A Proper Cleaning
Mark 7:1-5, 14-23
Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders of his day was ongoing. Mark tells of an incident in which Jesus & these leaders were disagreeing about the cleanliness laws, the dietary laws, & the regulations that had to do with ritual purity. Now it would be easy to assume that the controversy over such laws is dated, maybe of some historical interest but surely not relevant to us today. But actually it brings up matters that are very relevant for human life in any culture, in any century. Here’s what happened:
< Mark 7:1-5 >
According to the cleanliness laws, if you touched a dead animal or human being, if you had an infectious skin disease like boils or sores, if you came into contact with mildew (on your clothes or articles in your home), if you had any kind of bodily discharge, or if you ate meat from an animal designated as unclean, you were considered ritually impure, defiled, & unclean. That meant you couldn’t enter the temple - & therefore you couldn’t worship God with the community. Such boundaries seem harsh to us, but if you think about it, they are not as odd as they sound. Over the centuries, people have fasted from food during times of prayer. Why? It’s to aid a spiritual hunger for God. And people of various faiths kneel for prayer. Isn’t that uncomfortable? It’s to aid developing spiritual humility. So the washings & efforts to stay clean & free from dirt & disease used by religious people in Jesus’ day were a kind of visual aid that enabled them to see that they were spiritually & morally unclean & could not enter the presence of God unless there was some kind of purification.
If you’re going to meet with someone who is particularly important to you – that big date or a job interview – you wash, brush your teeth, & comb your hair. What are you doing? Getting rid of uncleanness, of course. You don’t want a stain on you. You don’t want to smell bad. The cleanliness laws were the same idea. Spiritually, morally, unless you are clean, you can’t be in the presence of a perfect & holy God.
Jesus couldn’t have agreed more with the religious leaders of his day about the fact that we are unclean before God, unfit for the presence of God. But he disagreed about the source of the uncleanness, & how to address it. Mark tells us:
< Mark 7:14-16 >
According to Jesus, in our natural state we are unfit for the presence of God. Most modern people have a problem with this. Many would say, “Ok, ancients found the world a scary place because they didn’t understand how nature worked, & so they created myths to explain things. They wanted to feel more in control. They dreamed up moral absolutes & wrathful deities that had to be appeased. When anything went wrong, it was because the gods were unhappy. So ancient people were riddled with guilt & shame.” But today, they would say, we’ve moved on from moral absolutes. No one knows for certain what is right & wrong, & nobody knows about God. We all have to decide for ourselves & not be held to another’s standard. Besides, we believe in human rights & the dignity of every person. We don’t see an individual as unclean or evil. We think human nature is basically good.
That is what is often said today. If there is a God, we don’t believe he is a transcendent holy deity before whom we stand guilty & condemned.
And yet we still wrestle with feelings of guilt & shame. Where do they come from?
One of the great writers of the 20th century, Franz Kafka, explores this problem in his book The Trial. In the beginning, Joseph K is having a normal life, but then he is arrested & taken into custody. Nobody tells him what he did wrong. Why am I arrested? What have I been accused of? He is not told. He goes from one prison cell to another, & then to a hearing, then another. Nobody ever explains. Everybody is hard & unsympathetic. They say, “You have to talk to my supervisor. I’m only following orders.” He continues from hearing to hearing, cell to cell. Nobody ever tells him what is wrong. Joseph K puzzles over his life. Maybe it was for that. Was I arrested for that? That doesn’t seem like it was bad enough, but maybe that is why… He never does find out. In the end, one of the wardens stabs him & he dies.
In one of his diaries, Kafka says what may have been the theme of The Trial: “The state in which we find ourselves today is sinful, quite independent of guilt.” In other words, we live in a world now where we don’t believe in judgment, we don’t believe in sin, & yet we still feel that there is something wrong with us. I think Kafka was on to something. We have abandoned ancient categories, yet we still have a profound, inescapable sense that if we are going to be examined, we are going to be rejected. We have a deep sense that we must hide our true self or at least control what people know about us. Secretly we feel that we aren’t acceptable, that we have to prove to ourselves & other people that we are worthy & valuable.
