"If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?" The priests answered and said, "No." Then Haggai said, "If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?" The priests answered and said "It does become unclean."In short, impurity is contagious. Holiness is not. If someone touches something common with something holy, it does not make the common object holy. But if someone becomes unclean and touches something common then that common object does become unclean.
God says through Haggai that this is how it is with the people of Israel as well.
"So it is with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the Lord, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean."We have heard previously in Haggai that the people have begun to rebuild the temple. This verse seems to imply that they have also started to offer sacrifices there as well. One would think that this would be a good thing but God declares that "every work of their hands" is unclean because they themselves are unclean. They are polluting the very sacrifice which is meant to bring cleansing, not because they are offering the sacrifice wrongly but merely because they are an unclean people. It is God's presence alone which can sanctify this people and their gifts but it is their own impurity which drives God's presence away. In essence, it seems a hopeless situation.
But God promises to bless the people anyway. Rebuilding the temple and offering sacrifices isn't enough to make room for God because no matter what works are done they are offered by unclean hands. But God ignores that reality and promises to dwell with the people and bless them despite their impurity. God chooses to enter into the very contaminant of sin and impurity which should guarantee God's absence.
This passage in Haggai reminds me of a story in the first chapter of Mark's gospel. A leprous man came to Jesus asking to be cleansed. Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with pity and reached out and touched the man. According to Jewish ritual law, this action should have made Jesus unclean. Instead, just the opposite happens. The leper is cleansed.
In many ways, this is the essence of the gospel. We live in a world fouled by the stench of injustice and contaminated by the sins of misdirected love. Even whatever good works we might offer, are stained by the brokenness of our frail nature and the corrosive systems that surround us. These are the things that should drive a holy God away from us. Instead, this God steps into our world and into our flesh and even into our death and bursts the bonds of all our corruption and weakness with the new breath of resurrection life. This is grace. Grace that is greater than all our sin...
And I think this grace of God says something about what it means to be the holy people of God too. Often, in our "holiness tradition" as Nazarenes especially, we have envisioned holiness as a separateness from our culture. Undoubtedly, there is something to be said for being a people who live differently than those around us. But perhaps we should consider what it means for our notions of holiness to accommodate this passage from Haggai and the story from Mark as well. If we are the body of the Christ whose touch cleansed the leper rather than being contaminated by him then perhaps we can rub shoulders with those who might threaten our "purity" without fear. Maybe if we remember that we serve a God who sanctifies the un-sanctifiable, namely us, then we will understand that holiness is not something we maintain by our own act of separation. It is not the absence of certain things. It is the presence of the sanctifying Spirit of God in our lives; a presence which is not threatened by the impurity of our world. It is a presence which can bring healing if the Body of Christ which it inhabits will only be moved by pity and reach out to those who are hurting.