Jesus Makes Clean All Cultural Uncleanliness
A sermon based on Mark 1:21-28
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, January 28, 2018 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A man fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out. A new age guru came along and said “My friend, you only think that you are in a pit.” A fire and brimstone pastor also came by and yelled down “Only bad people fall into pits.” A Fundamentalist added “You deserve your pit.” A Sunday school teacher pitched in “Just confess and God’ll get you out of pits.” Some volunteers came by and said “We brought you some food and clothing while you’re down there.” An Optimist said “Things could be worse.” A pessimist said “Things will get worse.” The Jesus showed up and seeing the man in the pit, he immediately took him by the hand and lifted him out.
In the gospel stories we hear time and again how Jesus blesses the outcast and expendable, the down trodden, those in the pits of life– the unclean, the trapped, by pulling them up to an equal level with and everyone in his community. 1 Jesus blesses the culturally unclean. He lifts them from the pits that society pushes them into. That’s Biblical.
But in many parts of the Bible there can also be found admonishments to stay away from the unclean, those things and people considered by the culture to be dirty, soiled, tainted, impure blemished. God is even presented as not wanting to be with the unclean. 2. The Bible has many prohibitions against those the ancient near east considered unclean. You cannot eat this or touch that or be born this way or have that disease.
It’s not just the ancient near east that has this notion of unclean. In India eating a cow is considered by many to be unclean. Not so for us, we eat beef. But in America eating a horse is considered unclean , not so for other cultures. See, what is unclean depends on the culture. Even dirt can be clean and unclean. It’s not unclean when we grow things in it. But when that same dirt is on us or our clothes, it and we, acquire an unclean status. 3.
In places of worship, holiness is often associated with cleanliness, which is to say what the culture considers clean, and have tried to disassociate with the unclean. We can see this in ancient laws in Leviticus (21) relating to worship leaders (priests), and what was then considered uncleanliness.
They shall not make bald spots upon their heads, or shave off the edges of their beards, or make any gashes in their flesh. . . shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments . . . [a] widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, a prostitute, these he shall not marry . . . no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. . . since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God.
Those associated with the unclean were not to be priests, or act out priestly duties– priests were not to be connected to the unclean.
The New Testament has this stuff like this too. 1 Timothy (2:12) prohibits female pastors, and teachers it reads: “permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man she is to keep silent.”
Of course, it is not just clergy who are not to be unclean. Ancient Israel found all sorts of things unclean and made them abominations. Pork and rabbit and shellfish; lepers and mixed fiber cloth, tattoos, and piercings, even shaving. The ancient Hebrews wanted to keep what their culture considered unclean out of their lives, and away from God.
Many churches and church people do this still. They try to keep the holy away from what they determine is still unclean under the ancient scriptures or what their culture or subculture decides is unclean (ignoring the ancient cleanliness rules that apply to them). So ushers in some churches make homeless people leave. Pastors is some churches require presentable attire. People of Color, non-heterosexuals and those of other beliefs are made to feel unwelcome or shunned by some church communities, even asked to leave– or maybe accepted, but, expected not to disclose their uncleanliness.
And it is not just pastors and church leaders who treat others as unclean, Some lay members even lash out at pastors and try to hurt their ministries when the pastor doesn’t do things the way the lay person wants. They try to taint the pastor with purported dirt, so even clergy are still treated as unclean. Churches and clergy and laity base these exclusions on this idea that unclean things are not to be amongst cleanliness, which is usually them and their idea of God or religion– and cleanliness.
Ironically Jesus’ teachings are completely opposite of these practices, scripture texts and church traditions. Jesus spins cleanliness rules on their head. The God Jesus knows and preaches about loves everyone regardless of what anyone thinks or a culture’s idea of cleanliness– including I might add scripture. The path to God that Jesus followed and taught included embracing and bringing in those whom others see as unclean.