Why else do we work so hard, always saying, “If I can just get to this level, then I can relax?” And we never do relax once we get there – we just work to get higher. What is driving us? Why is it we can never allow ourselves to disappoint anybody? We have no boundaries, no matter what people ask of us, how they exploit us, trample on us, because to disappoint somebody is a form of death. Why does that possibility bother us so much? Where are these self-doubts coming from? Why are we so afraid of commitment? Kafka is saying, “You don’t believe in sin, you don’t believe in judgment, you don’t believe in guilt - & yet you know you are unclean.” We may psycho-analyze it: I have a complex; my parents didn’t love me enough; I’m a victim; I have self-esteem issues. But there’s no escaping the feeling that we all sense we are unclean.
Jesus tells us why we can’t shake that sense of uncleanness. The story continues:
< Mark 7:17-19 >
Jesus’ language is quite graphic here. Whether you eat clean or unclean food it goes into the mouth, down to the stomach, & then (literally) out into the sewer. It never gets to the heart. Nothing that comes from the outside makes us unclean.
< Mark 7:20-23 >
What is really wrong with the world? Why can the world be such a miserable place? Why is there so much warfare between nations, races, tribes, & classes? Why do relationships fray & fall apart? Jesus is saying: We are what’s wrong. It is what comes from the inside. It’s the self-centeredness of the human heart. It is sin. In fact, these evils that come from the heart make us so unclean that Jesus later tells his disciples:
< Mark 9:43-48 >
Sinful behavior (the reference to hand & foot) & sinful desires (the reference to the eye) are like a fire that has broken out in your living room. Let’s say a cushion on your couch has ignited. You cannot just sit there & say, “Well, the whole house isn’t burning; it’s just a cushion.” If you don’t do something immediately, the whole house will be engulfed. Fire is never satisfied. It can’t be allowed to smolder; it can’t be confined to a corner. It will overtake you eventually. Sin is the same way; it never stays in its place. It always leads to separation from God, which results in intense suffering, perhaps in this life, & certainly in the next. The Bible calls that hell. That is why Jesus uses the drastic imagery of amputation. There can be no compromises. We must do anything we can to avoid it: If our foot causes us to sin, we should cut it off. If it’s our eye, we must gouge it out.
But Jesus has just pointed out that our biggest problem, the thing that makes us most unclean, is not our foot or our eye; it is our heart. If the problem were a foot or an eye, although the solution is drastic, we could deal with it. But we can’t cut out our heart. No matter what we do, or how hard we try, external solutions don’t deal with the soul. Outside-in will never work, because what causes most of our problems works from the inside out.
Thanks be to God, God has provided an inside-out cleansing. It comes through Jesus. One week before his sacrifice, Jesus began to prepare. And the night before, he didn’t go to sleep. What happened to Jesus was the ugliest, cruelest event in human history. Instead of being cheered, nearly everyone he loved betrayed, abandoned, or denied him. And when he stood before God, instead of receiving words of encouragement, God forsook him. Instead of being clothed in rich garments, he was stripped of the only garment he had, he was beaten, & he was killed naked. He was bathed – in human spit.
Why? God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). God clothed Jesus in our sin. He took our penalty, our punishment so that we can get what Revelation 19:7-8 pictures: Let us rejoice & celebrate… fine, pure white linen to wear. Pure linen – perfectly clean – without stain or blemish. Hebrews 13 says Jesus was crucified outside the gate where bodies were burned – the garbage heap, a place of absolute uncleanness – so that we are made clean. Through Jesus Christ, at infinite cost to himself, God has clothed us in costly clean garments. It cost him his blood. And it is the only thing that can deal with the problem of our hearts.
Are you living with a failure in your past that you feel guilty about & that you have spent your life trying to make up for? Or maybe you are more like Kafka: not particularly religious, not especially immoral, yet you are fighting that sense of inconsequentiality. You might be doing it through religion or politics or wealth. You might even be doing it through Christian ministry. Doing, doing, doing; all from the outside-in. It won’t work!
James Proctor put it best in his hymn, “It Is Finished:” Cast your deadly “doing” down – down at Jesus’ feet; stand in Him, in Him alone, gloriously complete.