Monday, February 9, 2009

Contagious Holiness

Cleansing is central to the episode recorded in Mark 1:40-45. A leper comes to Jesus and says "If you are willing, you can make me clean". Jesus responds "I am willing, be cleansed". Mark then tells us that "Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cleansed". Finally, Jesus tells the former leper that he must go show himself to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded.

In first century Judaism, it would have been difficult to find categories that were more important than that of clean and unclean. Ritual cleanliness and purity were almost synonymous with holiness and therefore with Israel's understanding of its mission as God's people. To be unclean, like the leper in this story, was to be excluded from participation in God's covenant relationship with Israel.

In this passage, Jesus seems to simultaneously challenge and uphold these notions of purity and cleanliness. As has already been noted, cleansing is central to the story. It is important that this leper be made clean. Furthermore, after the man is cleansed, Jesus tells him to go show himself to the priest and take actions in accordance with the law of ritual purity.

Nevertherless, Jesus' response to this leper is not completely in line with first century Jewish standards. The standard response would have been to avoid the leper completely. Instead, Jesus is moved with compassion and reaches out to touch the man. This contact with the leper should have made Jesus unclean but what actually happens is the reverse. Jesus makes the leper clean.

Passages like this one can and should go a long way in guiding those of us in the so called "holiness tradition." Too often, our ideas of holiness are much like those of Jesus' contemporaries. We try to maintain a certain level of purity by keeping ourselves separate from everything in the world that might make us unclean. While holiness is certainly an important and essential part of our mission as the Church, we should not underestimate the power of Jesus at work within us to make clean those with whom we come in contact. If Jesus' touch has been powerful enough to cleanse us, why shouldn't we assume that it will be powerful enough to cleanse all those to whom we reach out in Jesus' name? A truly scriptural holiness ethic should not lead us to separate ourselves from the world with all of its impurities. It should lead us to engage our world with the love and compassion of Jesus.

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