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JESUS CONFRONTS THE PURITY CODES
SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B St. Thomas Independent Catholic Church
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Leviticus 13:1-2;44-46 Psalm 32:1-2,5,11 I Corinthians 10:31-11:1 Mark 1:40-45
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Humans are social beings. That undisputed fact really comes home to us when we are sick. We look to other people to comfort and take care of us. Even terminal illnesses, which remind us that we might die, elicit comfort and support. When it comes to afflictions like cancer, friends and family rally to form networks to care for us. But among some so-called Christians, there seems to be one exception: AIDS, which is an acronym for “acquired immune deficiency syndrome.” Theirresponse seems to be to blame the victim, particularly if the victim was gay. Their underlying assumption is that somehow, sexual orientation was a choice that God should punish. Modern science, however, has proven otherwise…one’s sexual orientation is genetic, not a choice. The so-called Christians victimizing AIDS victims have it wrong on another front as well: straight people can contract and pass AIDS; anyone can get it through intravenous drug use, as well as through blood transfusions. It can also be transmitted by a mother to a child in her womb. Yet, despite these facts, some of those so-called Christians think AIDS is punishment for sins, particularly so-called sexual sins.
These attitudes towards AIDS are similar to the way the people of the Old Testament treated lepers. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is no longer the problem it was in biblical times. Modern medicine can and does cure the very rare cases that pop up now and then. But the way the ancient peoples treated lepers was similar to the way some so-called Christians treat AIDS victims. Like the way the lepers were treated, they isolated and stigmatized them. Lepers, like the AIDS patients about ten to twenty years ago, were left to suffer the deterioration of their bodies alone, ostracized by strangers, friends, and even their families. These patients often experience psycho-social suffering that equals, and sometimes surpasses, their physical pain.
What’s at work here are the “Purity Codes” that are laid out in some detail in the Book of Leviticus, Chapters 11 through 15, in particular, Chapter 13, that deals with skin diseases. Leviticus originated from what’s known as the “P Source” or “Priestly Source,” one of four sources of the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch. The traditional view is that Leviticus goes back to the time of Moses, but most scholars now think that Leviticus developed much later, either around the time of the deportation to Babylon in the sixth or fifth centuries before Christ, or perhaps as late as after the return from exile, a few decades later.
The Purity Codes were intended to be a model for the relationship between the so-called chosen people and their God. The Old Testament priests thought their place of worship became holy by the presence of the Lord and kept apart from uncleanliness, so, purportedly, God will dwell among the people of Israel when Israel is purified, that is, made holy, and therefore separated from other peoples in the area. You see, for many centuries, the people of Israel did nothave exclusive use of their territory – they were constantly fighting off pagan tribes like the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Jebusites, and the Gergashites who worshipped strange Gods, and in some cases, offered human sacrifices. The Purity Code in Leviticus was, for the people of Israel, an important way to distinguish themselves from these other groups and their disgraceful practices. In the mind of the Levitical priesthood, observance of the Purity Codes was necessary to be able to approach God and be part to the Jewish community. So it’s not hard to believe that the entire society was structured around the Purity Codes. A purity system is a cultural map that puts everything in its place. The concept of purity in Leviticus was intended to reduce the fear of unknown or hostile unclean powers to a legal concept, that is, the Levites thought that uncleanness is hateful to God, and must be avoided by all who have to do with God. Obviously, that concept is not very scientific, but even today, so-called Christians, out of ignorance, ascribe AIDS to sin, just as some of the rabbis thought the same thing about leprosy.
The Jewish equivalent of bible commentaries is called a “midrash,” and a particular one that deals with chapter thirteen of Leviticus is called “Negaim”. It taught that leprosy was the result of ten different kinds of sins, including idol-worship, unchastity, bloodshed, the profanation of the Divine Name, blasphemy, robbing the public, usurping a dignity to which one has no right, overweening pride, evil speech, and an evil eye. The Negaim goes on to cite various parts of the Toráh to back up these assertions, just as some Christians go through the bible and do proof-texting to develop so-called evidence to support their opinions.
Despite science, leprosy and AIDS are among the few diseases where society holds the afflicted personally, and pejoratively, culpable for their suffering. These harsh judgments show a certain smug attitude that says, “they got what they deserve”. That kind of thinking defies common sense and Christian charity. In the face of modern science, Purity Codes are irrational, but some so-called Christians still apparently have a need for them to marginalize and scapegoat those they consider impure, such as what the right-wingers do to the LGBT community.
Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus, however, had a different approach. By way of analogy, Jesus touching the leper was like Yahweh stretching out his hand to part the waters to free his people in the crossing of the Red Sea, as described in various passages of Exodus, but that would notbe the whole story. It is much more concrete, much more human than that. Here in today’s Gospel, the leper approached Jesus in a meek and humble way, wanting more than anything else to be made clean. Jesus, despite the prevailing Purity Codes, touched the supposedly unclean man. Thus, Jesus paid no attention to the abstract concept of exclusion; he dealt with it as a concrete reality, here and now, in the flesh. As was the case throughout His ministry, Jesus doesn’t think much of the Purity Codes. Jesus openly challenged those Purity Codes on more than one occasion, not only with words, but with actions. Jesus instituted a new form of behavior by openly disregarding the Purity Codes many times when He healed people. For Jesus, the Purity Codes were simply not part of the new aeon that began with His Incarnation. Purity Codes were something to be left behind, left out of the new age that was to characterize the coming of the Kingdom of God. Hence, Jesus directly challenged the Purity Codes by open defiance. He shared his meals with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. His open table policy presented the vision of an inclusive community, that numbered among its members many outside the boundaries of the purity system, including women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized,
Jesus didn’t buy into the dualistic view of wholeness, that what is pure is holy, while what is impure was dangerous and/or evil. Jesus, instead, looked at the leper as a person, not just a leper, and honored his dignity as a person instead of shunning him, as was the prevailing custom. In the legal world, we lawyers have a set of sayings called “maxims of equity.” One of those is, “when the reason for the rule has been abolished, so should the rule.” Jesus recognized that principle throughout many aspects of His ministry, particularly when it came to ministering to people. Today’s Gospel says that when Jesus touched and healed the leper, He was “moved with pity”, illustrating that for Jesus, the humanity of the person to whom he was ministering was of far greater importance than obeying any rule. For Jesus, the reason for the Purity Codes vanished, because He saw that in any conflict between what rules require, and what human compassion mandates, human compassion wins. Jesus was not a rules-based person, and Christianity is not a rules-based religion. It is a religion based on God’s acceptance of us as is, where is, with all faults. By healing the leper, Jesus is telling us that rules based religion is not part of the Kingdom of God.
The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries, between virtuous people and sinners, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. What Jesus did was to remove the dividing lines that the purity laws represent, and which separate those who participate in God’s community, and those who stand outside. With Jesus, however, there are no outsiders. There are no outcasts. Jesus includes everyone, without exception. With Jesus, there is no longer any boundary between acceptable and unacceptable. Red or yellow, black, brown or white, we are all acceptable in God’s sight, human laws notwithstanding. Jesus touched an untouchable. For Jesus, no one is untouchable. Here, Jesus saw a need for a change in the status quo. He wanted rules replaced with compassion. That is because God is compassionate, and Jesus saw compassion as the route to true holiness. For Jesus, purity was on the inside of a person, not the outside. The way Jesus reasons, is that what comes out of us shows what is inside us.
At the time Jesus encountered the leper, leprosy had caused fear and loathing for centuries. According to the prevailing law and custom set out in the Book of Leviticus, a leper was required to live outside the community, ring a bell and cry “unclean.” But here, Jesus was, for this man, a way to re-enter the community with his family and friends. That is why Jesus told him to go show himself to a Temple priest, so that others would believe he had been cleansed and he could once again be among his family and friends. This man was so thankful and overjoyed that he was made clean, that he disregarded the instructions from Jesus to not tell anyone about it. Jesus didn’t want the man to spread the news about his miraculous healing indiscriminately. That was because Jesus realized that people didn’t yet have the full context in which to understand who Jesus was and why He was performing miracles. Still, the man found it hard to keep the good news private and not to tell others about it. The result was the story got out about the healing power of Jesus, and made him highly popular right away. Whatever might have caused Jesus problems with crowds didn’t last, because later passages in Mark depict him with large number of people, and withoutsigns of distress.
The healing ministry of Jesus illustrated what the Kingdom of God would be like for humanity, that is, a restoration to a condition of blessedness, where we thrive and flourish, no longer oppressed by the powers of evil. Today’s Epistle invites us to do everything we do to the glory of God and to imitate Jesus in the way our society lives, which doesn’t include enforcing purity codes against other people.
The Greek word “Ekklesia” is often used as a word meaning “church.” A more accurate translation is not a physical building or a denomination, but “those who are called.” We, that is, all of us, not just clergy, are the Church. We are a community called to fight against invidious and irrational segregation of all kinds, such as the segregation of religious, cultural or racial minorities, the economic segregation of so many millions of human beings in the world who live below the threshold of poverty, human dignity and subsistence; and the segregation of the invalids, the handicapped, and the disabled in the midst of a society governed by competition and material gain. The segregation mindset is still part of the culture in some places, like Alabama, where governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to oppose racial integration and where today State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore obstructed the Federal Courts by telling the probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
As disciples of Christ following in his footsteps, we, the Church, are called to fight against all these and all other forms of segregation. Our faith calls us not to make distinctions between persons when we help them and to serve in charity. Jesus did not make distinctions between those who approached Him to be helped, between the good and the bad, rich and poor, nobles or common people, high priests, soldiers, or lepers. So why should we? Jesus helped them all, as we all should.
The leper story in the Gospel makes clear the power of God to touch, to cleanse, to make whole, and to incorporate outcasts into the community, is not just something we imagine or want. It is, rather, a tangiblepower, something we can touch, experienced in each of our lives to overcome the brokenness and suffering from the unclean powers of today’s world as we move from an ethos driven by Purity Codes, to one driven by compassion.
The leper cleansing story we heard today makes clear that the Gospel will always have the power to overcome the boundaries of Purity Codes that interfere with the spreading of the good news from Jesus, that the Kingdom of God is at hand, is with us today, and will be forever. AMEN.