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Sunday, March 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Christ challenged the ‘purity system’ by teaching compassion, justice

By Paul Graves

To call Jesus a subversive in first century Israel is a harsh judgment. But it is also accurate.

He was born into a social and religious culture that, centuries before, had been designed around a “purity system.” It seemed to begin with the purity code found in Leviticus.

In Leviticus 19:2, we read these words belonging to God: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’ ”

Holiness was understood to mean “separation from everything unclean.” Thus holiness meant the same thing as purity.

A whole social, economic, political and religious structure was built around the social vision of purity. People, places, things, times and groups had their “proper places” in society.

So Jesus grew up learning those cultural and religious expectations. He was told God was holy/pure and “that’s just the way it is.”

Yet as he matured, he experienced God in a dramatically different way. He experienced God as concerned with justice for people and with compassion.

What should he do with that contradiction between his culture’s conventional wisdom and his deeply personal experience of God?

In his book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” Marcus Borg asserts that “Jesus deliberately replaced the core value of purity with compassion. Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos (fundamental character) of the community that mirrors God.”

Jesus’ subversiveness may not seem so radical for many of us today, but he was a dangerous man in his time.

When he said “Be compassionate as God was compassionate” (Luke 5:36), he proclaimed this imitation of God as more accurate than Leviticus’ “Be holy as God is holy.” His gauntlet was thrown down!

Jesus criticized a system that emphasized tithing and neglected justice (Luke 11:42). He spoke of purity as what happens inside, not on the outside (Mark 7:15). His “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8) meant to lift the burden of the so-called impure people by challenging the rigidity of that very purity system.

The beloved parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of how we settle for a watered-down interpretation of his actions because, usually, we don’t understand the background of the parable.

We normally think of the Good Samaritan as a “good neighbor.” And he was. But Jesus had more in mind.

The priest and Levite who didn’t stop to help the “half-dead” traveler were obeying their highest allegiance to the purity codes. Being near or with dead people was seen as an act of impurity. They didn’t know if the man was dead or alive, so they took no chances.

Perhaps they actually felt some compassion for the man, but obeyed their purity training and allegiance to that code. The “impure” Samaritan was not bound by that code, so he was free to follow his compassionate urge.

All of this makes me wonder about the different social and religious visions found in our Christian churches, and in our own personal visions. Where do we fall in the spectrum between an inclusive vision of compassion and an exclusive vision of purity?

Jesus treated everyone with inclusive compassion. Some couldn’t handle that approach, so they rejected him. I see the same thing happening today, church-to-church, Christian-to-Christian.

It really makes me wonder: We who say we are followers of Jesus seem divided by that inclusive, compassionate vision. Why do we insist that shutting “certain persons” out is what Jesus wants us to do?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via e-mail at
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