Sometimes – probably, more often than we realize – we have to remind ourselves that Jesus was a Jew to understand what he is going on about and why it matters to us. Today’s Gospel reading is a case in point. Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees about how to observe the Torah – Jewish teaching – not about whether to observe it, but how to do it. To understand what is at stake in this debate, those of us who are Gentiles need a little background information.
The argument appears to be about whether or not one needs to wash one’s hands before meals. This isn’t a health precaution, but a matter of maintaining purity from the perspective of Jewish law. There are two classes of Jewish law under consideration in Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees. The first are the kashrut or kosher laws defining which foods are muttar – permitted or forbidden. These laws govern the familiar practice of pious Jews, who abstain from eating non-ruminants such as pigs and rabbits, birds of prey, and sea creatures without fins or scales. Kosher meat must be prepared in a such a way that the animal’s death is painless, and milk and meat are kept separate. Although food that is not kosher is sometimes confusingly referred to as “impure,” kosher law actually has nothing to do with the purity or impurity of the body or other items per se.
The system of law that governs what is tahor – clean or unclean, pure or impure – is distinct from kashrut or kosher law in the Torah. It has to do with the issue of pollution: touching various objects, such as a dead body, or experiencing certain conditions, such as skin diseases or bodily fluxes, which render one impure. It also governs how one can be restored to purity through certain ritual actions. Note that “impurity” is not equivalent to “immorality” and does not involve moral condemnation. A person may very well become impure quite accidentally through no fault of his or her own. In fact, most Israelites in Jesus’ time were impure most of the time (and today all Jews are all of the time), because purification required a trip to the Temple in Jerusalem (which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and never rebuilt).
According to the Torah, these two sets of rules governing kosher foods and purity regulations are kept strictly separate. While kosher food could become impure under certain circumstances, eating such food did not make the body impure. According to the Torah, carrion is the only food that renders a body impure. It seems the Pharisees imposed a stricter definition beyond that of the Torah, derived from oral tradition (the tradition of the Elders), stipulating that eating defiled kosher food would make you impure. Hence their strict observance of a ritual washing of the hands before touching food to make sure that the food does not become impure.
By arguing that only what comes out of the person renders one impure, rather than what one ingests, Jesus is protesting against the extension of the purity laws beyond their specific biblical foundation. He is actually making a conservative argument for Torah observance in opposition to the innovations of the Pharisees. Jesus kept kosher. He simply refused to accept the idea that eating defiled kosher food could make one impure. This is the meaning of his declaration that all foods are clean. All food is clean, but not all food is kosher.
Now, this may very well be interesting, but what does it have to do with us Gentile Christians? Jesus takes the argument to a deeper level, indicating that the laws of purity are a kind of parable. Those who are concerned with being contaminated by what is outside of us, miss the spiritual import of the Torah’s teaching that it is only what comes from within us – from the heart, from actions flowing from interior intention – that renders us impure.
This is underscored by the other example that Jesus’ uses to criticize the Pharisees: the practice of Corban, of making an offering to God. Evidently, oral tradition had made provision for people to avoid taking responsibility for supporting aging parents by taking a vow to dedicate their resources as a sacrifice to God only. Jesus rejects this kind of legal legerdemain as an abrogation of the demands of the Torah: a human creation devoid of the legitimacy of scriptural teaching. He is sensitive to the many ways we can use the veneer of religion to justify practices that in reality are antithetical to the deeper moral and spiritual meaning of religious practices.
Far from rejecting Jewish teaching, Jesus attempts to retrieve and protect its core concern to sanctify all of human life through the practices of justice and mercy that form, and flow from, a compassionate heart. The observance of kashrut and halakhic teaching is in the service of this core. The literal practice serves to form our intentions and actions in conformity with the love of God. Becoming obsessive about the literal practice can blind us to the mercy of God that is at the heart of the life of faith.
We do not need to worry about the contagion of impurity. Nothing and no one outside of us can defile us. What matters is what we are putting out into the world. This is what reveals our spiritual condition.
This past week I was visiting with my aunt, a conservative Baptist and something of a biblical literalist, who loves me dearly. She was telling me about her daughter’s sister-in-law, who was recently married to another woman – in Indiana. My aunt was lamenting that this newlywed’s parents and other family members refused to attend her wedding and completely ostracized her and her wife. For them, to be touched by a gay or lesbian person is to risk defilement. Their purity trumps their compassion.
My aunt, bless her heart, understands that this was not the teaching of Jesus. It is not the sexual orientation of their child – whatever they may think about it – that defiled them, but rather their cruel rejection of her. My hope is that their daughter has the faith to resist internalizing the sense of worthlessness that her family is attempting to impose upon her.
It seems to me that this is the purpose of our spiritual practices: to inoculate us from the attempts of others to define us as impure, worthless, expendable. They serve to remind us that we are God’s beloved, holy children. Our observance of spiritual practices and moral teachings are meaningful only if they help us to see ourselves and others in this way. Let our compassion be contagious.
Unless our literal observance serves this deeper meaning, it can quickly become a weapon to degrade other people while masking the rot in our own hearts. This is the tragic outcome of so many purity campaigns: they reveal more about the hard heartedness of the moralizers than they do about the morality of the “impure.” The attempts of certain presidential candidates to condemn the impurity of “illegals,” branding them as rapists and murderers, is but the latest in a long history of using the fear of contagion to manipulate and control people.
True religious observance relieves us of the fear of the other, the fear of contagion, so that we can be free to love and serve our neighbor. Authentically conservative spiritual teachers – like Jesus – are dogged and dogmatic in their resistance to attempts to dilute the core meaning of faith. They are adamant about protecting the essence of religious practice: recognizing the dignity of humanity created in God’s image and preserving the gift of a world full of wonder, beauty, and joy for generations to come.
Jesus offers us a kosher parable: it is possible to keep the whole law and lose your soul. How we keep the law, not whether we keep it, makes all the difference. It is not our purity or perfection that saves us, but only and always the mercy of God. Amen