By Mark Michael
“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matt. 9:13)
I prepared for the priesthood at Oxford University in England, and among other things, Oxford is famous for preserving odd and colorful traditions. All over the world, for example, people use Greenwich Mean Time, the official standard set by the royal observatory near London. Everywhere, that is, except in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.
Before Greenwich Mean Time became standard with the introduction of the railroads, each place had its own time, and Oxford time was five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich time, so in the cathedral all bells ring and all services start at five minutes after the hour. That Oxford runs five minutes behind the rest of the world may be a very apt symbol of things.
And then there is the matter of the city wall in New College. The wall dates from the 12th century, and was built to repel local ruffians and plundering Norsemen. The threat had subsided a bit by the 1370s, when the Bishop of Winchester asked for permission to build the college. The city authorities gave him permission, so long as he and all the wardens of the college after him agreed to maintain the wall.
They have kept their promise, and if you visit New College you can see a well-maintained wall, in perfect readiness to repel any plundering Norsemen who might try it. Every year, I am told, the Lord Mayor of Oxford makes an official visit to New College to inspect the wall, to be sure of its soundness. I never witnessed the ceremony myself, but I should imagine it involves silver mallets, a few anthems by the excellent choir of the college, and some glasses of fine wine from the warden’s cellar.
The wall and Oxford time are good examples of what is called anachronism, a thing or an idea or a person, even, which is carried over from one time, where it is perfectly normal and appropriate, to another, where it is odd or useless. Anachronisms can work the other way as well.
I’ve just finished a biography of Shakespeare, and one of the author’s major complaints is that modern people so often misunderstand Shakespeare’s work by importing back into his time our assumptions about poetry, drama, and the role of the author. Anachronisms can be rather charming or quaint, they can just be odd, or they can be destructive.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is clearly defining the purity laws of the Old Testament as an anachronism, something out of place in the new time that is beginning with his ministry. You can read the lesson and miss this entirely. Jesus calls a disciple, he eats and drinks with the disciple’s friends, and then he heals a woman and raises a little girl from the dead.
And those stories alone can teach us about how Jesus was so attractive to different kinds of people, how he bears the power of God, how he is filled with compassion for the weak. But no one in his own time could have heard about these stories and missed the way in which he was attacking the purity laws head-on. If you were an attentive first-century Jew with a reliable “purity radar,” the readings would be off the charts by the end of the passage read this morning.
The purity laws are an important part of the Law of Moses. The idea behind them is ritual cleanness. In order to worship God and to participate in the life of his people, you must avoid certain kinds of food and certain situations. A faithful person, the purity codes say, must be watchful. He must make decisions carefully, sometimes taking the more difficult option to avoid a compromising situation. If one did become unclean, there were ways to be restored to the community: certain sacrifices and prayers could usually accomplish it, but some kinds of impurity were very serious, and carried heavy penalties.
Most people know about the unclean foods: pork and shellfish and so on. But there were also many other practices that could make you unclean. Meals needed to be accompanied with the appropriate kinds of ritual washings, or they could make you unclean. Blood generally made you unclean, so women were considered impure during the menstrual period. Dead bodies were also unclean.
So if you look back at this story, what do you see? Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. Part of the issue here is that these were compromised people, perhaps not so respectable in their morality. It might be okay to transact business with them or have a conversation with one of them. But social outcasts, almost by definition, didn’t bother keeping all those laws about food and washings.
So Jesus was sitting down to an unclean meal in the party at Matthew’s house. Again, he is called to a house where a young girl is very sick. Nothing was wrong with that. But on the way, he is touched by a woman with an issue of blood. The term means that the woman was continually bleeding from her genitals.
That means that for 12 years, she had been unclean. She could not enter a synagogue, she had almost certainly been divorced by her husband, who would become unclean himself if he lived with her. And she touched Jesus, which made him unclean. But Jesus doesn’t scorn her. He commends her for her faith, and he heals her immediately.
He goes on to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and he is told that the girl is dead. They meet him at the door with the news. This is a signal. Any self-respecting religious figure would leave, because to enter the house, especially to touch her dead body, would again make you unclean. But Jesus charges right in. He goes up to the dead young girl and raises her to life again.
So what’s going on here? Jesus is not being arbitrary. He’s not breaking the purity codes because they are inconvenient or because he is somehow exempted from obeying them. If he is who he says he is, the Messiah, the Son of God, then he has the power to rewrite the laws. His coming marks the dawn of a new age, the kingdom of God, he calls it — the reign of God on earth. And in this new age, there are new standards that represent the new purposes and vision that God is bringing to life.
