Our church just celebrated the 20th anniversary of an open mic coffee house we hold for everyone, but especially our homeless, mentally ill and otherwise marginalized friends. Yesterday’s sermon celebrated that ministry, and for that reason and simply because it was such a very good and topical sermon, I’m posting it here in its entirety…
Because we are so far removed from Jesus’ culture, we often miss the real impact of the stories that we read. We read scriptures in a personalistic way, and don’t see the political or the social implications. And thus we see Jesus as such a nice guy that we wonder how anyone could kill him?!
The temptation is to read this morning’s story in the same way. It’s a lovely story, really. Jesus is moved with compassion for this poor leper, and he reaches out, touches him, and heals him. Then sends him on his merry way to visit the priests, in keeping with the Jewish laws.
Except that what we don’t realize is that this story is NOT about gentle Jesus meek and mild healing a leper, this story is about angry Jesus – while some of the ancient texts say moved by pity, or compassion, others say, moved by anger (orgistheis), and that is certainly in keeping with the anger that he shows a little later on in the passage. This story is about angry Jesus taking on the oppressive systems of his day, deliberately breaking the laws of his day.
In Jesus’ day, the primary paradigm that shaped his Jewish social world was: Be holy as God is holy. That was the rule of the day, the lens through which the Jews interpreted their world.
Hundreds of years before, when the Jewish people had been hauled off to Babylon, they were faced with the crisis of being assimilated, sucked up, into a foreign culture. You remember the story of Daniel, who refused to eat the diet of the empire, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to bow down to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Psalmist who sat down by the waters of Babylon weeping, refusing to sing for captors. “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” he cried.
It was a full blown crisis for the people of Israel. Not only had they been forcibly removed from their homes, they were now, bit by bit and day by day, being asked to give up who they were. And it was out of that experience that the Jewish people began to interpret the Torah, in a way that stressed, above all, God’s holiness, God’s set-apartness, thus their holiness, their set-apartness as God’s people. It was during that time that the sections of the law which emphasized separation and purity became dominant. This emphasis was so severe, in fact, that you may recall that it was during that time that Ezra instructed the Jews to put away (divorce, abandon) their foreign wives and children.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus’ society, which was now facing the threat of being assimilated into Roman culture, was structured according to that interpretation. The purity system or the politics of holiness, as it is now called, was one of the ways that the Jewish people coped. It kept them separate from everyone else. But it also kept them separate from one another by establishing a spectrum of people ranging from the pure to varying degrees of purity to people on the margin to the radically impure (Borg).
People were determined to be pure or impure according to some extent on birth. The priests and Levites, who were hereditary classes, came first, followed by Israelites, followed by converts, and on down the line.
But one’s degree of purity or impurity also depended on behavior. Those who lived according to the purity codes were seen as pure. And there were, in fact, at least two renewal movements in Jesus’ day in which people sought to become even purer. The Essenes, who believed that the only way to be pure was to remove themselves from the culture, and who lived in the desert, and the Pharisees, who tried to maintain strict codes of purity within the culture. Those who didn’t or couldn’t maintain these purity codes were seen as outcasts. And of course, the outcasts included occupational groups such as tax collectors and shepherds.
One’s degree of purity or impurity also depended on physical wholeness. The people who were not whole, the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, etc., were impure.
Also, one’s degree of purity or impurity was associated with economic class. While it was certainly possible for a rich person to be impure and a poor person to be pure, it was generally believed that rich people were rich because they had been blessed by God and that poor people were poor, or that sick people were sick, etc., because they had not lived rightly, and were thus not blessed by God. (Which is why Jesus’ statement that God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust is so remarkable.)
And, it was almost impossible for a poor person to observe the rigid purity laws.
Purity and impurity were also associated with the contrast between male and female. Generally speaking, men in their natural state were thought to be more pure than women. And, of course, purity and impurity was also attached to whether one was a Jew or a Gentile.
The purity system had become the political system, and it worked for those who were in power. It kept them rich. For example, farmers were required to tithe part of their yearly crop to the priests and the Levites. If they did not, then their food would be considered unclean, and no one would buy it. Another example, before a leper could be proclaimed clean, he or she would have to bring in a rather hefty amount of offerings to the priest, who could then do the necessary healing rituals. So the concept of holiness had become the politics of holiness, and in fact, the economics of holiness. The powers were highly invested in keeping the status quo, and the best way to do that was to keep everybody in their place.
Okay, that was Jesus’ culture. And we need to know and understand that in order to truly understand the gospels. For example, Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan, with which we’re all so familiar, was an attack on the holiness code. The Levite and the priest passed the man by not because they were particularly apathetic or hateful, but because they were not, according to the holiness code, allowed to touch a dead person, and they couldn’t tell if the man, who is described as ‘half-dead,’ was dead or not. The Samaritan, who is radically impure, comes by, acts out of compassion, not purity, but compassion, and is praised for his actions.
And Jesus was not just attacking the holiness code in this story, he was teaching a whole new one, to be compassionate as God is compassionate (Luke 6:36). He even uses the same formula. Remember, the paradigm of the day was, Be holy as God is holy. But Jesus comes teaching, Be compassionate as God is compassionate. And he doesn’t just teach it, he does it.