Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Twentieth Birthday, GW!

Goatwalker, by Larry by paynehollow
Goatwalker, by Larry, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

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.



Marshall Art said...

I don't get this obsession with trying to make Jesus into some kind of activist. The point of the Samaritan story had nothing to do with purity or holiness codes, but was merely a means of illustrating that all people are our neighbors. He was addressing a question about the definition of "neighbor".

If there was ANY attempt to address social or political concerns in any way, it was through the individual and the individual's relationship to God and his neighbor, his understanding of what God's Laws were meant to do in making us what He wanted us to be. He's always speaking to the individual in all His teachings and seeking to compel change in the individual, not in the gov'ts or social systems made up of all individuals.

Dan Trabue said...

The point of the Samaritan story had nothing to do with purity or holiness codes, but was merely a means of illustrating that all people are our neighbors.

And you know this, how?

Do you ever stop and consider how words that seem so tame today might have seemed IN context? Do you honestly think Jesus was killed because he was a sweet guy doing nice things? How does that make sense?

Marshall Art said...

Just like you lefties like to assume nasty intentions when the rest of us speak the truth, so did the Jewish religious leaders get all defensive when Jesus spoke the truth. But that doesn't mean that it was the intention of Jesus to "FIGHT THE POWER!!".

As to how I know what I know, I actually do what you claim to do, and that's read the Bible in context. Let us review from my NIV Bible:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus,
Pay attention here. "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said:
And what follows is the story of the Good Samaritan which concludes with Jesus compelling the expert to see that the one who had mercy on his fellow man was the neighbor of the beaten man. There is no mention of purity laws or that such laws were the reason the others in the story passed the beaten man on the other side of the road. Indeed, He chose this scenario because of the animosity between the two groups. He could have used the Hatfields and the McCoys to make the same point in exactly the same way.

Dan Trabue said...

If that is the way that makes most sense to you, go for it, Marshall. I don't find your case compelling, though.

I DO wonder, though, what Truth you think Jesus spoke that offended the Jewish leaders? Was it his "love your enemies..." or, "love your neighbor as yourself..." or even his "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites that you are!"?

I also wonder, do you recognize that the Levite and priest were heeding biblical law when they passed by the near-dead stranger (which forbade them to touch a dead man)? Do you recognize that those hearing Jesus' words would recognize the problem in what Jesus was suggesting?

Do you recognize how prevalent the Purity code mentality was in this day and age?

Pardon my observation, but you seem to read these stories from a very modern viewpoint, with little consideration for how things likely sounded in that time period.

Parklife said...

You know what they say...

"I say if Jesus wanted everyone to have insurance, he'd have been crucified on a Blue Cross/Blue Shield." -- Stephen Colbert

Marshall Art said...


"If that is the way that makes most sense to you..."

It's the only way it can based on the text itself. Nothing added. Nothing imagined.

As to "imagined", I would offer the notion that they walked away so as not to touch a dead guy. How did they know he was dead, especially since he wasn't? If they were truly loving their neighbors, they would have risked the hassle of going through purity rituals on the chance that they heart was still beating inside the obviously beaten man. THIS is the only rational angle here, because though one wasn't to touch anything dead, it wasn't as if there was no way to deal with having done so that was perfectly acceptable to God. If you think that the purity law was to have prevented such charitable activity, then you understood it no better than the Pharisees did.

Gotta go...

Marshall Art said...

So anyway...

"Do you recognize how prevalent the Purity code mentality was in this day and age?"

If there was any sin, it was not in touching something dead as much as it was not purifying one's self afterwards. They wouldn't let their dead grandfathers just lie and rot in their homes. They wouldn't let let dead cattle or other animals rot in their streets. There's nothing to suggest that they used HazMat suits and ten-foot poles to deal with dead things, but only that there were ways to purify one's self afterwards and thus separate themselves from the sin/death connection, which was the point. Maybe you or your pastor can come up with some other example that shows anyone avoiding dead things like the plague to support this wacky notion that Jesus meant to suggest anything other than that the priest and Levite were not acting like what Jesus intends a neighbor should.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

By way of barging in, may I just point anyone interested to this interview which includes the following:

In Unclean, I’m building on the work of Walter Brueggemann and Fernando Belo. As they argue it, within the life of Israel there were two competing visions of uprightness before God—the Levitical or priestly vision and the prophetic or justice vision. The Levitical tradition focused on the experience of cultic purity before God whereas the prophetic tradition focused on rehabilitative activity to care for the poor and marginalized. However, as Brueggemann notes, these impulses live in “profound tension” with each other. They are, in fact, often at an impasse. So when we reach Jesus in Matthew 9, we see him stepping into a conflict that isn’t fully resolved in the Old Testament. Which tradition should be privileged in the life of Israel? What does God demand? To use the words of Miroslav Volf, should the church function through “exclusion or embrace”?[3] Thus, when we see Jesus quote Hosea in Matthew 9:13—“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”—we can read this as Jesus decisively privileging the prophetic tradition in the life of Israel. Eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:11) is the proper understanding of what it means to be upright before God as opposed to standing with the Pharisees who were excluding such people in the pursuit of Levitical purity.