I don’t think Jesus is saying that the purity codes had always been wrong. In their time they had been very important, like that wall that runs through the middle of New College Oxford. For centuries, the people of Israel had been called out from all the other nations, called out with a distinct purpose, to be the ones through whom God would bless the world. And the great challenge that they faced was keeping distinct, not blending in and taking on the ways of the people that surrounded them.
They were a small and weak state surrounded by much larger and more powerful empires with their own religious and cultural practices. The pressure to give in and to start worshiping Babylonian or Egyptian gods was tremendous. If you know your Old Testament, you will know that many of the kings couldn’t resist the temptation.
In a situation like that, all those picky little rules in the Law of Moses were extremely important. Over and over again, perhaps hundreds of times a day, the faithful Jew had to remember the law. The law, with all its picky details, was the greatest sign of the covenant, that passionate and purposeful bond between God and his people.
Why won’t you eat that? Because I am a Jew. Why won’t you go there? Because God’s people are called to be different. Why won’t you eat with those people? Because the covenant matters to me. All of these little laws reinforced the special identity of the chosen people. By keeping them carefully, you could avoid falling into the big sins, worshiping idols and forsaking the covenant. The principle here is extremely important, and good and sensible.
In Jesus’ own time, when the Romans were ruling the land, and everyone was exposed at every turn to the tremendous accomplishments of the culture of Greece and Rome, the issue had become very important again. The question was, “Will we Jews give in and become wannabe Romans, compromising to help get by?”
King Herod, for example, was a wannabe Roman. He built stadiums and dressed in togas. His compromises had made him very successful, and many Jews admired his example. But other Jews, especially the Pharisees, despised Herod’s approach. Instead, they turned back to the law. They loved God and the sacred covenant and the traditions of their ancestors more than success and cultural acceptance.
They were the ones who were so deeply concerned about purity, and they were the ones who were most vocal in criticizing Jesus. They were probably a bit self-righteous. That’s certainly part of Jesus’ critique of them in this passage. But their intentions were not all bad. They insisted on purity for very important, religiously honorable reasons.
But Jesus represents another way from both the Pharisees and the supporters of Herod. He attacks the purity codes because God has changed his agenda. God’s favor, his blessing, his covenant promises, are no longer restricted to the children of Abraham. Grace is thrown open to the whole world, to those who “need a physician.”
Anyone could become part of the kingdom of God, if he repented of his sins and followed Jesus’ way with sincere faith. All those complicated laws, designed to exclude most of the world’s people, got in the way of this new agenda, and so they had to go. These kinds of anachronisms had no place in the new kingdom. For the mercy of God to come to life, the wall had to fall down.
And in this meal and these miracles, Jesus is beginning the demolition. When he is confronted by the Pharisees about this, he points back to the words of God through the prophet: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” What the prophet meant was that the big picture was more important than the details.
Achieving God’s fuller purposes was more important than minding the Ps and Qs of the purity codes. The principle may have been an old one, but make no mistake about it, Jesus is doing a new thing. He has defined the beginning of a new era. Like President Reagan in Berlin, his message is clear: “Tear down this wall.”
The message was a radical one, and it took some time for the early Church to decide just what to make of it. Soon after the Day of Pentecost, Gentiles began to embrace the good news about Jesus, not just unclean or lax Jews, but those outside the chosen people entirely. The greatest conflict in the apostolic church centered on what should be done with them, how much of the old faith they needed to take on.
St. Paul, the former Pharisee, led the charge in saying that the new age demanded a new approach to communion with God, that the Christian vision should be centered on faith in the gospel message, not obedience to the Law of Moses. For the next few months we will be reading through his greatest work, the Epistle to the Romans, and that is its great theme. As you hear Romans read in church, listen in to what Paul is saying about what the law can and cannot do. He is determined to proclaim that no one can be shut out from the promises of the gospel because of the details of the purity code.
The issue at the heart of this remains important to us today. As we reach out into the world with the good news, we need to begin by saying that the promise of eternal life is extended to all people. Anyone may become a follower of Jesus. It is never right to say that before you become a Christian you must dress a certain way, or have a certain set of political opinions or belong to a certain social class.
As Paul would say elsewhere, Jesus has pulled down all the walls of separation that we humans build up to keep each other apart. The Church must be a truly catholic body, a community of people of many races, languages, abilities, and positions, bound together in the communion of the Spirit and a common obedience to God’s will. The Christian way is always demanding, and we will always need God’s help as we pursue it. But it is open to all who would listen to God’s call, and come and follow. In Christ, there are no outsiders.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and editor of The Living Church.