One of features marking the renaissance of Jesus studies is the centrality of the social world of Jesus. Because meanings are embedded in a social world, if we are to understand and appreciate what Jesus said and did, his message and activity need to be located in his social world.
The Social World of Purity
The social world of first century Palestine was organized around the contrasts or polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean. These polarities applied to persons, places, things, times and social groups.
One’s degree of purity or impurity depended to some extent on birth. Priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) came first, followed by Israelites, followed by converts, followed by bastards. One’s degree of purity or impurity could also depend on behavior. Those who observed the purity code (Lev. 17-26) were righteous and those who did not were sinners.
The polarities of the purity system were attached to other contrasts as well. Physical health and wholeness were associated with purity, while sickness and lack of wholeness were associated with impurity. People who were not whole — the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuches and so forth — were impure.
The purity contrast was also associated with economic class. Being rich did not automatically make one pure, but being abjectly poor almost certainly made you impure. To some extent, the association between being poor and impurity resulted from conventional wisdom, which saw wealth as a blessing from God and poverty as an indication that one had not lived right. And to some extent, it arose because the abject poor could not, in practice, observe the purity laws.
Purity and impurity were also associated with the contrast between male and female. Being a male did not automatically make one pure. And there was nothing about a woman that automatically made her impure. But generally speaking, men in their natural state were thought to be more pure than women. This is consistent with the status of women in that culture as second class citizens.
To sum up: the effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, rich and poor, male and female. The world of first century Palestinian Judaism was what Walter Wink has called a Domination Society. It was hierarchical, patriarchal, and authoritarian.
An Alternative Social Vision
It is in the context of a purity system which created an order with sharp social boundaries that we can see the socio-political significance of the ministry of Jesus. In his message and activity we see an alternative social vision: a community not shaped by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion. He called his vision the Kingdom (Rule, Reign, Domination-Free order) of God. The Levitical (Lev. 19:2) basis of the purity system “Be holy as God is holy” (Holiness meaning separation from everything impure and unclear) was changed by Jesus to “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)
Many of Jesus’ sayings indicted the purity system. He criticized the Pharisees for emphasizing tithing and neglecting justice. He spoke of purity as on the inside and not on the outside. To say that purity is a matter of what is on the inside is radically to subvert a purity system constituted by external boundaries. The same point is made when Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” True purity is a matter not of external boundaries and observance but of the heart.
Curing and Healing
But we see the challenge to the purity system not only in the teachings of Jesus, but in many of his activities. His ministry of healing shattered the boundaries of the purity system. He touched lepers and hemorrhaging women. He entered a graveyard inhabited by a man with a “legion” of unclean spirits who lived in the vicinity of pigs, which were of course unclean animals.
John Dominic Crossan has pointed out that medical anthropology has proposed a basic distinction between curing a disease and healing an illness. Diseases are “abnormalities in the structure and function of body organs and systems.” Illnesses are “experiences of disvalued changes in states of being and in social functions.” A disease is between me and my doctor and I go to the doctor to be cured. But what is lacking in that picture is not just the psychological component of my disease but, much more importantly, the entire social dimension of the phenomena. How does my disease involve my family, my job, or in some cases, wider and wider levels of society? There is a difference between curing a disease and healing an illness. The leper who met Jesus had both a disease (probably psoriasis) and an illness, the personal and social stigma of uncleanness, rejection and isolation. And as long as the disease was not cured the illness also would remain. In general, if the disease was cured, the illness was healed. What, however, if the disease could not be cured but the illness could somehow be healed? Take the disease known as AIDS. A cure for the disease is absolutely desirable. But in the absence of a cure we can still heal the illness by refusing to ostracize those who have it. We can empathize with their anguish and have compassion with them by enveloping their sufferings with both respect and love.
The question which the healing miracles of Jesus raises is: Was he curing the disease through an intervention in the physical world, or was he healing the illness through an intervention in the social world? He could have been doing both. Or he could have been healing an illness without curing a disease. In his healings, whether of disease or illness or both, the important issue is that Jesus acted as a subversive of the purity world. He welcomed back into the human community those persons who were excluded from the purity society of his day. John Dominic Crossan ruminates, “It would, of course, be nice to have certain miracles available to change the physical world if we could, but it would be much more desirable to make certain changes in the social world, which we can.”
An Open and Inclusive Table
Another characteristic activity of Jesus was an open and inclusive table. Anthropologists maintain that “In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships . . . once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members . . . To know what, where, when, and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society.”
