Jesus & the Contagion of Purity

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly touching people.  Not only this, but he touches people he isn’t supposed to be touching, according to the purity codes of his culture.

In Mark 1, Jesus heals a leper:

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed (Mark 1:40-42).

In Mark 5:21-43, Mark wraps one healing story within another, and there’s loads of touching going on.

Jairus pleads, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.”

As Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ house, a woman with a long-term bleeding condition presses through the crowd and secretly touches Jesus.  Mark emphasizes her contact with him:

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (vv. 24-34).

In vv. 35-43, Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house and his daughter has already died.  Jesus heals her by taking her hand (v. 41).

In this double account, Jesus is doubly unclean.  According to Leviticus 15, touching a bleeding person makes him unclean, and according to Numbers 19, touching a dead body makes him unclean.

Mark intensifies things in 7:31-37, with Jesus doing all sorts of touching—he puts his fingers in the man’s ears and seems to exchange spittle with him!  This is not only disgusting to modern readers but extremely offensive in an ancient near eastern context.

This is happening all over the place in Mark.  Jesus hangs out with the all the wrong people (Mark 2:15-17) and he touches everyone he isn’t supposed to touch.

Why all the touching?

For Mark, the Kingdom of God is an invasion of purity.  The Kingdom of God is sanctifying space.  Wherever Jesus is, that’s where the presence of God’s Kingdom is located, and its power is reversing old patterns and dynamics.

It’s no longer the case that touching unclean people makes one unclean.  When Jesus touches unclean people, they are healed and made clean.

In the Kingdom of God purity is contagious.

This is an affirmation that all are welcome to join God’s Kingdom.  It’s also a challenge to God’s people to embody Jesus’ glad invitation to marginalized groups to fully participate in the Kingdom of God.

It seems to me that this is also an invitation to churches to consider how they may have unintentionally made certain people feel unwelcome.  Do certain ethnicities feel out of place in our churches?  How about divorced people?  Do single mothers feel that they don’t belong in our communities?

Mark invites us to consider how we can transform our imaginations and community dynamics so that all are welcome and no one feels “unclean.”

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6 responses to “Jesus & the Contagion of Purity

  • Jerry Goodman

    Boy, Doesn’t this smack one upside of the head. Like when or how we treat/ignore a non-believer. It almost ??? like be pharisaical when I ignore an (unclean) individual. Maybe I could be that one. Wonderful introspection thoughts here.Thanks

  • Allen Browne

    “… the Kingdom of God is an invasion of purity.
    The Kingdom of God is sanctifying space.”

    Wow, well put, Tim. What a vision!
    The putrified world becomes the purified world where God is present.

  • Phil James

    I’ve wondered before if this is not a better explanation of what the (unexplained) sacrificial manipulation of blood in the OT was meant to teach. I was taught that the application of blood was about the death of the victim, and yet the given rationale for treating blood distinctly was that Life was in the Blood.
    Could it be that creation did not need a judicial death to balance the scales that purportedly lay behind all of reality, but rather that the enemy was death and corruption; and the pollution of the Tabernacle (and the cosmos that it symbolized) would be cleansed by the Life which would one day become the contagion. The priest cleansed the cosmos by smearing Life all over it- not by confirming to God that ‘justice’ had been done.

    • timgombis

      I haven’t thought about that too much, Phil, but that sounds like a far better explanation. It’s more in keeping with what’s going in the relevant texts and in the ancient worldview. Perhaps that’s one way we read our Western legal tradition back into the OT.

  • pltk

    Have you read Richard Beck’s “Unclean.” Many related themes.

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