way into assimilation with the imperial power and status structure, then this is a big deal. Jesus takes his audience and his disciples out of that system and back to their core identity as the people of God formed by Scripture and not by human traditions.

God’s people cannot live inside a domination system, cannot accommodate to imperial powers, without experiencing a defaced and deformed imagination. This is the song that binds together the witness of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrews resist Egyptian imperial power and are released in the Exodus. Israel and Judah embrace forms of empire and are destroyed by empires. Jesus proclaims an alternate reign, God’s kin(g)dom and is executed by agents of the Roman system.

Our own “imperial” system that deforms the Christian imagination has now been outed for what it is – White Christian Nationalism. The evidence of a deformed and defaced imagination is almost too much to catalogue. There is the conjunction of “Christian” and Confederate flags. There is the excruciating whiteness of large parts of the Church on this continent. There is the complicit racism of those of us who wish we could get it “right” without paying a price.

Perhaps the good news here is in the accurate diagnosis Jesus offers. There are no crimes such as “driving while Black,” or “shopping while Black,” or “walking in the park and bird-watching while Black.” Those are made-up things – the Traditions of our Elders that we need to abandon. Knowing this can help us to repent and make repairs, the first steps toward real growth.

Next week, we get some insight into just how difficult and necessary this conversation is for people who follow Jesus. Stay tuned.

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