A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 16 August 2020, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: Matthew 15. 10-20
A dog is actually quite a disgusting animal. Dogs have a lot of redeeming features. They’re loyal, playful, forgiving, and often beautiful. So we forgive them everything. But they’re also disgusting. When you think about what makes them disgusting, it’s all about the mouth. They lick themselves in unsavoury ways, they chew almost anything, they sniff around revolting things, and some things they eat are beyond description. On closer reflection, a dog does entirely with its mouth what human beings would do mostly with their hands. Inspecting, testing out, cleaning – these are things we use our hands for; but dogs go straight in with their snout. So humans have a hierarchy of interactions. A shake of the hand is respect. A kiss on the cheek is affection. A kiss on the mouth is intimacy. Dogs just have a general slobber for all three. Imagine where that tongue has just been. Disgusting.
Disgusting. Think about that word for a moment. It means I’m having a physical, gut reaction against something you’re doing that transgresses social limits and crosses from civilised norms into animal basics. We’re fleshly beings whose noses, bowels, bladders and other regions are full of ways of filtering out unwanted elements, and whose bodies themselves are thinly veiled organisms of blood, muscle, sinew and fat. Life is a constant process of sifting between the fruitful and the damaging, and disposing of the latter, and doing so in a way that makes it less damaging. We can all recall revolting or embarrassing moments, especially as children, when that process hasn’t gone well.
In Matthew 15, Jesus gets into conversation about ritual food laws. If you look in Leviticus 11, you can see a remarkable list of dietary regulations. What made a Pharisee a Pharisee was mastery and enforcement of these rules. If your behaviour contravened these laws, you weren’t just risking the disgust of your neighbours; you were challenging the social and religious hierarchy of the nation. You might think, haven’t we put all that ritual behind us? But I want to offer three examples that suggest this discussion about purity is as contemporary as anything in the Bible.
Let’s start with food. To be vegan, pescatarian, vegetarian: these are statements about the world’s resources – the energy expended transporting food, the methane generated by cattle, the balance of the world’s economy. They’re also about cruelty to creatures, solidarity with living things, a revulsion against eating something that had life and breath. But fundamentally they’re food laws. They’re about taking control of what goes into our bodies, paying closer attention to the process of eating, digesting, metabolising and excreting. We are what we eat: so we should scrutinise very carefully what we eat. It’s about purity.
Then let’s look at sex. Sex is crucial because it’s where animal fluids and basic interactions fuse with powerful human desires to be intimate, express longing, touch, taste, belong and reproduce. This is why sex is perennially the centre of such profound struggle, hypocrisy, guilt and control. As with food, it’s about purity – which itself is about ordering society and rising above our basic urges. I’d suggest the biggest reason same-sex relationships have been regarded as such a threat is because they take sexuality outside the orbit of conception, the fear of and search for which justifies the whole scaffolding of taboo and shame. If you don’t think purity in sex still matters, just ponder the abiding symbolic power of the white dress as the centre of almost every wedding today.
Now let’s turn to reputation. The digital revolution has transformed what others think of us. Thirty years ago, if you said something disreputable or did something degrading, you’d later say you were misunderstood, or the memory plays tricks. Now it’s almost certain that in some way it’ll be caught on the internet or social media, in a photograph, hastily deleted tweet or skilfully retrieved WhatsApp message. If you’ve been accused of something, your first hundred citations on google will condemn you without any fair hearing. People who don’t know you will believe what follows the fateful word, ‘Apparently…’ There’s now a profession that cleans up your google profile. Those appointed to public office have to go through the humiliation of having everything in their histories exhumed to see if it would cause horror or ignominy by today’s set of judgements. It’s a different form of purity ritual.
These three examples, food, sex and reputation, show that our society is every bit as rule-bound and controlled as first-century Palestine, and purity is a phenomenon that may change its objects but never loses its power.
But these three examples also show that purity isn’t a self-evident thing: it’s a socially constructed judgement. What we’re revolted by isn’t universal. What disgusts us is about our culture rather than our gut. We’ve seen that the purity code in Jesus’ day was about the Pharisees asserting social control. Purity codes are just the same today.
And this shows us the power of becoming a Christian, in the first century and today. Christianity is a faith for those who’ve been judged by themselves or others as having transgressed some kind of purity code and are looking for a way somehow nonetheless to belong. That was the dynamite behind women and slaves joining the church in the first century. And it’s as potent today as it was then. There’s nothing more powerful than to discover you’re received, accepted, loved and restored when you thought you were rejected, outcast, lost and abandoned. This also reveals the church’s irony, and its tragedy: because Christianity’s been just as adept at setting up its own purity codes – for the same purpose of power and control.