And Jesus did not necessarily clean off of the unclean whatever was thought to have made them unclean. What he did was make their dirt no longer dirty (which in God’s view it never was!) For Jesus there appears only one kind of dirt that can defile and it comes from within. In Mark 7 speaking of cleanliness rules Jesus made this clear when he said,
“It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Notice that Jesus does not list the way anyone is born or diseases they may have, as what defiles– what is unclean. Gender, skin color, sexuality, disabilities are not listed. Neither are faith choices – the only things that Jesus declares are unclean are evil intentions and actions. Bad acts are what defile us. For followers of Jesus when Jesus says something in the Gospels, his take on things overrules any and all Biblical or church edicts and traditions that conflict with his Way. In other words, all conflicts are resolved in favor of Jesus’ Way– which is always, always, always about loving God and others. That is why it’s only evil intent and acts that he finds unclean. This means as Christians, as Jesus followers, there is no unclean thing, or unclean human except evil acts that come from within. Bad actions are unclean. There are no bad people, just bad acts.
In today’s Lectionary reading from Mark, a man with an unclean spirit is amongst the gathered in a synagogue. As we heard it is about an exorcism and healing of someone thought to be unclean. Stories of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms can be some of the most troubling parts of the gospels for us. We tend to hear the stories as asking us to believe Jesus performed supernatural events. Typically we approach them as either believable supernatural events, unbelievable events or symbolic events. But there is another option. We can understand that “healing” and “exorcism” events had a different meaning in Jesus’ day.
Today we tend to hear “healing” as the complete cure of an ailment; and we hear “exorcism” as the removal of a separate spiritual entity from a human being. In First Century Palestine healing did not necessarily mean curing a disease, it often meant healing what we might call today the perception and psychological affect of a person having a disease, the sense of illness, of uncleanliness and cultural shunning was removed. 4. In this way Jesus’ healing, of say a leper, may not have been the removal of the physical ailment but the removal of the social stigma that ailment caused. The outcast is no longer cast out, but, invited into the community healed of the culture stigma. Jesus washed the cultural uncleanliness away.
There’s another story in Matthew (8:2-3) that illustrates this perfectly. A leper said to Jesus “[I]f you choose you can make me clean.’[Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’” In that story we can hear Jesus heals the leper’s illness of being an untouchable by simply touching him, declaring him clean and making him a member of his community. As a consequence the leper is no longer untouchable, an outcast or unclean. He is healed of his social label of uncleanliness.
In Jesus’ culture people believed in spirits and spirit possession. Spirits caused diseases, so they are unclean. Those with diseases were understood to be spirit-possessed and were treated as unclean outcasts. 5. This was a deeply embedded cultural notion. The idea of demonic possession lays blame on the afflicted, whom it was thought must have done something wrong to become possessed. 6
In cultures that believe in spirit possession there are folks who can cast spirit demons out: Shamans. In the Roman Empire it was a capital offense to perform exorcisms, to be a Shaman. Because “in the first-century mind, there was a connection between demonic possession and colonial oppression” 7. In Mark and Jesus’ day, Rome was blamed for demons lurking about. So exorcisms necessarily were a challenge to Rome – and make no mistake about it, Jesus did exorcisms. Today’s story is the first story in Mark of Jesus exorcizing a demon. A New Testament professor or mine, Stephen Patterson, notes that
This is an apt introduction to a string of stories in which Jesus casts out unclean spirits. Whenever they see him they fall down and cry out. . . [Jesus] exorcizes [the] man with an unclean spirit named Legion . . .he casts out an unclean spirit from the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman . . . he heals a deaf-mute boy by casting out an unclean spirit from him . . .And because of this activity Jesus is said to have had an unclean spirit . . . Engaging the unclean casts one into their world. 8
Today we might say a person is tainted by his dealing with the dark-side. Jesus was thought by some to be such a person.
As modern folks what are we to make of these stories? First of all, we don’t necessarily have to believe in demons and spirits– we can, but we do not have to. But we do need to appreciate that the stories come from a culture that believed in them and that Shamans could remove them. What this can mean for us today is that one way or another Jesus was experienced– and can still be experienced– as one who engages in struggles “with the things that render one unclean and outside of the company of God and humanity. His ministry meant inclusion for the ostracized. . . 9.” Consequently whether we see Jesus as a Shaman who really removed demons or as a man who embraced the unclean as they were, the meaning of the stories “is the same: in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community.”10. And I might add it also takes away the idea that anyone is prevented from being with God or loved by God. Simply put, Jesus challenged the cultural rules of uncleanliness with God’s scrub brush of Love.
