Cleanliness

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Read Mark 5:1-43 first. There is a sermon based on this here.

For the Jewish people, clean and unclean are not matters of hygiene or morality but ritual. They are understood in relation to being ‘holy’ or set apart. Four categories of things can be unclean: certain foods, skin diseases, contact with dead people or certain dead animals, and certain involuntary genital discharges.[1]

Ritual impurity is different from moral impurity. Ritual impurity has to do with contact with things that may carry or cause disease (death, skin disease, some foods if eaten/cooked improperly) and things which are part of bringing life into the world (genital discharge). Moral impurity has to do with choices we make to break faith (sin) against God or neighbor (murder, idolatry, etc.)[2]

Some activities that were ordinary, everyday situations could make a person unclean, yet this is not considered sinful, simply outside the normal state of being set apart before God.[3]

In each of the three stories, someone is ritually unclean by Jewish standards and Jesus is intentionally dealing with each of them, making what was unclean (profane) now clean (holy).

  • For the story of the Gerasene man, several things are unclean:
    • The location – they are in Gentile lands
    • The possession itself
    • The graveyard and the corpses there
    • The name of the unclean spirits, Legion, a reference to a cohort of Roman soldiers, an unclean people
    • The large herd of pigs, an animal considered unclean in Jewish culture[4]
  • For the woman with the hemorrhage, her disease made her permanently, ceremonially unclean and outside the community.
  • For Jairus daughter, the fact that she was dead or perceived to be dead made her an untouchable.

The point of the stories is that Jesus overcomes ritual impurity and brings those separated from God by the social standards of purity laws and restores them back into their communities. He reaches out to those considered ‘untouchable’ and shows that they are acceptable.

As a Church (that is big C church), we have divided the world into those clean enough to be part of our group and those too unclean to be acceptable. We have used any number of things to separate ourselves including: race, sexuality, nationality, political preference, social standing, past experiences, wealth or lack of it, religious preference.

For those who engage in this behavior their motivation seems to me to be fear:

  • Fear that the untouchables will make them untouchable
  • Fear that it will somehow make them less Christian
  • Fear that it will look to others like they are different from the ‘in-crowd’, the right crowd or some other expression of a group they affiliate with.

Yet Jesus steps over the boundaries time and again throughout the gospels to offer restoration and freedom to those marginalized by their society in their time. (lepers, tax collectors, the possessed, the unimpressive, the broken, the outsider).

People have asked me from day one, “Pastor, how are we going to bring the people back to our church?” “How are we going to be like used to be?”

First, you aren’t. What you used to be is just that, ‘used to’. You can’t go back and be what you were because the people, the situations, the circumstances that made up that time are gone, and they aren’t coming back. Second, you shouldn’t want to. Growth in the way of Jesus is moving forward with life and meeting it and its challenges where it is now.

So, what do we do? How do reach the people around us?

We need to stop being the “in crowd” and become the “come on in crowd.” Everyone is welcome and family. No ifs, no ands, no buts, no excuses. All means all.


[1] King & Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, p. 363

[2] https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/CBA_members_only/cba_purity_rules_meier.pdf

[3] Borg, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, pp.46-47

[4] Borg, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, pp.46-47

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