But we miss the dynamism of this discussion about purity if we treat it as simply about individual regulations and prohibitions. Ask yourself, when Jesus said, ‘It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles,’ what was the overwhelming context into which he was speaking? What had come in from outside, and seemed much more significant than anything that could come out from inside? The answer is, Rome. Jesus, and the gospel writers that recorded his words, were living in a police state, surrounded by spies and at the mercy of the occupying power. They used metaphor where we naively expect to see explicit statements. The great question of Jesus’ time was this: was the Holy Land occupied because the Romans were rapacious and exploitative, or was Israel itself at fault and in need of a reformation? The politics of the time was determined by your answer to this question. The Pharisees favoured personal renewal, the Sadducees political collaboration, the Zealots political rebellion. Jesus is subtly saying, ‘The Romans are not our biggest problem. Our biggest issue is what’s inside us, personally and collectively.’
At this point the purity conversation gets very contemporary in a whole new way. Because, significant as the three examples of today’s discourse about purity are, there’s one purity conversation that dwarfs all the others. And that’s about race. Racism rests on one, too-seldom-questioned, assumption: that there’s such a thing as racial purity, and certain named or unidentified others are a threat to it. Adam Rutherford’s timely book How to Argue with a Racist dismisses the assumption on which such arguments rest. He says, ‘Over a 500-year period, you have 1,048,576 ancestors.’ (72) If you go back a thousand years the number of your ancestors is more people than have ever existed. This is because the same individuals appear in your family tree multiple times. In other words, we are all interrelated. Hence, ‘Every Nazi has Jewish ancestors. Every white supremacist has Middle Eastern ancestors. Every racist has African, Indian, Chinese, Native American, aboriginal Australian ancestors, as well as everyone else… . Racial purity is a pure fantasy. For humans, there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes.’ (78)
It’s hard to express how important these words are. They blow away any plausibility structure that could be constructed around racism. They reveal racism to be a false purity project. But don’t forget, like almost all purity projects, racism is, at bottom, about power and control. The slogan ‘White lives matter’ is really saying, ‘Don’t take the lid off the way power is constructed in this society.’ You could argue Jesus went to the cross because he unmasked a false purity project as a quest for social control. People who unmask purity projects still find themselves in serious trouble. That’s why this apparently irrelevant passage in Matthew’s gospel is dynamite in Jesus’ story and still dynamite today.
Underneath this exploration of purity, power, control and cleansing, lies one other context that presses on our lives profoundly today. There’s not been a purity project in modern times that in scale or scope has come anywhere close to the measures put in place to curtail the pandemic. Every time we sanitise our hands, wear a face mask or keep a two-metre distance, we’re participating in a colossal social attempt to keep ourselves clean. Like all purity projects, it’s about power and control. But in this case with good reason: we all understand that this purity code is about reducing the power of the virus to transfer between people, whether directly, or through surfaces or touch-points. It comes back to where we started with the disgusting characteristics of a dog. We are animals who have hands and mouths. We are trying not to live hand-to-mouth: that’s to say, we’re trying to keep any infection at arm’s length, where it’s easier to clean and remove, and thus use the sophistication of the way our bodies function to protect ourselves and one another.
But the real issue with the pandemic is the same as the point Jesus raises in Matthew chapter 15. The pandemic has invaded us like the Romans invaded Palestine. The question for Israel was, which presents the bigger problem, the Romans, or our own shortcomings? By saying it’s not what comes from outside that defiles you, Jesus is saying, the Romans aren’t your biggest problem. What that means for us today is, the pandemic isn’t our biggest problem. Take your mind back to February. Think of all the woes of the world then that thronged our minds and obscured our joy. How do we feel about those things now? Do we feel they’d all go away if the pandemic disappeared? In a lot of ways what the pandemic’s done is to highlight and exacerbate the things that were already wrong or unresolved in ourselves, our relationships, and our society. We’re furious because the pandemic makes us feel powerless and our world feel out of control. Jesus is saying, ‘Yes, it does feel terrible to feel powerless. But don’t be so naïve as to think if you were in control everything would be fine. You don’t have to let your life be dominated by the pandemic. Your life was far from perfect before the pandemic started, and it’s not hopeless now, however tempting it is to believe either of those things. All the pandemic’s done is to give you a new context in which to address the unresolved issues of your heart and life.
God is not engaged in a purity project. Church is not about keeping ourselves clean and ostracising those who threaten to soil or contaminate us. That would make church just another cover for power and social control. In Christ, God took on our disgusting flesh and entered into our degrading human condition. Christianity is constantly disrupting purity projects, unmasking their quests for power and social control. But at the same time it tells each of us: ‘It’s time to face up to the ways you let forces dominate your own heart that don’t bring out the best in yourself or in others.’
Half the church, it seems, thinks all we have to do is unmask and transform systems of power and control. The other half of the church, it seems, thinks it’s all about changing the human heart. Jesus, it seems, is teaching us a simple, challenging lesson: you can’t have one without the other.