What can defile a person or make them unclean? Jesus addresses this question in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ society, like our society, tended to classify people as insiders and outsiders. Whatever people feared or did not understand, such as leprosy or a foreign language, made one an outsider. An outsider was not “one of us” and so was unclean. Religious customs and traditions can reinforce the view that people are unclean and an outsider and should be avoided. When I was baptized my mother was not present at my baptism. In those days a mother would not come to church until she received a blessing after childbirth. This practice was called “churching” perhaps reflecting the view in the Leviticus that a woman was “unclean” after giving birth. The church has done away with this practice and mothers not only can but should be present at the baptism of their child.
We can see that not only Judaism but also Christianity has customs and practices that can make someone feel “unclean” or an outsider. Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel is clear and important: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” To make the point clear Jesus even gets a little earthy: “Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” Jesus goes on to do away with the so-called kosher food laws: “Thus Jesus declared all foods clean. Jesus teaches that immoral acts such as a lack of love and compassion, injustice, and a failure to do to the least is what truly causes uncleanness: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45). For Jesus and therefore for us all are welcome, no one is unclean, no one is an outsider.
Image: “blind leper” by HawaiianVirtualTours is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.