So there’s a couple things we need to understand about Judaism in the first century to really get what’s going on here. But to drastically oversimplify things, we need to go all the way back to Abraham. And the covenant that God made with him.
See, God told Abraham that from him would come a great nation, blessed by God. And through this great nation, God would bless the world. And then a couple hundred years later, God clarifies the covenant even further on Mt. Sinai. God says, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my won possession among the people. For all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”
And from that came two different schools of thought that played tug of war throughout Judaism all the way up until the time of Jesus. Both viewpoints were about living as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. The difference was really just about who was doing all that “priestly living”.
One school of thought, held mostly by those who worked in or around the temple in Jerusalem, said that the temple priests were sort of “holy enough” for everyone. You know, the temple was the holiest of all holy sights. The epicenter of holiness. And the closer you were to the center of the temple, both literally and by virtue of your job, the holier you were.
So holiness was really the job of the priests in the temple. And us “common folk” benefit from their “trickle-down holiness”. But our job, then, is making sure they can do their job, supporting them to be holy on our behalf. Making sure we’re given enough money or food offerings, doing what we can to support the temple so that they can be holy enough for all of us.
The other school of thought said, “No! Holiness is not just for priests! It’s for all of us! We are all called to holiness. All set apart to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation! God’s covenant is for all of us to live!” And the teachers of this school (we could call them “Pharisees”) would go from town to town, trying to teach the people how they, too, could be a part of God’s holiness. How they could live out their faith in their daily lives. In a sense, they were the very first to teach about the “priesthood of all believers”.
And in the reading today, Jesus says, “You’re both wrong. You got it wrong from the beginning and you just kept going. Because holiness is not a human project. It’s not something you can produce or achieve. It’s not yours to give or pronounce. Holiness is a God thing. It’s God’s gift to give.”
And the problem with turning holiness into a human project is that we get all sorts of ideas about what holiness is and isn’t. The temple priests understood that holiness radiates from the temple. And the further you got from the middle, the less holy (and less important) you were. So holiness is moving closer and closer to the center.
No accident that the only time Jesus moves towards the center, towards Jerusalem, is when he goes there to die. Most of his ministry is out in Galilee, way out in the farthest, most remote corner of the Jewish world. The “Jewish sticks”, if you will.
The Pharisees understood holiness as lifting yourself above the ordinary and everyday. As being “set apart”. What’s interesting, to me anyway, is that the word that gets translated as “defiled” in our reading (as in, ‘they ate with defiled hands’), that word could also be translated as “common”. So the opposite of “holy” is not “dirty”, it’s “common”. To be holy is to be “not ordinary”, but to be “extraordinary”.
But, Jesus says, that’s all wrong. Because it sets holiness up as something we can achieve. Something that’s our job to be or to do. And holiness is God’s job. God’s gift. The Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples because, in their eyes, not only had they tainted themselves by dropping down into this world of “ordinary, common, defiled things”, they didn’t seem to be doing anything to change that! Like, they didn’t even care that they were defiled!
But Jesus isn’t playing that game. Because they’ve got it all wrong.
All the earth is God’s! Don’t you remember? Therefore, there is nothing in this world, nothing outside of us, around us, in this life that can make you “unclean” or “defiled”. Nothing you can eat or drink, nothing that anyone else can say to you or do to you or think about you that can remove, overpower, or negate God’s gift of holiness and grace to you. There is nothing outside of us that has that power.
The real problem is the stuff that comes from within us! If you want to know where trouble starts, look there! You want to know what really comes between us and God? How about pride. Envy. Greed…The list goes on and on. You want to worry about something? Don’t worry about whether or not you washed your hands the right way. Worry about what direction your heart is pointed.
“I have seen the problem, and the problem is me.”
The things that pull us away from God are not outside us, they are within us. The good news, of course, is once you have an accurate diagnosis, you can start to look for the right cure. And it’s not moving to Jerusalem or giving up bacon or doing all the right things right. These things outside of us, they can’t defile us. But neither can they fix us. The only real cure is death.
And specifically, Jesus’ death. Because Jesus’ death is the only one that leads to God’s life. And we haven’t gotten there yet in the story, but we know where this is going. Pretty soon, Jesus turns towards Jerusalem, toward the capital city of human achievement and glory, and goes there to die. To put to death all our best efforts and intentions open the doorway into God’s life and grace.
And God’s death and resurrection isn’t a prize to be won, achieved, or accomplished, only received. As gift. And we usually just call that gift “baptism”. That great gift from God that joins us, finally, fully, and completely, to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord. But baptism isn’t just a “once in your life and I’ve got the picture to prove it” thing. It’s a daily dying and rising. A daily remembrance that the problem is me, and that I can’t fix it. Only God can.
Only God can wash away what is dead and rotten to make room for what is life and light. Every day. Every day we die and rise again. We die under the burden and the power of sin are lifted back to life in the light of God’s love. Every. Day.
Holiness. Grace. Love. These are not human projects. Not things for us to achieve or accomplish. They are gift. Freely given.
Because, God knows, it’s the only thing that will save us from ourselves. The only thing that can save us.
And what you do with that gift? Well, that’s up to you.