Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Rotarian" Jesus, dietary laws, and OCD

Some years ago, when I was living with Jon and Beth (a Navigator staff couple), Jon mentioned the phrase "Rotarian Jesus" as an impression some people have of our Lord Jesus Christ. As I understood it, this was the idea of Jesus as being a pleasant, urbane fellow, always polished and tactful. Smooth, but not in the sense of being "slick." Today's New Testament reading corrects this misapprehension.

The first incident we're told about is when the Pharisees and teachers of the law notice that Jesus's disciples ate without first washing their hands in a manner prescribed by some tradition or another.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"

He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.
Mark 7.5-7
Not the kind of dialogue you'd expect at a Rotary Club meeting. Jesus explains how these Pharisees and teachers of the law contradict God's commands by elevating human tradition above the Bible. Is this the same Jesus who said, "Blessed are the meek"? Yes, it is, but both because he's fully human and hence may get exasperated occasionally (as he does with the disciples a few paragraphs later) and also because he's fully God and therefore holy -- his holiness implies intolerance of evil.

Jesus then calls the crowd back and explains further:
"Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' "

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.

"Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.
Mark 7.15-22
There it is -- Jesus declares all foods "clean." But look at what's unclean. This isn't the seven deadly sins; here is a list of thirteen! As I look at this today, I notice something I haven't seen before. Jesus says that food doesn't make a man unclean -- that is food does not cause or create uncleanness. But then he says that the things that come out of a man make him unclean.

Does this mean that it's the evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft and so on that create uncleanness? I would think that they reveal uncleanness, or that their presence could be construed as some sort of demonstration or proof of uncleanness (thus "make him unclean") but do they actually cause uncleanness?

OK, after a little research, I think the answer is "yes," perhaps in a sort of ceremonial sense. The King James uses the word "defile" -- evil thoughts, etc., defile a person, whereas food does not defile anyone. The word can be translated "desecrate" or "make impure." Here is how I make sense out of this. Consider the issue of sexual immorality. Many (perhaps most) people have experienced sexual desire for someone other than their spouse, for example. Some have entertained such desires without acting on them. Entertaining those desires, meditating on them, cherishing them, is a bad idea, and may fall into the category of "evil thoughts."

But acting on those desires would undoubtedly make things worse. I guess the defilement was already there, in a manner of speaking. But actually carrying it out... If a man looks at a woman to lust after her, he has committed adultery with her already in his heart. which is bad enough. Doing it in the flesh does add to the defilement.

Come to think of it, there's a principle of battling OCD that says you can fight it cognitively and behaviorally; when you sense an impulse, say, to wash your hands when you've already done so, you can relabel it as an erroneous signal (that's the cognitive part) and refuse to carry it out -- that is, refuse to wash 'em (that's the behavioral part). I'm oversimplifying this but the general idea is that the more you refuse to carry out these impulses, the less often or less intensely they will come.

What we say and do will impact our holiness (or lack thereof). But not what we eat.

posted 2/25

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