SERMON FOR 16th JULY 2013: PURITY VS COMPASSION
In our rather lengthy readings this morning, we have a fascinating contrast between the stories of two women.
The one in the 2nd Book of Samuel is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite general. She was desired by King David, who packed off her husband to the front line of battle so that he could be killed and make his wife available to join the king’s harem. David thought nothing of this until the prophet Nathan told him a story that made the penny drop. Bathsheba is compared to a pet lamb that eventually ends up in the pot. David is outraged that a rich man would despoil his poor neighbour of his property, until Nathan points out “you are the man!” In this story, the woman is treated as a possession. She has no autonomy. Although Bathsheba had no possibility of resisting the power of the king, her adultery is seen as equivalent to his and their innocent child pays the price. I have often wondered what her feelings were, but whatever they were they are of no importance to the story, which is all about the spiritual education of King David.
Nathan brought David to his senses by holding up a mirror to his behaviour concerning Bathsheba – but it is really his behaviour towards Uriah that is condemned, because he despoiled him of his property in the shape of his wife.
We then turn to the subversive approach of Jesus in the gospel story. Jesus continually turns cultural conventions upside down, shocking the respectable at every turn. Jesus shames his host Simon for his insulting and inhospitable behaviour by telling him a story, too, but it is the action of a woman that triggers the story. In his parable the woman is compared not to an animal bred for the table or kept as a pet, but to a debtor, an adult person with freedom of action.
In a world where women remained at home in most circumstances, or went out veiled and chaperoned, as in many parts of the Middle East even today, the woman in Luke’s story is the sort of person no decent rabbi would acknowledge. She enters a house, all by herself, where men are dining – mixed dinners were unheard of – and she makes her appearance with her hair flowing and uncovered, a sight that should be reserved for her husband in private. She might as well have a sign saying “prostitute” hung around her neck. In a religious world where purity and holiness reigned supreme, she represents all that a respectable should shrink from. She is beyond the social and religious pale. Her touch, her very presence, brings pollution to the righteous.
But Jesus’ actions are not governed by the rules concerning religious purity. His primary value is not purity but compassion. His concern is not about the sexual sins that the woman has committed or her disgraceful position beyond the pale of respectable society. Rather, he commends her as an exemplar of love, which is the theme of all his preaching. Her actions show that she is already in a living relationship with God. Because she has already been forgiven, accepted and welcomed by God, just as she is, hence she is drawn to act lovingly towards Jesus. Her actions are not an attempt to propitiate anyone. They are a natural outflowing of the transformation that she has already experienced.
The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg cites this story in Luke’s gospel to support his view that Jesus intended to attack the obsession with religious purity that dominated his culture. He emphasizes that this is in no way a contrast between Judaism and Christianity. There were plenty of Jewish teachers who emphasized compassion, just as Jesus did. But the dominating power in Jesus’ day was in the hands of two different religious factions.
One was the priestly aristocracy whose seat of power was the Temple in Jerusalem, and who made the rules that ranked people in a hierarchy of acceptability, with many people beyond the pale: women, the poor, the sick and disabled, those in so-called unclean occupations, and of course all Gentile pagans. Jesus’ anger with this power structure boiled over when he attacked the money-changers in the Temple.
The other faction was the Pharisees, a group that sought to extend the priestly rules of purity into everyday life, with scrupulous attention paid to keeping every iota of the Law. They were devout and sincere in their beliefs – it is unfair to dismiss them simply as hypocrites – but the purity system that they taught divided the world very clearly into righteous and sinners, clean and unclean.
Purity culture exists in all religions and all societies – it is certainly not a matter of Judaism vs Christianity. In the Church, too, there is a tendency to draw lines between the righteous and the sinners. If we put our emphasis on holiness and purity, we end up living by the very parts of the tradition that Jesus critiqued. The debate in the Church about homosexuality is characterized by a focus on purity, for instance. Large numbers of Christian people, doing their best to live according to the scriptures, fall into the very trap that Jesus wanted to spring us out of.
It is a very widespread tendency. Conservative evangelical Protestants often hedge themselves around with prohibitions on dancing, drinking, smoking, gambling, going to the theatre or cinema, playing cards, and a host of other activities that may or may not be good choices but which in their religious world condemn a person to the category of flagrant sinner. The keynotes of this kind of religion are often fear and judgmentalism.
And it’s not just Protestants, of course. When I was growing up I had Roman Catholic friends who spent a lot of time worrying that they would fall into mortal sin if they missed Mass on Sunday, ate meat on Friday or attended a non-Catholic service. By going to confession regularly they felt that they could purify their souls after breaking the rules – at least they had a remedy that the conservative evangelicals seemed to lack!
But more liberal Christians should not preen ourselves. We too have the same tendency to judge between the righteous, who agree with us, and the others who get it all wrong. I’ve just shown it by criticizing the sincere practices of fellow Christians. And we live in a culture that is obsessed with purity of a different sort. Marcus Borg says this about it: “Our culture has increasingly maximized the rewards for culturally valued forms of achievement and maximized the penalties for failing to live up to those same standards, thereby generating increasingly sharp social boundaries.”
There, perhaps, is our “Aha!” moment, when the prophet holds up the mirror and says this story is about you. Because when you think about it, the individualism of our society and its extreme competitiveness and emphasis on material success are all symptoms of a purity culture. As Borg observes, purity divides and excludes, but compassion unites and includes.
Jesus was a radical includer of people. He would talk with, eat with, touch and hang out with all the people who were seen as losers or dangerous by their religious culture. I would like you to observe a couple of verses at the end of today’s gospel that a serious student of the Bible once told me he had never remembered reading: “Jesus went on through cities and villages… The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” The image of Jesus’ travelling band including women, some of them in a very doubtful state of purity, was not one that had impressed itself on my friend’s mind.
In what way does 21st century Britain, including the Church, represent a throwback to a purity culture? I suggest that every aspect of it that ranks people, that judges some as of less value than others, that celebrates wealth and fame, is in need of hearing the subversive gospel of compassion. Think about red carpets and VIP enclosures, about gated communities and bouncers at clubs, about executive this and premium that, about policies that cleanse inner London of untidy poor people living on benefits.
I was amused, but in a horrified way, to read in the paper that Nestle has introduced a new, expensive bottled water called Resource for “women who are a little more on the trendy side and higher-income side.” I can’t help but see a contrast between better water for richer women and the springs of living water Jesus offered freely to a Samaritan woman at the well.
Transformation through love and acceptance, not acceptability through purification, is what Jesus preached and taught. What would a truly compassionate Church, and a political culture that is shaped by compassionate Christian values, look like?
I’m not going to suggest any answers. But I do suggest that we take serious heed of Paul’s warning to the Galatians: If I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And that life is governed by compassion, not purity.