Come with me on a Travel Channel journey to another, and ancient, culture. Try to understand this culture, and how the people thought. We are going to journey back and look at the ritual purity system of Judaism. Many people in the ancient world, not just Jews, believed in invisible impurity caused by all kinds of occurrences, such as trespassing on priestly property, touching a corpse, having a skin disease, or having an emission of bodily fluids like a nocturnal emission or menstrual blood. These substances were seen as being out-of-place, or disgusting, and so impure. Some of the causes of impurity were not considered sinful, some were.
It was believed that the Jerusalem temple collected all the impurity of the people. Bodily emissions were not considered sinful, but they caused impurity. The sacrificial cult was for the purpose of cleansing impurity from the Temple, keeping the Temple clean for God to dwell in. This is priestly theology, different from the more ethical and social concerns of the prophets, and different also from household religion, practiced in each family. This was very public temple-centered religion, administered by the priesthood.
Now, it’s easy to look down on this kind of religion, especially if we compare it with a kind of religion that is more advanced, like a religion centered on the covenant values of justice, mercy, and faith, namely the religion of the most famous of the literary prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and so on. And it is understandable that we prefer the higher religion. But let’s think for a moment about a phase of religion that was earlier and more primitive than the priestly religion, a superstitious and fear-dominated period, when the god was thought to demand sacrificial food, and was thought to actually consume the smoke of sacrifice. There are many traces in the Old Testament of this primitive level of religion, where God demanded to be fed, wanted to smell “the pleasing odor” of sacrifices (Gen 8:21; Exod 29:25; Lev 1:13, 17; Num 15:3, and dozens more). Long after they stopped believing that God really devoured the smoke, “pleasing odor” remained as a technical term for a correctly-administered sacrifice.
Temple-centered religion is more advanced than that earlier religion in several ways. The Temple itself was really a symbol for the nation. The concept of impurity created anywhere in Israel becoming lodged at the Temple, shows us that the Temple was a symbol for the nation. They (the priests) would not have called it a symbol. They thought that it literally attracted impurity created anywhere in Israel, and that they needed to cleanse the Temple so God would remain there. It is we, looking back, who can say that the Temple was a symbol for Israel, and sacrificial cleansing was a symbol for good relations with God.
From our more advanced stage, we can say their beliefs look like magic—the belief that acting upon a symbol has a real effect upon the thing symbolized. We can compare it to the magical notion that you can affect a person by acting upon a doll that stands for the person. Of course, we are beyond that now. But people have to be allowed to progress through the stages. We don’t look with contempt upon a six-year-old . . . unless we are an eight-year-old. Generally we do look with contempt upon the stage from which we have just graduated. Or we look at it with nervous laughter and derision.
The priests turned the sacrificial cult into a sort of sacred technology that resulted in cleansing, as long as the sacrificial regime was followed. It seems a bit mechanical, of course, but it enabled them to stop being afraid of God. They believed God had provided the sacrificial system, giving them a way to ensure God’s good graces. That is why the comments of Amos and Jeremiah, the two prophets who attacked the idea that God had established the sacrificial system (Amos 5:25; Jer 7:22), were so radical, and so threatening, even to scholars today who try to say they weren’t really opposed to sacrifice. Actually, they were. And Jesus might have been, too. It’s not wholly clear. If Matthew were our only gospel, we would have to say that Jesus was opposed to sacrifice, since, in that gospel, he twice quotes Hosea’s line, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (6:6) or, as NIV has it, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” But this same degree of anti-sacrificial radicalism doesn’t show up in the other gospels. Matthew did not invent this theme, but he may have heightened it.
But it does seem clear that Jesus takes issue with the purity system, since he does this in all four gospels. And Jesus clearly stands in the line of prophets, defending the principal values of the covenant: justice, mercy, and faith. And he uses Isaiah to indict the ritual-obsessed, the purity-infatuated Pharisees.
Jesus is saying there is no such thing as ritual impurity, only moral impurity, the result of lying, slandering, hating, selfishly desiring, self-vaunting, adultery, and violence. So the word “impurity” becomes a metaphor for immorality. Jesus is replacing the concept of ritual impurity with a moral teaching. Obviously, Jesus did think that it was time for the Jews to outgrow the priestly system that was dominating their religion. Whenever purity-dominated believers criticized his disciples for not following purity-practices, Jesus fought back. He would defend their relative looseness about ritual rules, their liberalism. Jesus and his disciples were liberals, as regards purity rules and even social barriers . . . led by Jesus, of course. The disciples were not always ready for his level of liberalism, but he led them in that direction, led them to include foreigners, tax collectors, women, Samaritans, teenagers, like Mark, who was a teenager when he followed Jesus.
I wanted to establish that priestly religion is more advanced than primitive religion, but less advanced than ethical religion, so that we remember not to be too arrogant, and so that we take a long-term view, and develop a concept of religious development and advancement over time. These stories show us one advance that needed to be made at one time, and so the confrontation between the two views of religion was very intense. There may be times when we face an intense choice between two different concepts of God, and it is necessary that we choose the more advanced idea, that we recognize that God is spirit, and not physical; or that we recognize that God wants us to thrive and be healthy, not to suffer; or that we realize that God does not need to be paid off or bought off, but that he desires what is good for us, as a loving and helpful parent always desires for his or her child. On those occasions, there may be a sharp choice that we need to make, between the higher idea and the lower idea.
But there are other times when we don’t need to pour scorn on earlier levels of religion than the level that we are at, but can recognize that each level had its own time, and was then outgrown. The sharpness comes when it is time to outgrow an outmoded idea, and the religious authorities refuse to outgrow it.
The idea that homosexuality is a sin, for instance, is being recognized as an outmoded idea, a vestige of superstition. Homosexuality is not a sin. Sin is some cruel or dishonest action that is consciously chosen by the individual. This is a crucial point. Sin is deliberately chosen evil, which could instead have been rejected. One can choose not to steal; one can choose not to kill. But one cannot choose not to be homosexual if that is what is deeply felt inside. People who try to become straight, who get married and have very patient and supportive spouses, find that their basic sexual orientation is unchanged, even after decades of prayer and effort. There are developmental and psychological reasons for homosexu–ality, and different reasons in different cases. Human sexuality is complex. It came up in the course of this sermon because of Jesus’ rejection of the idea of ritual purity.
We, too, have our purity systems. We, too, have our rituals. We have our stages of development, and our outgrowing of previous stages. It seems that calling homosexuality a sin is from a previous stage, like calling left-handedness a sin. It seems that it’s time to move on to the next stage. Immoral action involves mistreating another person, mistreating a child, for instance. Moral people, including moral homosexuals, have a revulsion against doing any such thing.
The real spiritual heart of this passage is the Isaiah quote Jesus uses. He is exhorting us to be close to God in our hearts, not just honoring him with our lips. When we do that, we will be able to respect ourselves, respect others, and be respected.