Saturday, 8 September 2012

The dead mouse theory of purity

Mark 7:1-13


We're looking today at two visions of what it is to be holy; what it is to be pure, acceptable 

There is the human vision of purity: I call this the dead mouse theory of purity.
And there is God's vision of purity: the fire theory of purity

THE HUMAN VISION OF PURITY - however that is understood - is that I am pure, but that my purity is destroyed by things and people out there. 

Our cat is very generous. Most mornings she brings us a gift of a dead mouse. Unfortunately we do not particularly like finding dead mice on our kitchen floor. So I get a tissue, pick up the unfortunate dead creature by the tail and throw it outside. The dead mouse contaminates our house and needs must go. 

The dead mouse theory of purity says that in order to maintain your purity, the dead mice, the things that contaminate you, must go. So, in order to keep or maintain my purity, I need to keep away from them. And there are a whole load of rules which are handed down to us to enable us to keep ourselves pure. 

As an extreme, we see it in the teaching of the Pharisees here in Mark 7: They do not wish to be contaminated by anything out there, and so they have these rules about how to maintain that purity.

Here they are challenging Jesus about the behaviour of his disciples: they are not ritually cleaning their hands before they eat. This is not an issue of personal hygiene and keeping yourself healthy, although I am sure that may be part of the origin of this teaching [the story is told of the little boy brought up by Christian parents, who told him to wash his hands before eating. He was heard muttering under his breath, 'all I ever hear is germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus - and I can't see either of them!']. Rather it is about ritual contamination: they've been in the marketplace so may well have touched  Gentiles or non-ritually clean Jews.
I experienced this myself, several years ago, in Tesco in Hackney, on a  Friday afternoon, just before the Sabbath began. The cashier asked me not to hand her the money but to put it on the side in case my hands touched hers, and she would become unclean and be unable to participate in the sabbath festival.

That is an extreme example. 
But most of us live our lives on the same set of assumptions.

Basically we think we are OK, and the real problem is not in here but out there: it is other people: the foreigners, the perverts and paedophiles, the fanatic moslems, the mentally ill, the liberal judges, the bankers, the politicians. They are the ones who defile us, who make us unclean.
The Nazis, in their propaganda videos, used to liken Jewish and gay people to rats, running through the sewers and spreading disease. 

And, according to this theory, what we need to do is keep ourselves away from the 'untouchables': whether that is people or things.

And - this is more for the passage next week - have you noticed how obsessed we have become in what we put into ourselves, in what we eat? Of course we need to eat healthily, but there is this assumption that if you are messed up, then it is because you are allowing the wrong stuff out there into you. 

This vision of purity and acceptability is very reassuring. 
It tells me that I am OK, and if I am not OK it is their problem and not mine. What I need to do is to make sure that the people around me, or the food that I eat is correct. All I need to do is follow the correct rules.
It is, I'm afraid, what 90% of people - even within our churches - think that Christianity teaches: 'You're OK and provided you follow the rules (read the bible, come to church, be good and loving) you'll keep OK'. 

But this vision of purity has serious problems
1. It can lead to terrible fear, and people putting great burdens onto themselves and others.
Have I followed the rules? Am I following the right rules? Have I done this or that correctly?
Sign of the cross in Russia - 2 fingers or 3. A new denomination sprung up.
I remember, just before going into finals, a Christian friend saying to me, 'Oh no. I haven't prayed about this'. 

2. It leads to judgementalism: 
We get that here. The Pharisees look down on the disciples because they haven't followed the rules.
It can and does lead to a presumptuous pride: I keep all the rules, so I am OK.
And it can also lead to people judging and condemning themselves. They take into themselves the judgements of other people, and they end up believing that they are the unclean, the untouchables. And they gain acceptance among the 'unclean' and 'untouchables', and they start to live by their rules. 

3. It leads to hypocrisy: the problem is that the people who teach the rules do not always keep the rules themselves. 
The outside does not match up to the inside: in Jesus' words, our worship begins and ends with our lips. 