Sharing a meal with someone had a significance in the social world of Jesus that is difficult for us to imagine. It was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. In a purity society one did not eat with anyone who could be considered impure. For in a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. That is why there were rules surrounding meals. One couldn’t be too careful. Those rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it should be prepared, but with whom one might eat. Pharisees and others would not eat with somebody who was impure, and no decent person would share a meal with an outcast. The meal was a microcosm of the social system — table fellowship an embodiment of a social vision of a purity society of hierarchies, differences, distinctions, and discriminations.
The meal practice of Jesus therefore had socio-political significance. His open table fellowship became a vehicle of cultural protest, challenging the ethos and politics of holiness which led to a closed table fellowship. It embodied an alternative vision of an inclusive community reflecting the compassion of God. Open commensality(1) is the symbol and embodiment of radical egalitarianism, of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them. The inclusive vision incarnated in Jesus’ table fellowship is reflected in the shape of the Jesus movement itself. It was an inclusive movement, negating the boundaries of the purity system. It was what Walter Wink has called a Domination-Free Society. It included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized, as well as some people who found his vision attractive. It has been said that for Jesus, “the Kingdom of God is pictured as a new kind of meal arrangement. A nondiscriminating table depicts in miniature a nondiscriminating society, and this vision clashed fundamentally with the basic values of ancient Mediterranean society.”
Sources: Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994; John Dominic Crossan, Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994; and Who Is Jesus?, HarperPaperbacks, 1996; Walter Wink, Engaging The Powers, Fortress Press, 1992
SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDY: “BUILDING COMMUNITY WITH OUR DIFFERENCES”
1. Each group needs a facilitator. Someone may volunteer. If no one does select someone by vote, draft or other means!
2. Each group needs a recorder to keep notes for the group and be prepared to share at the plenary — using newsprint — the group’s response to the question “What do you think the passage says to us?”
3. The group should choose, for reflection and discussion, one or more of the passages on “Who Is Welcome At The Table?” and “What Are The Costs of Discipleship?” (below)
1. What ‘grabbed’ you? What did you notice?
2. Is there a question you would like to put to any character in the story?
3. Did you have a ‘feeling’ reaction at any point in the story?
4. What did the passage say to you?
5. What do you think the passage says to us?
6. Summarize the passage in one sentence.
“WHO IS WELCOME AT THE TABLE?”
Text: Mk. 2:15-17 — Parallels: Mt.9:9-13; Luke 15:1-7
“When Jesus was having a meal in his (Levi’s) house, many tax-collectors and sinners were seated with him and his disciples, for there were many of them among his followers. Some scribes who were Pharisees, observing the company in which he was eating, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick; I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.’”
“Then he (Jesus) said to his host, ‘When you are having guests for lunch or supper, do not invite your friends, your brothers or other relations, or your rich neighbors; they will only ask you back again and so you will be repaid. But when you give a party, ask the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. That is the way to find happiness, because they have no way of repaying you. You will be repaid on the day when the righteous rise from the dead.’”
Text: Mark 1:40-44
“On one occasion he was approached by a leper, who knelt before him and begged for help. ‘If only you will,’ said the man, ‘you can make me clean.’ Jesus was moved to anger; he stretched out his hand, and said, ‘I will; be clean.’ The leprosy left him immediately, and he was clean.”
Text: Mark 5:23-34
“Along them was a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years; and in spite of long treatment from nay doctors, on which she had spent all she had, she had become worse rather than better. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak; for she said, ‘If I touch even his clothes, I shall be healed.’ And there and then the flow of blood dried up and she knew in herself that she was cured of her affliction. Aware at once that power had gone out of him, Jesus turned round in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ His disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing round you and yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’ But he kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the women trembling with fear because she knew what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace, free from your affliction.’”
WHAT ARE THE COSTS OF DISCIPLESHIP?
Text: Mk. 8:34-35
“Then he called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, ‘Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me.’”
“So they came to Capernaum; and when he had gone indoors, he asked them (the disciples), ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ They were silent, because on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.’”
Text: Mk. 10:41-45
“Jesus called them (the disciples) to him and said, ‘You know that among the Gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
Text: Mark 10:17-22
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not give false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother.”‘ ‘But Teacher, he replied, ‘I have kept all these things since I was a boy.’ As Jesus looked at him, his he”As he was starting out on a journey, a stranger ran up, and kneeling before him, asked ‘Goodart warned to him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go sell everything you have a give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.’ At these words his face fell and he went away with a heavy heart; for he was a man of great wealth.”