Monday, May 14, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (IV), Week 20: Jesus on Ritual Purity - Overview (Mt 15:1-20)

Having completed the third section of Jesus' teachings, Matthew spends chapter 14 discussing some more miracles of Jesus. Then, in chapter 15, we return to another set of teachings by Jesus. In this passage, Jesus teaches about ritual purity.

Now I have written before extensively about ritual purity, and have no desire to make you read through it again. Instead I will give merely a brief overview before continuing on, so that you can understand how the ancients viewed morality.

In modern times, we tend to view morality as a scale from "bad" to "good". But in ancient times, they saw things as more complex. They viewed your purity or morality in two ways: who you are and what you have done. The "who you are" part--which I have called the relational axis of purity--is a description of how "set apart" or "holy" you are based on your birth: a Jewish Levite male, for example, has more inherent relationship purity with God than a slave Gentile female. So this part of holiness is substantially out of your control, but carries with it rights (and obligations) which allow you different levels of access to God. The "what you do" part of purity--which I call the cleanliness axis of purity--is a description of whether your actions are within the realm of pleasurable company for God.

At the heart of ritual purity is not the question, "Am I morally good?", but rather, "Am I pure enough to approach God without shame?" To the Jews, when approaching God your relationship to Him determined how close you could get to Him; your cleanliness determined whether it was honorable for you to approach at this time.

For example, the High Priest's access to God (relational axis) gives him a purity that allows Him to approach God in the Holy of Holies: by comparison, a Jewish female's access to God is restricted to the Temple's Court of Women, while a Gentile lord is restricted even further away, to the Court of Gentiles. But just because they have the right to access these areas based upon their relationship to God does not mean that they can do so shamelessly. This aspect of purity is based upon their current cleanliness--things such as sin, or menstration, or ejaculation, or a host of other things can cause men and women to be unfit to meet God at their appointed locations.

This concept is called ritual purity: a moral code which determines whether a person is presently fit to go before God. It is for this reason that the Levitical codes (which are based upon ritual purity) are so strange to us--some things are within our control (e.g., what we eat, what we do), and others are out of our control (e.g., when women menstrate). But the purpose of ritual purity is not just morality, but rather is morality plus cleanliness plus relationship to God.

This background is very valuable as we reach Matthew 15, for in this passage Jesus is teaching about the ritual purity laws. And, as He had a tendency to do, Jesus is going to say some things which shock His listeners: things which we will fail to understand without a proper understanding of ritual purity.