“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” we read in James. Caring for orphans and widows in their distress I understand. James reminds us that religion is not so much about the things we have heard and seen and read and come to believe, as it is about the actions these beliefs generate, the lives they shape.

What I don’t understand is the notion of keeping oneself unstained by the world. Wouldn’t that imply that I distance myself from the world, that I limit my interaction with it, and wouldn’t I have to ignore the fact that the world is a part of me and I am a part of the world? And how can we follow Jesus into the world when we’re worried about getting dirty?

Wherever Jesus went, according to the gospel, people gathered. They simply came; they brought themselves, they brought the sick and the possessed, hoping that they might touch the fringe of his cloak. People came because his presence was healing, it was liberating, it was restoring and affirming.

People come to Jesus hoping to find life, new life. Keeping oneself unstained by the world implies a movement away from the world, a withdrawal to some place perceived to be at a safe distance from it, when Jesus’ entire life is a movement into the world, for the redemption and healing of the world.

We read in the gospel that some found Jesus’ proximity to “certain kinds” of people confusing and disturbing. Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were closely watching him and what he said and did. They didn’t understand why he and his disciples ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other known sinners, or why he didn’t observe the sabbath like they did.

The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism, and their passion was to live holy lives. God had chosen Israel to be God’s people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, and the Pharisees sought to fulfill that calling during a time when foreign occupiers determined much of public life. The Pharisees adapted laws written for priests serving at the Temple and applied them to daily home life in an effort to sanctify every aspect of it. Seemingly small, everyday activities became rituals of remembering, “We are God’s people.” Every moment, every action became for them an occasion to bless the God of Israel. Waking up in the morning, going about their daily work, reciting torah, breaking bread, tucking in the children at night, and going to bed – every moment of everyday life an occasion to remember, to bless, to give thanks.

Marcia Falk published a book of Jewish prayers some twenty years ago. In it, she comments on the practice of handwashing before a meal that some Jews observe to this day and others don’t. It’s not about hygiene; it’s about properly receiving the gift of bread. The Pharisees and the rabbis who came after them “saw bread as a double symbol – of God’s gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity’s sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was a reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.”[1] Marcia Falk writes that “In the case of its use before a meal, [handwashing] was originally intended, among other things, to reenact the priestly purification ritual performed when offering a sacrifice at the Temple. One might say that mandating the washing of hands before eating, the rabbis turned every meal in the daily life of ordinary people into a sacred event.”[2]

Every table an altar, every meal an act of worship, every host a priest. In the days of Jesus and the early church, these practices were still emerging and much debated, especially in the church where Jews and Gentiles had to determine which traditions to continue and which ones to abandon.

In Mark’s story, some Pharisees and scribes question Jesus, because they noticed that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. To them, it was a matter of faithfulness. Pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal was one small way to maintain a crucial boundary; it allowed them to live as God’s holy people in a world ruled by pagan idolaters. Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, while others apparently did. The scribes and Pharisees suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine their identity as God’s people.

Jesus, according to Mark, showed little patience. Quoting Isaiah, he calls them hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.

Now if somebody asked us here at Vine Street whether we live by God’s word and will or by human tradition, we would certainly affirm that we seek to live according to God’s word and will. But we would also talk about how our hearing of God’s word and our knowing of God’s will are inseparably tied to human voices, human perspectives, and human traditions. And we would want to talk some more about how this being inseparably connected to human language, human experience, and human weakness does not defile divine things, but rather reflects and reveals them.

The people questioning Jesus about the washing of hands wanted to honor the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.”[3] To them being associated with the holy God meant avoiding any association with ungodly people and things. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with wanting to keep oneself unstained by the world? What’s wrong with keeping an eye on that line between what is holy and what is not, and not allowing it to get blurry?

“Holiness demands boundaries and quarantine. [And] Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship was dismantling these boundaries and breaking the quarantine.”[4]

They saw him eating with sinners. They saw him crossing the line. But “the Pharisees never once [considered] the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners,” writes Richard Beck.

Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.[5]

When James tells us to keep ourselves unstained by the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity that defiles us. The world as  the place where the risen Christ is present and at work through the Spirit doesn’t enter James’s picture. The only move open to the church in James’s picture is withdrawal and quarantine, separation from the world. What he doesn’t consider is that Jesus isn’t rendered unclean by his encounters with human sin — no, it’s exactly the other way round: his touch makes us whole, his mercy embraces us, his righteousness includes us, his holiness sanctifies us. We follow him into the world without fear of contamination.

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Not so fast, I want to say. Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle or not so subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love. We are not impervious to the attitudes that defile a person’s dignity. We are not invulnerable. But we can’t pretend that we can create islands of holiness in the sea of unholy chaos that surrounds us. And we can’t pretend that the line dividing the holy from the unholy can be drawn between us and the world, with us safely on the holy side. The line runs through the core of our being.

“It is from within,” says Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The trouble, says Jesus, doesn’t arise from a world hostile to the holiness of God’s people. Evil cannot be walled out or fenced in or locked away or bombed out of history. The trouble arises from the human heart. And not just the hearts of others, whose intentions, pieties, and visions differ from my own. The trouble arises from my own heart.

If I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, then that’s where my attention will be, and I will learn to watch others, and criticize others, and avoid others, and accuse and condemn others. But in the company of Jesus I learn to look at my own heart with greater honesty, and the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be. The more I grasp that God, fully knowing my heart, still loves me, the more I will be capable of showing mercy to others.

Our hearts are defiled, wounded and broken in more ways than we can know, but Jesus isn’t careful not to brush against and touch those places. He has shown us that holiness is not the static quality of a distant and demanding deity. Holiness is a movement into the world, a loving fearlessness that leaps over fences and breaks down walls until it fills all things. Following Jesus we are part of that holy movement, our hearts and lives no longer shaped by fear of contamination, but by the world-redeeming love of God.


[1] The Book of Blessings, 428.

[2] Ibid., 426.

[3] Leviticus 20:26

[4] Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, 78.

[5] Ibid., 30.

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