Posts Tagged ‘impurity’

The proper place to worship

October 12, 2019

Pentecost 18 – 2019

Luke 17:11-19[i]

Marian Free

In the name of God, from whom nothing can separate us. Amen.

While it is part of a long, historic conflict, modern Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria represents some of the malaise of the modern world. In Israel, the United States and in parts of Europe, nations are building boundaries to separate themselves from their enemies (real or perceived) and to protect their interests and to provide a barrier between themselves and any kind of danger. Nations feel that not only their safety is at risk, but that their identity is being compromised and their resources stretched, so they create borders not only to bolster their own security and so that they can determine who goes out and who comes in. At the same time those whom they wish to exclude are stereotyped, demonised and excluded.

In the Hebrew world, boundaries related to personal purity rather than to personal safety. Six whole chapters in Leviticus deal with the issue of purity, the ways in which uncleanness can be avoided and the ways in which purity can be restored. Pollution or contamination could be communicated by the consumption of impure foods, the release of bodily discharges, by menstruation and childbirth and through skin disease. The first of these pertain to boundaries between the body and the external world. Approved and unapproved foods enter the body through the mouth; blood, children and bodily discharges cross the boundary of the body through other openings. “Leprosy[ii]” is a little different from other forms of contagion because it concerns an external skin complaint – a flaky, repulsive or scaly condition that crossed the boundaries of skin, clothes and walls. It was impossible for those with a skin disease to keep their contamination to themselves, so they were thrust out of their families and communities and forced to live on the outskirts of society. Like anyone who was considered to be unclean, they were also excluded from the Temple and therefor from the worship of God.

According to anthropologists, cultures that are concerned with the maintenance of safe and secure bodily boundaries, are often as concerned about societal and geographic boundaries – in part, because they risk being polluted by those who do not observe the same restrictions as they do.

We usually associate the account of the ten lepers with gratitude, but in fact it is as much about worship and about boundaries. The scene is set in an in-between place, the boundary between Galilee and Samaria. Differing views of scripture, worship and what it means to be holy had created tensions between the two peoples. Centuries of hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews meant that most people would prefer to make the much longer journey to Jerusalem rather than to travel through Samaria. Anyone travelling to Jerusalem would not want to risk exclusion from the Temple (usually the point of their journey) by being polluted by association with the Samaritans.

Throughout the gospel, Jesus has demonstrated that he finds boundaries restrictive, limiting and even inhumane. He mixes with sinners, allows himself to be touched by a woman with a haemorrhage and comes into contact with the dead. He is not afraid of pollution or contamination. Jesus’ own godliness or purity means that rather than impurity flowing from the unclean to himself, Jesus’ presence and goodness make clean, restore and heal those with whom he comes into contact. Jesus has no need to be afraid of being contaminated by the Samaritans.

He has barely entered Samaria when he is confronted by a group of lepers who dare not cross the invisible boundaries that separate them from their families, their communities and him. They beg Jesus, not for healing, but for mercy – a word that means he should meet his obligations to them! As Jews, they were “owed” membership in the holy community of Israel, freedom to return to their families, freedom to worship God in the Temple and they ask Jesus to make this possible – to break down the barriers that prevent their return. Jesus responds to their request by telling them to: “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. In other words: “Go to the Temple and worship God”.

Jesus’ instruction is all well and good for nine of the ten. Once certified as clean by the priests they will be free to enter the Temple and to worship God with other members of their community. But the tenth, the Samaritan, is caught in a dilemma. He sets off with the others but stops short. He knows will not be welcome in the Jewish Temple and that nothing the Jewish priests say or do will make him fit (in their eyes) to be a member of their worshipping community. Does he go instead to the Samaritan place of worship on Mount Gerizim and to his own priests? Where does he go to worship God? Then it comes to him – God is no longer to be found either in Jerusalem or at Gerizim. God is to be found in the person of Jesus.

The Samaritan turns back “praising God”. He bows his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanks him – using a word only used in the Greek for thanks and praise given to God.[iii] He is commended and the nine are censured, not for giving thanks, but for returning to Jesus and giving praise to God.

The Samaritan, the outsider, recognised what the others from their privileged position of inclusion did not, that God was no longer to be encountered in the exclusive space of the Temple, but in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, the boundaries between clean and unclean, sacred and profane, insider and outsider are broken-down. The barriers between God and humanity have been torn apart. Through Jesus we have direct access to God. We do not need intermediaries to intercede for us or to praise God on our behalf. We are free to worship as we are and where we are. We have no need to feel worthy enough or holy enough to worship God.

It doesn’t matter where we are as long as together and individually we recognise all that God has done for us, and that we respond with praise and thanksgiving.

 

[i] I am indebted to John J. Pilch and Denis Hamm for some of these insights. (see http://www.liturgy.slu.edu for October 13, 2019)

[ii] What we know as leprosy is not very contagious and was not known in antiquity.

[iii] “eucharistein” is used in the Greek bible only for thanks and praise given to God.


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