A Sermon on Purity and Defilement: Mark 7: 24-30

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To follow the gospels well, there are always basic questions to ask.  Where is this event taking place, and does that matter?  Who is watching? Who is Jesus speaking to, touching or even healing? Who is opposing all this, and finding it offensive or difficult? And, what is the point?


These questions are relatively easy to resolve.  The narrative on purity and defilement takes place in gentile territory, signalling taint-risk.  Jesus has fed the 5,000, and crossed into areas that the Pharisees and teachers of the law would have been wary of: this is unclean land, folks.  But they have followed Jesus into foreign territory, because they want to trap him in conversation.

Moreover, the discourse we heard a moment ago is a preface to the healing of a woman’s daughter.  The Syro-Phonecian woman is one of several ‘foreign’ people that Jesus heals who do not belong to a Jewish faith community.  Distraught, she craves attention from Jesus – begging for “crumbs under the table” – because she hopes Jesus will not deny her comfort.  She sees the compassion of God poured out in Jesus Christ.  She intuits that she is not defiled in Jesus’ eyes.  But even after Jesus’ lecture on purity, the disciples still want to send the woman away – she’s not one of their kind!  Yet she persists.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table”?  In the gospel, the comparison to dogs is not friendly.  There is no way of reading Jesus’ remarks other than as derogatory.  So what is going on?  The woman is a Canaanite, of course – a Syro-phoenician.  To the disciples, then, she is not Jewish, but of another faith. Worse still, she is of a faith that is mixed-weave, and cultic.  This is one of the faiths despised by all good Jews: an Old Faith, but one that is mixed in with more recent arrivals – Hellenistic, especially.

And dogs, of course, are not thoroughbreds.  They rarely are.  So the derogatory remark from Jesus is pointed. Herself and her faith are “dog-like”.  These people and their religion are mixed-breed.  We also know that Jews sometimes called gentiles ‘dogs’ for precisely this reason.  They are impure.  Jews were pedigree: annual winners of “Faith-Crufts”. So when Jesus called Herod a ‘fox’ – a sneaky scavenger that preys on the vulnerable, he insults him. The term ‘dog’ is all about ‘aliens’ and their inherent impurity.

Jews, forbade them from homes, and kept them out of the Synagogue courts.  We know that in Canaanite tombs, dogs were buried with their owners.  So dogs are ambivalent creatures in Jesus’ world. To some, friendly pets to be fed, and useful for hoovering up crumbs; to others a metaphor signalling impurity.  The central question in Mark’s chapter 7 is focussed on purity: do you feed the animals, or regard them as unclean?

I want to suggest that Jesus is not interested in outward purity. He is, rather, interested in your inner life.  Which is, of course, deeply linked to his own incarnation. Jesus is for the blend. The Kingdom of God Project is not just for the Jews, but for all. It will incorporate Jew and Gentile; slave and free; make and female; sick and sinner.

Jesus is an expression of God’s heart for humanity. He is the Body Language of God.  The kingdom is for all. It belongs in the alleys, not just the temple. It welcome Samaritans, not just Sadducees; Publicans, not just Pharisees. The wisdom of the lecture on purity, followed by the miracle, is that it preaches incorporation: this is what the church is to be – a body that grafts into itself.

Let me offer a local reference – local to us, anyway.  Tucked away in a hidden corner of East Oxford, behind the Cowley Road in the direction of what was once ancient marshland, is a house and chapel built for the seclusion of lepers. 

The (St Bartholomew’s) Bartlemas chapel and the adjacent Bartlemas hospital was endowed by King Henry I back in 1126 so that the terrible threat of leprosy could be safely excluded from the city of Oxford.  Infectious diseases of all kinds were common enough in mediaeval Europe, but the 12th and 13th centuries saw an unprecedented rise in leprosy right across Western Europe as crusading knights returning from the Holy Land brought newer and nastier threats to the public health of our island community.

The official response was a mixture of pity and horror. Some wealthy and influential patrons tried to ensure a minimum of decent care for the sick, there were many others who went along with those primitive feelings of disgust and revulsion that led to a systematic rejection of the most vulnerable members of the community, who were ostracised to the very margins.

Sadly, the church went along with this policy of exclusion.  Following literally the injunctions of Leviticus 13, the church required anyone suspected of contracting leprosy to present themselves to a priest. If the leprosy was confirmed, the person was pronounced legally dead, cut off from society, and dispossessed of all their material wealth.

You can find in the archives, the details of a special ritual which accompanied the process of social banishment. It was presided over by the church in a chilling liturgy called “The Mass of Separation”. The unclean person is led out to the leprosarium after the fashion of a funeral procession. Typically the victim is then formally clothed with a simple set of leper’s garments, basic everyday utensils and a begging bowl. Sometimes they are actually forced to stand in a coffin for the duration of the rite. The priest then reads out the binding admonition that will finally sever all links with the wider community:

I forbid you ever to enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people. I forbid you to leave your house unless dressed in your recognisable garb and also shod. I forbid you to wash your hands or to launder anything or to drink at any stream or fountain, unless using your own barrel or dipper. I forbid you to touch anything you buy or barter for, until it becomes your own.

I forbid you to enter any tavern; and if you wish for wine, whether you buy it or it is given to you, have it funnelled into your keg. I forbid you to share house with any woman but your wife. I command you, if accosted by anyone while travelling on a road, to set yourself down-wind of them before you answer. I forbid you to enter any narrow passage, lest a passer-by bump into you. I forbid you, wherever you go, to touch the rim or the rope of a well without donning your gloves. I forbid you to touch any child or give them anything. I forbid you to drink or eat from any vessel but your own.

Our history teaches that fear, horror, and primitive dread, in any society can provoke the cruellest reflex responses to fellow human beings who have the misfortune to represent some loathsome threat to the wellbeing of the community. Tainted. Unclean. Excluded. Lepers.  These were some of the ugly dynamics faced by Jesus. 

Then, as now, the identity politics that played out between powerful groupings in religion and society took a particularly cruel toll on some of the most vulnerable people. Lepers ejected to the margins, were made to represent in their tainted identity the fears and forebodings of a whole community uneasy with itself.

So what is the lesson in all this?  Well, it is this. Try and see the world and the person not through your labels or lenses, but as God sees them.  Remember that Jesus is more interested in your heart and mind than how you might appear to others.  Remember that Jesus especially befriended those who were deemed to be worthless, scorned or demonised.  Don’t collude in, or accept, the labels people use on you – or on others.  God sees through these things.