Jesus, purity, and fellowship with religious others

I thought with this post I'd discuss the issues by drawing upon a biblical text to illustrate that the challenges evangelicals face when relating to those are mirrored in the ministry of Jesus. We find a great example of this in a scene in Matthew's gospel, chapter 9, where Jesus has called Matthew the tax collector has been called to be Jesus's disciple. Jesus then goes to Matthew's house to eat with him. The following encounter and confrontation ensues:

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The concern of the religious leaders is that Jesus was violating ritual purity, and as a result he was defiling himself. As the great New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn has noted, "It cannot be doubted that purity was a major preoccupation in the Judaism of Jesus' time." For the Pharisees Jesus' meal with "sinners" was a major problem. His response was an interesting one, with huge implications for how evangelicals engage those in other religions. Faced with the tension in the Jewish tradition, reflected in the sacred texts we call the Old Testament, the tension between purity (or holiness) and mercy, Jesus comes down on the side of mercy. Rather than emphasizing purity and holiness that might be compromised by proximity to social outcasts, Jesus embraces them as a practice of mercy. Returning to Dunn again, he states, "Jesus evidently had no interest in making ritual purity a test case of covenant loyalty. The emphasis on matters of purity, so characteristic of the factional rivalries of the time, was for Jesus an overemphasis."

This is not to say that Jesus had no interest in maintaining purity within Second Temple Judaism. Dunn's discussion references elements of this, including his baptism by John the Baptist. These examples demonstrate that in Jesus there was "a recognition of the importance of purity concerns within the community." But Dunn continues:

"On the other hand, the fact that he sat loose to the purity halakhoth regarding clean and unclean and table fellowship suggests equally, if not more strongly, that he did not regard such concerns as central to his understanding of what constituted the Israel of God and what should regulate Jews' social praxis of their religion. It should probably not surprise us that it was the latter emphasis that the first Christians soon began to take up and develop."   

We can connect dots from Jesus' example to contemporary evangelicals and our stance toward those in other religions. We are concerned for maintaining doctrinal purity, and we should be. After all, New Testament passages like 1 Timothy 4:16 tell us to "Watch your life and doctrine closely." The issue isn't a concern for purity per se, but when the pursuit of purity prevents us from embracing our neighbor. There is the biblical command to love God and neighbor, and our neighbor is also the one we may regard as an enemy (one of the difficult implications of the story of the Good Samaritan). So like Jesus in his disagreement with the Pharisees in Matthew 9, we too face a tension between holiness and mercy. Our concern is often that close proximity with those in other religions, with the exception of evangelism, will contaminate us. But if we are to follow the example of Christ we have to come down on the side of mercy. This would involve active social engagement in things like the table fellowship Jesus participated in. So if I'm understanding Jesus correctly, it can be expressed in a reworking of the quotations from Dunn above. Given the example of Jesus in mercy over holiness, I suggest we can understand and apply it this way:

"Jesus has no interest in evangelicals making doctrinal purity a test case of gospel loyalty. The emphasis on matters of purity, so characteristic of evangelical concerns about relating to other religions, is for Jesus an overemphasis. ... Jesus does not want us to regard purity concerns as central to an understanding of what constitutes the people of God in the social practice of our faith among those of other religions."

What do you think? With a fresh look at Jesus in confrontation with the Pharisees over purity, and evangelical concerns for purity and doctrine in regard to other religions, what does his example mean for us today? 

If you want to explore this topic further I recommend a couple of resources:

James D. G. Dunn. "Jesus and Purity: An Ongoing Debate." New Testament Studies 48 (2002): 449-467.

Richard Beck. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011). 


John Morehead