Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We're Dirty

"There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
(Mark 7:15 ESV)

With this one sentence Jesus dismisses the entirety of the ceremonial law. No longer, he says, is it necessary to refrain from eating certain meats or wearing certain clothes; bathing or refraining from bathing makes no difference; you cannot be defiled - made impure - by eating, drinking, washing, not washing. These are simply actions; actions have no bearing. It's the motivation behind the actions which defiles.

I don't think we, as non-Palestinian Jews, fully appreciate the revolutionary power of the statement Jesus makes here. For the Jew, ceremonial law is what kept them apart from the other nations. They defined themselves by it: circumcision and dietary restrictions were part and parcel of what it meant to be the chosen people. For Jesus to tell them that it made no difference what they ate was a slap to the face of their heritage and values.

And yet, what he said made it far more difficult for them: "The things that come out of a person are what defile him." In essence he says, "Do what you want - you are free; but know that if your actions are motivated by self-interest, by hate, by pride or envy or jealousy, then you are defiled, not from the outside, but from the content of your own heart."

He makes it harder, in essence, to keep the law. Rather than just "minding your p's and q's," making sure you stay away from bacon, shrimp, and clams and watch out for poly-blend shirts, you have to examine your heart. And, for those who have ever done such a thing, examining the heart is about as pleasant as cleaning out a sewer drain.

But the principle is true, and the freedom it grants is true. Do what you want - but you are accountable to your heart's attitude in doing it. But in this disposal of the ceremonial law, now suddenly the lines aren't clearly drawn. The most innocuous thing can become sin to you if it stirs your heart to pride or envy, and what before seemed off-limits can suddenly be a source of pure joy to you. For example, if I enjoy playing a computer game, but that game becomes an escape or an addiction, a way to avoid responsibilities or a distraction from spending time with my family, then it has crossed the line from permissible to impermissible. By the same token, I used to think alcohol was off limits, but have experienced some moments of deep fellowship and joy over a bottle of wine with friends.

What Jesus does here, besides obscuring the lines between the permissible and impermissible, is make a relationship with him a necessity. How do we, the easily deceived and swayed, know where our own heart stands? By being close to the Maker of our hearts. If we can't count on following a list of written rules, we have to continually look to him and ask him for wisdom and illumination along the way.

Let me add to this all, though, that the motivation for a relationship with Jesus goes beyond making sure we're following the moral law. Jesus frees us from all restraints, not just from the ceremonial law, but from the consequences of breaking the moral law, too. So even though, in his dismissal of the ceremonial law, he makes it harder for us to keep the moral law, he also frees us from having to keep it by keeping it for us. Whether or not we are able to "do right" is irrelevant. It really, truly, doesn't matter. One bit. If we believe Jesus wiped the slate, we believe He wiped the slate. Whatever failings we do or have, whether before or after we enter into relationship with him, won't affect our standing with him. He sees us and loves as pure, unsullied, lovely creations, without a stain on us.

While in some sense, we still suffer the consequences for our failings and "defilements," the consequences are temporal, limited to this earth. I can get drunk every night and it wouldn't change Jesus' love for me - but it might cause me to lose my job, my wife, and my friends. I can judge and insult others I come in contact with and be generally mean, and while Jesus would still love me, probably not too many people would want to be my friend. I can spend like a mad fool and fill my life with lots of toys, or hoard all my money and never give it to others, and while Jesus would still love me, I wouldn't have much of lasting value or real worth. I can treat my kids like dirt and lord it over my wife, and Jesus would love me, but my kids and wife would resent me and I'd be lonely.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Jesus' love doesn't change with our weaknesses and failings. He's paid for them, and he's not going to punish us. We'll reap the natural consequences of what we sow, but he has paid for it before God. His law is there to show us a happy life, and he's freed us to enjoy that life. But his love doesn't change. We are truly free - of both the ceremonial law and the moral law. May we revel in this freedom, and praise the One who gave his life that we could have it.