And those whom Jesus scrubs clean with love and brings in are considered completely clean as we can hear in today’s story. This means there is no cultural stigma left and so there is no longer grounds for exclusion or different treatment in Jesus’ community.
It is critical to understand, to get, that Jesus is not practicing toleration. He is practicing total acceptance, complete welcome– a full and loving embrace of everyone as they are. Jesus does not bring the culturally unclean into his fold and then simply tolerate what the cultural sees as filthiness. What Jesus does is refuse to consider anyone unclean – he does not tolerate the unclean– he accepts them as they are. As a result the unclean are clean as a whistle and they get to be who they are in his community – and that makes all the difference.
Jesus taught, practiced and lived a theology and way of living that asserts equality –across the board– for everyone. If one person has a right, all have the same right. There is no privileged person or group in the community. Our nation has at its roots this very same notion. Christianity is where this comes from. Equality for all is Jesus’ Way.
So when we see or hear a push in our nation for an oppressed person or an oppressed people – those considered unclean to the culture– for them to gain access to the same rights non-oppressed that have is not just the American promise unfolding, it is Jesus’ Way. He started it. Women, People of Color, Disabled, LGBTQ and people of other faiths– their efforts and their allies’ – efforts for equality are happening and Jesus’ teaching about love and compassion and treating all equally leads to this.
And there is a disconnect when those in Christianity oppose these efforts. Sadly the culturally unclean are considered filthy by many Christians, not everyone for them is loved just as they are as a child of God. This is not new, in history some churches promoted witch hunts and shunning and even the terrible evil of slavery. Some churches to this day, support racism, sexism and certainly heterosexism.
Abandoning all prejudices and living with discomfort of being in the presence of what we have been taught to see as unclean can be an uneasy thing– a very uneasy thing. But it’s what Jesus did. It is what he calls us to do. It is what he heard God, not just wants, but commands.
It’s what we at First Congregational United Church of Christ also hear we are commanded by God and Jesus to do. And so we try hard to be a place where the culturally unclean are not seen or treated as unclean, but equals– the equal that God made us all to be and call us all to consider everyone to be. Because people are never unclean, as Jesus put it, only evil acts are unclean. What defiles are evil intentions, not how we are born, or how we are disabled or even how we understand God. So everyone Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free, Male and Female, Rich and Poor, People of Color, Disabled, LGBTQ enter this church community as fully equal with all the same rights. All are loved by God. From membership to singing in the choir to participating in all areas of worship to holding hands in the pews to kissing good bye in the parking lot to being united in marriage before God in this place, and in all leadership roles everyone is equal. We are all expected to be provided the same respect and love and follow the same rules.
There are no elite here. Only wrongful actions defile and are unclean. This is not the result of the dictates of this pastor or any past pastor. This is the result of the congregation’s decision to follow God’s commands and the teachings and practices of Jesus who washed the culturally unclean with God’s Love. Here is the bottom line, the GOOD NEWS: Jesus has rendered impotent the power of dirt to keep anyone unclean and outside his community and from equal rights. 11 And we are called to make that known and to act like it and to clean off the artificial dirt people are wrongfully tainted with. May we continue to strive to answer that call. May we treat no one as unclean.
* Based in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2009
1. The story is from May, Steve, The Story File, Hendrickson Publishers, (2000), 65. I modified the words but the gist is the same.
2. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg, Trinity Press international (1998), 71.
4. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1998) 294. Crossan notes that there is a “dichotomy between two aspects of sickness: disease and illness. Disease refers to a malfunctioning of biological and/or psychological processes, while the term illness refers to the psychological experience and meaning of perceived disease” (quoting Kleinman).
6. Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992), 86.
7. Ibid, 89.
8. Patterson, 72.
9. Patterson, 73.
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