|Muslims wash their hands and feet here before praying in the mosque|
on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
When I was growing up, my parents did not allow a deck of playing cards in the house. Card-playing was wrong, it was sin, and therefore made us spiritually impure. I didn't know why this was so. As a child I didn't question it or find it weird.
When I became a Jesus-follower I began to wonder where this purity law came from. I found out that, among the Finnish Lutherans of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my family was from and where I was born, card-playing was associated with drinking and gambling. Someone who was a Christian didn't drink, gamble, or play cards. We were to be "set apart" from such things because they were impure and brought stain to our souls. Put biblically, we were to be "holy" (Greek hagios, 'set apart'). God would be pleased if we kept the cards out of our house.
This is called a "holiness code." Every culture has one, with accompanying purity laws. Purity laws are lists of religious 'Dos' and 'Don'ts'. For example, during Jesus's time, one could not touch a dead body lest it make you ritually impure. Or eat certain foods.
"Impurity" is a sort of invisible dirt that people pick up through contact with various things. In ancient Judaism one contracted impurity through contact with things like corpses, sexual fluids, other genital discharges, skin diseases, and, in the case of women, through childbirth.
New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes:
"Originally, in Judaism, purity and impurity only really mattered when one visited the Temple. God’s presence in the Temple made it a kind of pure space that would be defiled by someone in a state of impurity. But by the 1st century AD, there was a tendency to think that, since purity was a good thing, one should aim at being pure as much as possible.
All over Palestine, archaeologists have found ritual baths [mikvah], which indicate that it was not just groups such as the Pharisees who cared about purity. Many ordinary people evidently took care to remove impurity when they contracted it. It was part of the desire to be the holy people of the holy God." (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 23)
Jesus violated many of the existing purity laws. In doing this he clashed with the religious leaders of his time. Larry Hurtado and Chris Keith write:
"Jesus’s healing and teaching caused turmoil for Jewish leaders because it created a point of access— Jesus himself— to forgiveness and purity outside the sacrificial system and the temple. It also therefore created alternative definitions for who is in God’s community, who is out, and who decides. Jesus placed himself at the center of God’s restoration of Israel, a place that Jewish tradition reserved for God. These symbolic claims from Jesus, among other aspects of his ministry, are what infuriated the Jewish leadership in the Gospels." (Hurtado, Larry; Keith, Chris, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Kindle Locations 992-996; emphasis mine)
Jesus redefined purity, giving us a new way of attaining it before God. Many impure people, hearing of this, sought out Jesus. Jesus was now the road, the door, the Way, the point of access, into the family and presence of a holy God.
The hemorrhaging woman was impure according to Leviticus 15: 25; the ten lepers were impure according to Leviticus 13– 14; the woman who washes Jesus’s feet, if a prostitute, was impure according to Leviticus 15: 17– 18; and Zacchaeus was likely considered impure because he consistently came in contact with impure gentiles and handled their money. Jesus’s healing of the bleeding woman, lepers, and sinful woman restored their purity, just as dining with Zacchaeus as a legitimate “son of Abraham” symbolically restores Zacchaeus to Israel. (From Hurtado and Keith, K986-991; emphasis mine)
Bauckham says the key question for Jews during this time was how to maintain purity and be God's holy people in the situation of the hyper-impure Roman occupation. Facing this situation, the Pharisees "greatly extended the purity rules in the Torah and made purity a major concern of daily life" (Bauckham, 25)
Into this world came Jesus, who stood against the social, economic and gender stratifications of his society. He fought against Judaism's purity codes.
Purity codes are about distinctions, divisions, and separation. Jesus broke down the walls of separation from God and others as he proclaimed and lived out the new reality of the Kingdom of God. He ate with the poor, with outcasts, and sinners. Jesus touched and healed the sick -- the leper, the demoniac, the hemorrhaging woman.
In doing this he shattered and subverted ritual law. Jesus disregarded the existing purity taboos and approached both women and Gentiles, thereby demonstrating his contempt for the prejudices of purity.
Jesus moved outside the prevailing religious system of atoning sacrifices, and independently - in himself and by his authority - proclaimed the forgiveness of sin and thus restored purity and holiness to people.
2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him
and said, “Lord, if you are willing,
you can make me clean.”
3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”
Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.
4 Then Jesus said to him,
“See that you don’t tell anyone.
But go, show yourself to the priest
and offer the gift Moses commanded,
as a testimony to them.”
- Matthew 8:2-4
The Real Jesus came to make people clean, holy and acceptable to God.