George Booker
Biblical Fellowship

29. The Clean and the Unclean

Surely, in our quest for deeper understanding of the man Jesus and his message, something is to be learned from the people with whom he frequently came in contact. It is fair to say that these were not usually such as would have graced the finer synagogues of his day; nor, we might add, would their modern counterparts be immediately welcome in many of our ecclesial halls. This comes across rather impressively in catalogue form:

(1) Lepers: “And there came a leper to him, beseeching him and kneeling down to him....’If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean’ ” (Mark 1:40).

“The leper, in accord with the strict conditions of the law, should not have been so close. With torn garments and dishevelled hair he should have gone around crying ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ (Lev. 13:44,45), and he should have dwelt alone. The stern requirements of hygiene caused the Israelites to deny their camp in the wilderness to those in this condition (Num. 5:2). That the man came so close is a mark, not of callous dis- regard of the law, but of the supreme confidence which knew that he would do no injury to the Lord, while the Lord could, if he would, confer cleansing on him. Jesus, on his part, accepted the position without embarrassment, and acted with the same assurance. To touch a leper was to contract defilement; but for the Lord to do so was to bring cleansing without himself suffering any harm” (A.D. Norris, The Gospel of Mark, p. 21).

(2) The Samaritan woman and her neighbors (John 4:1-42): Even the woman at the well recognized that the Jews customarily had no dealings with the Samaritans (v. 9). To the legalistically devout this was all too literally true; the gospel record finds an exact parallel in the well-reported sayings of the rabbis: “May I never set eyes on a Samaritan!” or “May I never be thrown into company with him!” It was said that to partake of their bread was like eating swine’s flesh (A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, p. 401). Most Israelites, in traveling between Judea and Galilee, went miles out of their way, circling through Perea, to avoid traversing the loathsome land of Samaria. How this gives weight by contrast to the statement of John, that Jesus “must needs go through Samaria” (v. 4). Not only did Jesus disregard the traditional proscriptions of the land of the Samaritans, but also it was necessary that he go there! And necessary that he wait at the well, and necessary that he ask drink of the woman (unthinkable to a Pharisee), and necessary that he remain in their city two days (v. 40) to bring to their thirsty lips the true water of life.

(3) The infirm man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9):

“High on the hill of Zion the immaculately robed priests observed the temple ritual, aloof and impersonal. In the shadows of its walls the halt, the blind and the withered waited for the movement of the water” (M. Purkis, A Life of Jesus, pp. 86,87).

Among them was a certain man with an infirmity of 38 years’ duration (v. 5). By the law such a man, if a descendant of Aaron, would be prohibited from all official duties (Lev. 21:17-23). Extreme body blemishes would exclude any Israelite from the congregation of the Lord (Deut. 23:1). And so the “pure and undefiled” of Israel went their way to the Temple services, oblivious of the poor, suffering scraps of humanity who clung superstitiously to the hope of healing at the pool. Where did the Master’s steps turn, upward to the beautiful ritualized service of Herod’s house, or downward to the miserable exiles of Bethesda? The true scene of his ministry was not among the subtle analysts of the law but in the midst of suffering, diseased, afflicted mankind, those who needed a redeemer.

(4) The harlot, “a woman in the city, which was a sinner” (Luke 7:37): So astounding was Jesus’ acceptance of this harlot’s approach and service, that his host Simon the Pharisee thought surely he could not be a prophet or else he would push her away and revile her for her sins (v. 39). He knew so little of the spirit of the Saviour! Do we know more?

(5) The lunatic (Mark 5:1-21; Matt. 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-40): Christ and his disciples came to the shore at Gergesa, on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, in Decapolis. And there met them out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. Here was a man expelled from all society by his condition (insanity), his appearance (nakedness), and his abode (the tombs). Yet Jesus approached him, spoke to him, even bearing with his fantasies, healed him, and gave him of his own garments (an unproven suggestion, but quite probable, and filled with wonderful typical significance)! So impressed, however, were those of the neighborhood that they begged him to leave (Mark 5:17); a man who consorted with such men as “Legion” could certainly be no friend of theirs.

(6) The woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34): Here was another condition which, like leprosy, rendered the sufferer unclean (Lev. 15:19-30). As Jesus went on his way, she pushed her timid way through the crowd: “If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole.” This was the reverse of the legal restriction, which should have been: ‘If I touch his garment, he will be unclean also.’ How great was her faith! She knew what manner of man Jesus was: a man who could touch the unclean, and yet remain pure; a man whose law superseded that of Moses; a man to whom mental impurity was far worse than legal defilement.

