As a child I used to accompany my father on his daily rounds on the farm. One of he tasks I remember was poisoning rabbits and foxes using 1080 and strychnine. We would lay baits and mix the ingredients without the use of protective clothing, not even gloves. When it came to lunchtime, a splash of water on the hands and a wipe on the back of the jeans was all we did before we gobble down our sandwiches.
No-one died. At least not my dad, my brother or myself. The pigs, foxes and rabbits did not fare so well.
Our modern world is very different. Cleanliness has indeed become to mean something akin to godliness, or at least scientifically defined human-li-ness. Washing hands, disinfecting every available surface, avoiding contact with anything that may contain the faintest layer of germs is of paramount importance. So much so that we are almost too clean.
Our desire to be clean has given rise to resistant strains of bacteria and bugs that fail to respond to accepted methods of treatment. Hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities are battling what are called superbugs. People go into what are expected to be clean environments and finding themselves the victims of bugs and germs causing great pain and discomfort.
In a world attuned to change and adaptation, the created world always finds a way around the intervention of man. Edward Teller has written an excellent book called, “Why Things Bite Back – New Technology and the Revenge Effect” dealing with the questions such as ‘Why after all the advances made in medicines are there deadlier diseases around than ever?; Why do new roads lead to bigger traffic jams?; Why does every major technological advance lead to paradoxical, unforeseen and unintended consequences? He cites studies showing that with every great advance there is a corresponding revenge effect: pest-control which spreads pests, exercise which diminishes fitness, cleanliness protocols which spread germs.
Interestingly, for the Christian church, it’s efforts in education, for example, has improved the education levels across society, producing well educated people with astute critical thinking capacities who have ‘abandoned’ the church. The result of helping people to think for themselves has been that they have, and in doing so have found alternative world views to that which we have, in the past, offered them.
In the natural world, what we experience is the contamination of the clean by the unclean, the good by the bad, the healthy by the unhealthy. That was the reason for the cleanliness laws in the synagogue cult. In the Old Testament “clean” and “unclean” refer to whatever makes a person, animal, or object acceptable or unacceptable to God. For example, a person became unclean by eating certain foods, touching certain objects, and having certain kinds of diseases or bodily discharges.
These laws, when strictly applied, ensure that some people were periodically unacceptable to God (women for example) and others were permanently unclean because of their occupation (shepherds for example) or because of illnesses (such as lepers). Others who touched them or a dead person were also deemed to be unclean.
Joe Sprinkle notes that “The rationale for these laws is never clearly spelled out, but several explanations probably have some validity, including hygiene, the need to dissociate oneself from disgusting or pagan things, various other ethical lessons, the association of Yahweh with life and wholeness rather than death or disorder, the separation of worship from expressions of sexuality, and the need for Israel to be separated from the Gentiles.”
Being unclean refers to the relationship between people or things and God. In some ways it may be like someone telling another, “Don’t touch me!” There is something about the relationship that is estranged. Unclean things and people were estranged from God and each other. They weren’t supposed to touch each other.
In some ways their view of unclean things is like our saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Contact with one of these unclean things made you an unclean person. There is some truth to this. If you hang around someone with a contagious disease, you are likely to end up with the same sickness. If you hang around with the wrong group of people, their bad influence may “spoil” you. There are some good reasons to stay away from certain people and things.
In Mark 5 Jesus touches the unclean. In the passage read to day Jesus touches two such people. John Petty notes that “Mark does not explicitly mention violations of the “purity code,” but there are two of them in this reading. First, the woman with the haemorrhage touched Jesus, rending him unclean. Second, Jesus touched the dead young woman, which also would have rendered him unclean.”
An interesting thing happens, Jesus is not contaminated by their uncleanliness. In fact, he takes that on and replaces it with cleanliness, the cleanliness of being in relationship with God. Jesus infers by his comments not to tell anyone, that the miracle is the restoration of their place in God’s economy, something that had only been lost by implication of the law, not by truth of God’s creative compassion.
James R. Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) writes about these three: “All three characters in Mark 5 transfer their uncleanness to Jesus, and to each Jesus bestows the cleansing wholeness of God. Mark 5 might be called the ‘St. Jude chapter’ (the saint of hopeless causes), for the Gerasene demoniac, the menstruating woman, and Jairus each find hope in Jesus when all human hopes are exhausted.” (p. 161)
Jesus mixes everything up. Jesus doesn’t become unclean by contact with the unclean people. They don’t bring him down to their level. Jesus’ holiness transforms their uncleanness. Jesus acts in a way which puts the world at rights. He is prophetic. His words and actions speaks into the world a message of inclusion and power which overcomes the hardwired view of the world – unclean triumphs of the clean.
What an amazing insight! What must that have looked like for those watching! How very different it is from our natural perception and from our treatment of those who are different to us due to age, gender, health, ability, ethnicity and station in life. Who do we accept and why do not accept them? Is there still in our thinking a sense of the clean and unclean, of the acceptable and the unacceptable, of the normal and the abnormal?
Do we look at people with suspicion, somehow certain that to engage with them may mean that we will become contaminated by whatever separates us, whatever that maybe? Or have we found through our relationship with God through Christ the enlightened freedom of cleanliness allowing us to engage with others in ways that help them to accept that freedom for themselves?
Thomas Merton writes, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy (in light of Mark, whether or not they are unclean). That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.” Jesus exemplifies this unconditional compassion is an environment focussed on religious and societal laws of exclusion, equal to the Nope, Nope, Nope of Tony Abbott, IS or the American gun lobby.
If we are one with God through our relationship with Jesus, then there is no room in our thinking for such a stand against anyone who wishes to enter this place, to share our precinct, to be a part of our community on the basis that they are not worthy or they are unclean. That is not for us to say. We are but to love them as we are asked to do.
In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, we have been witnesses to this kind of love in action. The victims of the shooting welcomed the young man into their circle. He was affected by their love despite carrying out the crime. The relatives of the victims and their fellow church members have expressed forgiveness to him and returned to open the doors and worship.
They have remained uncontaminated by his actions and offered him a way back. That is love, that is the love we have seen in Jesus and that is the love were are required to live in our own lives, the love of taking into ourselves the brokenness of others in such a way that we make it possible for them to reconnect with the kingdom of God. Amen.