Cleanliness, Godliness and sex.

Signpost for Sunday 30 Aug, 2015: Song of Sol 2:8-13; Ps 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Bookends. It’s this Old Testament and Gospel reading that I have sometimes left church wondering about.

Mark 21-23 has made me uncomfortable in the past and the way the lectionary cuts up the reading, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s done the same for others. That old guilt thing rears its ugly head. I used to worry about all those evil things inside me and wonder when they were going to come out. I bet congregations down the ages have felt the same and I bet bible bashing preachers in times gone by have exploited that.

Fortunately, history and context come to the rescue once again for me. One of the primary reasons the first century author(s) of Mark are writing this gospel is to confirm and cement the inclusion of both Jews and gentiles as followers of ‘the way’. But gentile “uncleanness” would have been a massive barrier to that all-inclusiveness. So Jesus has to be seen to deal with it, in this gospel at least, even if he didn’t actually have to do that in his lifetime.

In one single stroke (verse 15), Jesus gets rid of the Jewish “purity law” relating to food. What you eat doesn’t matter, and it never did. You can blame those pesky Pharisees for misleading you.

Of course it probably wasn’t quite like that. Jesus has a real go at these Pharisees because Pharisees were the main group opposing the early church in the latter part of the first century, when our four gospels were written.

Yet during his lifetime Jesus would probably have agreed with them more than he does in the gospels. Most Pharisees, after all, were lay people, not priests. They thought that every Jew should live out their faith in their daily life, and not just leave it to the priests in Jerusalem. So most pharisaic Jews in Jesus’ time would not have understood an accusation that their way of going about things meant being loaded down with ‘legal demands’.

Now, what about those uncomfortable verses 21-23? Well look carefully and what we have here is a reminder of the Ten Commandments; for the benefit of the gentile followers, perhaps.

As for the Song of Solomon, I love it. The trouble is that Greek philosophical tradition greatly influenced the early Church Fathers in the second and third centuries, and much of Greek philosophy regards the bodily things as being of lower or lesser value than spiritual things. Forget about the Greeks and it becomes clear that body and soul are one in the Song, united in love. In fact, I prefer the idea that human love, at its best, is a glimpse or reflection of God’s love.

Paul

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