Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).
There is a time and place for everything. Dirt belongs in the garden, not on the living room floor. Wear a suit and tie to church, but not to wash the car. Play the latest hit by Widespread Panic at a party, not at a funeral.
If we get any of the above wrong, it does not make anyone sick or do irreparable damage. But it violates our sense of propriety. It introduces a touch of chaos. Life is stressful enough without that.
We usually keep those conventions without question. In doing so, our world seems more orderly. We feel under control, grounded.
That assurance has an enduring psychological history. The ancient mind experienced the world as one full of pollutants. Anything out of place polluted. Purification, then, brought security.
Who determined proper and improper place and time? The deities who ordered the world. Pollutants offended dvinity, hence their danger. To make matters worse, they were contagious, making exposure to pollutants all the more common.
So purification took center stage in ancient religions. Religious ritual often revolved around sacrificing animals who took their owner’s pollution upon themselves, taking it with them as they died.
Jesus defied the purity laws time and time again, frightening the scribes and Pharisees. They imagined God’s wrath boiling a degree hotter with every violation, eventually to spill upon them all. After all, pollution was contagious, and as long as Jesus kept up his act, he polluted everyone.
To offer context for the brief example to follow, note violations of proper time and place, pollutants according to the purity code among Jews of antiquity:
- A person with a physical deformity.
- A polluted person in sacred space, like a synagogue.
- Addressing or approaching a polluted person.
- Working on the Sabbath, a time set aside for worship and rest.
Now consider this story:
[Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. [The scribes and Pharisees] watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Mark 3:1-6).
Responding to such an act of mercy, not to mention to a miraculous healing, with plotting to kill the healer appalls us, leaves us incredulous. But if we see it through the eyes of the ancients, it is not so absurd. And imagine how it scandalized them that his multi-violation of purity laws led to healing!
Nevertheless, Jesus had different ideas about what purifies. He too got his ideas from the tradition, most notably the prophets. Elsewhere, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). And this is not one mere proof text: The prophets repeatedly assert the priority of loving-kindness over ritual purification.
Purity still matters. We need it to order our world. We seek it to please the God who ordered all things. But in Jesus and his witness to the spiritual heart of the Jewish tradition, we see that God first ordered things not according to tidiness of places and times but according to the gloriously messy business of love.
If pollution blocks our view of God’s glory, mercy cleans the glass. Love purifies. As you prepare to encounter the risen Lord in this season, cleanse yourself as he does. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b).
The image (public domain) of Christ healing the man with the withered hand is a Byzantine Mosaic in the Cathedrale in Monreale.