Jesus gives an example: 
The law of God expects people to both honour their parents, and not to curse them (i.e. to bless them). That meant, in their culture, that children needed to practically, financially support their parents - very different to today when  there were no pensions, no social security and no NHS. 

But there was a tradition, a rule - it is not in the bible - that if you said that the money you intended to give to support your parents was 'Corban', dedicated to God, you did not need to give it to them. 
The origin of the tradition would have been in the idea that if God is honoured with your money then he will look after you Himself. And, like many traditions, it could have begun as a right impulse. A child intending to give money to his or her parents is told by them that they should give it instead to the work of the Lord - and there was the assumption in the OT that if you gave to God, God would meet all your needs. There are echoes of this in Jesus' teaching: 'Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness - and all these things will be added to you'.
The problem was that children were using this tradition as a way to avoid giving money to their parents. They were saying, 'This money that I would be giving you is going to be given to the Lord', and then giving it - but giving it IN PLACE OF the money that they would have had to have given anyway to the worship of the temple. So the children actually end up better off, the temple remains the same, and the parents are left high and dry.
In other words, a rule, which on the human vision of purity, allowed you to maintain your holiness, acceptability, actually just allowed you to carry on being selfish and doing evil. 
As Pascal said, 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.'

4. (and this is critical) It cannot change the heart: 
Jesus said, 'This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me'.

The human view of purity, that it is something that we have which we need to preserve - and we preserve it by keeping the rules, just does not work.
If, adapting someone else's words, it looks like a pig, snorts like a pig, eats like a pig - it is a pig, even if it is wearing Jack Wills or has taken a shower in Lynx

GOD'S VIEW OF PURITY is that it is not about what is out there, but what is in here. And the problem is that none of us - the rule keepers or the rule breakers - are right here.
That is why the bible repeats again and again that the astonishing gift of God, that he longs to give to each person who humbles him or herself to receive it, is nothing less than the gift to us of a new heart, a new centre - a Spirit filled and a God inspired heart. 
And when that happens the commands of God cease being an external law, something that is outside of us that stands over us and demands that we obey it. It becomes an internal law, something written deep in our heart, something that we desire to do.
Barry was speaking of a man recently converted: he is an inspiration. He has such a love for God and his word. He is not perfect, far from it, but he is now looking and going in the right direction

It is only when we have a new heart, a God heart, that commands and tradition come into play. 
At the heart of all the commands of God there is but one overall command: love the Lord your God - and your neighbour as yourself.
A person with a new heart, a God heart, will desire to love God more than anything else, and as they love God they will begin to love other people, for God.

And purity - given that it begins in here, in the heart - does not have to be defiled by what is out there. Rather purity is like a fire, which does not avoid what is out there, but which can transform and burn that which it comes into contact with, so that it too becomes pure.

And so do you notice how here Jesus does not simply diss tradition. Instead he points us to the very reason for tradition, the heart of tradition. He could have chosen any illustration of the hypocrisy of Pharisees. But the illustration that he uses is the perversion of the biblical command to 'Honour your parents'. The reason that we should respect tradition, and not change everything for the sake of changing everything, is because of love: of love for our parents and for those who have gone before us. We are one fellowship with them. Yes, we need to constantly test those traditions against what the bible teaches, the commands of God, but unless there is a very good reason for changing, we should hold to those traditions - not in order to try and keep ourselves acceptable or undefiled by the world - but as an act of love, of honour to our parents and to their parents. That understanding of tradition and church history is deep within the DNA of what it means to be a Christian within the Anglican tradition. 

So I finish, by asking several questions:
What is your vision of holiness, of purity, of acceptability?
Do you have a dead mouse theory of purity:  you are OK so long as you keep yourself pure from the people and things out there, and you do that by keeping the rules?
Or do you recognise that the problem is in here, in the heart?
And if that is the case, have you come to Jesus to ask him to give you the gift of a new heart.

Jesus longs that we should be people who have new hearts, who confess him with our lips, who worship and obey him with our lives and who are on fire with a love for him. 






No comments:

Post a Comment