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Purity: A Weapon of Dehumanization

For example, [Jesus] flipped the conventional understanding of purity (in Matthew 15:11-20), saying that it’s not what goes into a person (such as taboo food and drink) that makes that person impure but rather what come out of a person’s heart (such as greed, hate, and vengeance).

Brian McLaren, Faith After Doubt (Chapter 7, Page 85)

You can’t trust those Samaritans.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
I’m glad I’m not like other people, especially people like this tax collector.
Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!
Can you believe he ate with the sinners?

These are just some attitudes that were prevalent in Jesus’ day, but we aren’t too unfamiliar with these, are we?

Religious and nonreligious people to this day stereotype, dehumanize, and even demonize groups of people based upon ethnicity, skin tone, nationality, religion, and many other categories.

To use a sort of silly example, when someone passed me on the road when I was a teenager, I would react in two different ways. If they had an Alabama Crimson Tide tag, I would say, “Of course. Those dummies drive their car about like you’d expect.” If they had an Auburn Tigers sticker though, my reaction was a lot more understanding, “That poor guy is probably late for a Doctor’s appointment. I hope he makes it on time.”

When we create arbitrary categories of pure/ impure or clean/ unclean, there is a tendency to alienate those who do not conform to our standards.

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees and scribes question the legitimacy of Jesus’ ministry because the disciples didn’t follow the tradition of washing one’s hands before a meal. Jesus’ response in situations like this was to emphasize the spirit of the Law (the intention) over the letter of the Law (the legalistic application of it). For example, in Matthew 12, Jesus answered one critique by quoting Hosea, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question of purity in Matthew 15 is to turn the tables on them. He turned to the crowds and said, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11). When Peter asks for an explanation of this parable, Jesus explains,

Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.

Matthew 15:17–20

God didn’t give the dietary restrictions in the Law because there is something inherently wrong with bacon; He gave them so they could differentiate themselves from the surrounding nations. If one keeps all the dietary laws, but they have wickedness coming from the heart, then no amount of ritual can sanctify that person.

There is a tendency among religious people to “pick on” a handful of popular sins. There are several reasons for this: 1) one sees an increase in a particular sin in their world, 2) one is projecting one’s own shortcomings from a place of self-hate or shame, and 3) blaming all the problems in the world on very specific groups (scapegoating) allows one to pass over their own sins. There are other reasons, of course, besides these, but these are the most claimed/ obvious.

Brian McLaren, in his comments on Matthew 15, writes,

In this way, he disarmed purity as a weapon of dehumanization and rendered it a moral summons to self-examination. Similarly, by constantly including outsiders and outcasts in his circle of concern, by consistently welcoming the “other” to the table of fellowship, by repeatedly humanizing the other in parables like the Good Samaritan, and, most directly, by advocating loyalty and love for enemies, Jesus flipped the conventional understanding of loyalty. God’s love is non-discriminatory and unconditional in its loyalty, he taught, and we should imitate God’s example (Matthew 5:44).

Brian McLaren, Faith After Doubt (Chapter 7, Page 85)

Purity, from Jesus’ perspective, is more about the kind of person you are. Do you love your neighbor? Do you love your enemies? And it is less about ceremonial purification.

This is why baptism is an appeal to God for a clean conscience and not just another Old Covenant washing that purifies the flesh (1 Peter 3:21).

As Peter had to learn, in the New Covenant, all the people those that were “in” considered “unclean” are now welcome in no questions asked.

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”

Acts 10:28

We must stop using false criteria of purity to dehumanize or reject those who do not share our customs, skin tone, or nationality. We must be willing to welcome all as Jesus went out of His way to do in His ministry. In this way, we fufill the Law.

1 thought on “Purity: A Weapon of Dehumanization”

  1. Daniel, I do not pray, “God I thank you that I am not like that person.” We have all sinned and come short of God’s glory. This morning, I received a message from some women who wanted me to access her site for sex (which was very graphic in her language) . I sent her an email to let her know that God loves her. I wrote a short text to encourage her to read about Jesus and His love. I also referred her to my website: Hopefully, she will become acquainted with Jesus and accept His message of forgiveness “in” and “through” Jesus. If one repents, God offers pardon through Jesus. We should tell people about the LOVE OF GOD and how He wants us to live.

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