Readings, Leviticus 13: 1-3, 45-46, 14:1-9 and Mark 1:40-45
Image, Byzantine Mosiac
I owe many of the insights in this sermon to Matthew Thiessen's Jesus and the Forces of Death (MI: Baker Academic, 2020). Specific page references in text. If you'd like to know more you can listen to an interview I did with Matthew here.
We have a raft of rules (legal, societal, religious) about what can mix. When you go to a restaurant, a living animal cannot sit at the table where a dead animal is being served. At home, the toilet needs a room independent from a kitchen. Here at church, we don’t serve the remaining communion elements at the morning tea table, or the morning tea from the communion table. There are things that are not permitted to mix, and if they do it impacts the cleanliness, appropriateness, and safety of all involved.
Fundamental to Israel’s understanding of the structure of God’s world were two binaries: the holy and the profane, and the pure and the impure. Now we might hear profane and (given the connection with profanity) think that it means sinful, or wicked. But this is not the case. Most of the world is profane. The Sabbath, for instance is holy, which means the other six days of the week are profane. The Temple is holy, so a house is profane. A thing is either holy or profane, but this doesn’t mean the latter is in opposition to God’s will. Now in the same way, the impure is not equivalent with sin or wickedness. Something could become impure for any number of reasons; ritual, moral, or naturally occurring. And indeed, while pure and impure are distinct categories, you will have gleaned from the readings a person may move between pure and impure at different points in their life.
The importance of developing these religious and communal distinctions is not to categorise people as saint or sinner, but – and primarily – to preserve and protect the holiness of God who dwelt with the people. The boundaries are intended to keep impurity from the camp, the tabernacle, or the Temple - to “safeguard God’s presence and protect God’s people from the consequences of wrongly approaching God” (11). It is compassion then, that animates the Jewish concern for purity, for (as scripture will testify) while God is infinitely loving and merciful, God is a powerful (dangerous) and holy force.
The final thing to say in this preamble is that impurity (though again, not equivalent with sin) is intimately related to death, to the forces of death, which stand in contrast to the living God of creation. Naturally we can see why corpses (and the touching of corpses) would be connected to impurity, but this connection extends to cases of lepros or haemorrhaging – all of which signal the encroachment of the forces of death, and thus all of which must be dealt with before one might come into the presence of holiness.
Why establish all this? It is unlikely to appear in any local pub trivia question? We need to understand the nature of impurity, and the underlying compassion of the system of purity and holiness, in order to properly enter a discussion on Jesus’ relationship with the priesthood of Israel in his day, and Jesus’ own embodiment of the priestly role. Because contrary to a many popular claims, Jesus does not oppose the ritual impurity system, he does not dismiss the necessity of such a system, and Jesus does not treat these categories of pure/impure, holy/profane as non-existent or incorrect. Rather, “Jesus desires to rid people of the conditions that create ritual impurity” (7). He wants to cut the cause off at the pass, pull it up by the root. For Jesus confronts and overcomes the forces of death! In other words, Jesus’ ministry operates with an affirmation that ritual impurity exists and that he needs to deal with it. And deal with it he will, both as priest and as prophet.
Today’s reading from the Mark is the first time a ritually impure person confronts Jesus. Now there’s a little translations scuffle. It is often translated that at the request to be made clean Jesus was moved with “pity,” however (as most Bible’s will note) early manuscripts say, Jesus was moved with “anger.” Quite the difference. I note the discrepancy because the anger illuminates that Jesus takes the man’s request as being about whether Jesus wants to make him clean, not whether he is able. (60) In other words, is this a condition that should be treated?
I do choose. Be made clean! The Gospels make clear, Jesus is concerned with ritual impurity and has the power to deal with it. In the Old Testament it is only prophets (such as Elisha) who are able – by the power of God – to make someone clean. Priests are those who judge whether someone is pure or impure and carry out the rituals to re-establish the newly clean to the community. This priestly role is unchallenged by Jesus (not only here, but elsewhere). Jesus makes the man clean, but does not take upon himself the prerogative of declaring him clean. Jesus commands the man to report to the priests and bring the offering of purification (60-61). The system is intact, but we nonetheless bear witness to Jesus’ compassion, power, desire and mission to confront the forces of death that lead to impurity.
Another story further displays Jesus’ powerful, potent, and personal opposition to ritual impurity. When the haemorrhaging woman approaches Jesus, and reaches out to touch his cloak, the power to make her clean and restore her to life simply bursts forth from Jesus. Without any intention the immense (at times dangerous) power of God is on full display – the hem of Jesus’ garment holds enough power to destroy impurity’s forces (96).
And thus, it should be of no surprise to us then, that even when Jesus is subjected to his own death, even when the forces of death stake a claim directly upon his body on the cross and in the tomb, even when the forces of death seem to have prevailed – it is of no surprise that the body of Christ swallows up those forces of death and emerges in resurrected life. Jesus’ confrontation with what makes us impure, his ultimate confrontation with death is not fought from a distance – through the command of his voice or the hem of his garment – Jesus confronts (and by God overcomes) the forces of death through death. Just as he who knew no sin, became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God, so too he who knew no death, became death so that we might share in the life of God. Jesus went down into that tomb, and indeed went down deeper still, to pull death up from the roots so that nothing should be able to cast us from the camp of God. Jesus went down into death and swallowed it up, and now we say, O death, where is your sting!
Jesus took the forces of impurity and death so seriously that they were written on his own body, only for the eternal word of resurrection and life to be written over them and so over each and every one of us. I do choose. What more holy words could there be? I do choose. This Jesus says over each and every one of us so that all the many things that might make it impossible or improper for us to approach a holy God might be overcome, so that we might never be separated from the love of God.
Jesus does not scorn the system, Jesus does not dismiss the priestly role of Israel, Jesus does not tear those pages from our Bible. Jesus takes seriously the forces of death at work in the world and the boundaries set in place to safeguard the holiness of God and the life of the people. And at the same time, Jesus chooses to address the problem, Jesus chooses to make the impure clean, as Jesus chooses to heal the sick, as Jesus chooses to raise the dead, as Jesus chooses the way of cross and resurrection so that the forces of death would be undone and so that we all may live in the presence of God. Jesus takes up the charge of prophet and priest, affirming and overcoming the forces of impurity and death in and through his own life, struggle, death, and resurrection. It is for this reason we celebrate with the writer of Hebrews that we have a high priest able to sympathise with our weaknesses, who in every respect has been tested as we are, and yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For when we approach, we are met with the words: I do choose!
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