(7) Gentiles: Of several examples, we note here the case of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:25,26; Matt. 15:21-28). Coming on the heels of the Lord’s discourse about the true source of defilement (Mark 7:1-23; Matt. 15:1-20), and in disregard for the traditions of the elders, this incident in which Jesus heals the daughter of the Gentile woman thus carries extra significance. Though the woman was not a Jew, her faith exceeded by far that of Jesus’ countrymen. As in the other cases we have noted, an external condition of separation was of no consequence to him who came to save the “world” and to call sinners to repentance.

(8) Publicans: Two of this hated class figure prominently in the gospels: Zaccheus, “chief among the publicans” (Luke 19:2), and one of the twelve, Matthew (Matt. 10:3; Luke 5:27). These servants of the Roman oppressors were held in such low esteem generally that the word “publican” had become practically synonymous with “sinner” (Matt. 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30). Yet Jesus found friends among this class; perhaps some real-life publican was the model for the Lord’s account of contrasting prayer styles, for the admonition of those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9-14).

On the opposite side, we have the rabbinical attitude toward the publicans: They were excluded from being judges and witnesses in legal affairs. They were seen as a criminal race, to which Leviticus 20:5 applied (about those who committed “whoredom with Molech”). It was said that there never was a family which numbered a tax-collector in which all did not become such. And they were seen as so evil that it was permissible for the righteous to lie to them to protect their property from taxation (Edersheim, op. cit., p. 516).

(9) The dead (Mark 5:35-43; John 11:1-46; Luke 7:14): Here was the ultimate defilement, the dead body (Lev. 21:1; 22:4; Num. 5:2; 9:6,10); even from this Christ did not shrink. We know he could raise the dead by a word, as he did with Lazarus. But he did not hesitate to take the dead daughter of Jairus by the hand (Mark 5:41). His was the “personal touch” of sincere love. As always, it seems, the consequences of legal “uncleanness” were ignored as irrelevant beside the greater issues of his ministry. The Lord of life came near to death, partaking of mortality, bearing the burdens of those who grieved and the curse of the law, “tasting death” on behalf of all men.

By contrast with all of the above, we find the Lord, so kind and gentle on most occasions, becoming openly aggressive in censuring the moral defilement of those who were most scrupulous to avoid legal defilement. Surely, we are tempted to think, this very “religious” (even if misguided) class deserved more diplomatic treatment at his hands. But no figure of speech was too drastic for Christ to use: They were whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27,28; Luke 11:44); cups clean on the outside, but filled with extortion and rapacity (Matt. 23:25; Luke 11:39). The reason? It may be said there are many, for the list of charges against the Pharisees is long and varied (Matt. 23:3-7,16-18,25-29,34), but certainly one reason is this: that it is dangerous to find satisfaction in any physical separation from “defilement”. “I thank thee, God, that I am not as other men” (Luke 18:11) is no basis on which to build one’s faith.

To go about preoccupied with the “sins” of others, ever mindful of how their shortcomings may reflect upon us by association, is to fight a “paper tiger”, while the true enemy goes free. “Let a man examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:28). Those things which are outside the man cannot defile him, but that which comes out of the man, from a self-righteous heart, defiles the man (Mark 7:18,20).

Brethren, how far are we really removed from the foolish prejudices and traditions of the Pharisees? Have we altogether reversed Christ’s standards, downplaying his emphasis on moral defilement — in a slow drift into the world’s thinking — and seeking to cover our inadequacies by an undue concern for legal “defilement”? We vicariously associate, through television and other media, with the worst the “world” has to offer by way of movie “stars”, sports “heroes”, and rock musicians; and, unconsciously perhaps, we absorb the spirit of this licentious and materialistic age. Then we dress in our finest clothes and drive our new automobiles to places of worship on Sunday morning, where we meticulously draw our “skirts” about us and withhold the Bread and Wine from someone who is just slightly too “sinful” or not quite well enough “informed” for our standards (‘We thank thee, Lord, that we are not like these other men’), and somehow we feel that in this we are doing God service.

We must be careful that the means by which all believers are commanded to remember the Lord’s death until he returns does not become a ritual, with supposed efficacy in the object itself, by which we establish our “purity” in a negative sense. “Negative holiness” can save no man. Neither can the proximity of a “sinner”, even one so close as to partake of the same cup, endanger our “fellowship” with one who was ever and always the friend of “sinners”, who embraced lepers and lunatics, harlots and dead bodies — yet in the best sense was still “holy, harmless, and undefiled” (Heb. 7:26).

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