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What makes something clean? What makes something dirty? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I have a toddler, and suddenly I’m having to explain the laws of clean and dirty, and they are a lot more complicated than I thought. There are a lot of different ways things can get dirty. Like if we get icing on our hands, our hands are dirty, but we can lick that off. If we get mud on our hands…we can’t lick that off. Some things that touch the ground become dirty when they touch the ground, like goldfish snacks. Other things touch the ground all the time but are never dirty, like shoes. I might clean my plate with a little bit of bread. I cannot clean the table the same way. Explaining all of this has made me realize that our conceptual framework around dirtiness and cleanness is complicated. There is a map in our heads that defines what things are clean and what things are unclean, what things can be made unclean by what other things, what things can be made clean by what other things.
And the same was true for people in Jesus’ time, only their map was completely different from ours. We have a largely medical definition of clean and unclean. That is, we understand things in terms of their degree of cleanness by the likelihood that something will spread disease. Their map was reflected in the purity codes found in Leviticus and then expanded upon and explained by priestly practice and later rabbinical tradition. And for them, cleanness and uncleanness were spiritual states. God was the source of all holiness, all purity. And by maintaining your own purity, you kept yourself close to and in right relationship with God. People who didn’t do that, or couldn’t do that, were impure. And that uncleanness was a reflection of their place in relationship with God. If you were impure, or became impure, it was a sign that you were spiritually inferior to people who maintained their cleanness. Physical afflictions and even mold in your home, were understood to be reflections of God’s condemnation or disdain.
What is the same between our culture and theirs is the concept of contagion. Uncleanness is contagious. Cleanness is not. If something is dirty and it touches something clean, the clean thing becomes dirty. Dirtiness spreads from one thing to another. Cleanness does not.
Therefore, associating with unclean person would make you unclean. Their state of spiritual sinfulness was contagious. And of the varying degrees of uncleanness that you might fall under in Jesus’ time, leprosy was considered one of the most serious. Leprosy in the Bible is not the disease we call leprosy today. It was a catch all term that described any disease of the skin, and most often what we would call psoriasis. But under their understanding it reflected a state of deep sinfulness. And because of its seriousness, it was among the most contagious of all the afflictions listed in the levitical and rabbinical codes.
So when Jesus is approached by a leper as in our story for today, the wise thing to do and the holy thing to do would be for Jesus to go in the opposite direction. Sticking around would mean getting infected by the leper’s state of sinfulness. Instead, Jesus moves towards the man. When the leper says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus says “I do choose. Be made clean.” And Jesus reaches out his hand and he touches him.
According to the Levitical codes, the contagion should spread. Jesus touched the man, now Jesus has become unclean. But Mark tells us something different. Mark tells us that the opposite happened. The spiritual uncleanness of the man was contagious. But the holiness of Jesus was more contagious. Jesus touches the man, and he is made clean.
We tend to view healings like this as miracles that solve medical problems. But in first century thinking this was a spiritual problem. When Jesus touched the man, he was cleansed of the state of sin, and as a result his leprosy left him. This is who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who has the capacity to take what is impure, what is wrong, what is sinful, and make it holy. Instead of being contaminated by the uncleanness of the man with leprosy, Jesus contaminates the man with his cleanness. Unlike the holiness based on purity, Jesus’ holiness is contagious. Jesus turns the unclean into the clean.
When we treat this like a medical problem, we make it easy on ourselves to write this off as impossible for ourselves to be a part of. Jesus is God, his touch could cure disease. I am not God, my touch cannot cure disease. This is one of those things that should be seen as a sign that Jesus was God, not something that we can emulate. The age of miracle is over, we can’t do what Jesus did.
But when we understand this story as about a spiritual problem, we can’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. We may not be able to zap people’s diseases away. But we can bring spiritual solutions to spiritual problems. And make no mistake, there is no shortage of spiritual problems in our world, many of which are reflected in physical ways.
When someone dies because they can’t afford health care it is the result of a spiritual disease. When we allow the killing of children and do nothing, it is the result of a spiritual disease. When our Presbyterian brothers and sisters are taken from their homes and their families, what’s going on at the First Presbyterian Church in Metuchen and Northern New Jersey for Indonesian Presbyterians, it is a spiritual disease. Bullying, Neglect, injustice. These are the results of a spiritual sickness.
But how, right? How do we create cleanness in the world around us? We do that by reaching out and touching the uncleanness in our world. By refusing to return hatred for hatred, and cruelty for cruelty. By listening to the suffering of the world, and not sequestering ourselves from it. By offering peace, by letting go of anger and resentment, by showing love for those we like and those we do not like. But most of all, we do it by actively building and maintaining places of holiness and righteousness in our lives and in our worlds.
I think about how I have benefited from people who have chosen to spread the contagious righteousness of God’s glory. And I am incredibly thankful. For all those who have shown me forgiveness, for those who have been patient with me, for those who taught me to value truth and responsibility to others. For the people who created holy spaces where I could abide—the church family whose faithful love affirmed me and challenged me to live as a disciple of Christ, the summer camp where counselors and leaders pointed me towards Creation and helped me find a relationship with God, for those who have welcomed me graciously and taught me kindness and humility, for those who challenge me to demand a just society—all of these have built a space of holiness that has pulled me closer to God, and all of it is contagious.
It is certainly something that I have caught, because I want to be a part of this community of holy people, who are seeking to create a holy space in which to dwell. I am thankful for the members of the congregation who are trying to embody that contagious love, the love that reveals God’s love and makes us holy. I am thankful for the ways that this body of people reaches out to those who have been touched by the disgraceful injustice of our society, and have tried to create a space of safety and wholeness within our walls. I am especially thankful for all of these things as a father, because I am not the only one who is trying to teach my daughter what is clean and what is unclean.
Which I guess brings me back to my original question. What makes something clean or unclean? You do.
 Malina, Bruce. “The New Testament World; Insights from Cultural Anthropology” Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, p. 167