I recently read an interesting book by Richard Beck called “Unclean.” In the book, he explores how Christians focus a lot on purity. He also says this focus on purity might be a problem.
The Problem with Purity
The main idea is that when Christians focus on purity, we create strong boundaries to keep bad stuff out. In our personal lives and communities, we want to be holy, set apart, and blameless… In other words, we strive for purity.
The problem with purity, Beck argues, is it brings up strong reactions of disgust to any kind of contamination. The drive for purity involves boundary setting, so we erect walls to keep [what we consider] bad out of our zone. This drive to set up strong boundaries runs counter to the drive to love people, which can be messy. The act of love involves breaking down boundaries. Love allows another person access to our space, time, and resources.
Purity and Love
In some ways, as Christians, we have competing drives toward purity and love. And, Beck argues, this conflict isn’t just surface-level. The conflict runs deep. The more we focus on purity, the stronger boundaries we create, and the less willing we are to love the people around us. On the other hand, the more we focus on love, the more we let others into our personal and communal space, and the more messy our lives and communities become.
Priest vs. Prophet
This isn’t a new conflict. We see it throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, we see a similar disagreement between the Priestly and Prophetic traditions. The priests focused primarily on purity. The sacrificial system worked to create and maintain a sense of purity, cleanliness, and payment for sin. On the other hand, the prophets focused primarily on love, mercy, and justice, and they criticized the sacrificial system. For example, in the book of Hosea, the prophet says to the nation of Israel: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
The Example of Jesus
We also see this conflict in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus often engaged with the outcasts of society, the tax collectors and sinners. The religious people of the day viewed these folks as “unclean,” refused to associate with them, and didn’t understand why Jesus would connect with them. It didn’t fit with their focus on purity.
Jesus and Matthew
There was one story in particular where this conflict came to a head. One of Jesus’ followers was named Matthew, and he was a tax collector. Jesus decided to have dinner at Matthew’s house, and Matthew invited a bunch of his friends.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13).
The Focus of the Pharisees
The Pharisees focused on purity and sacrifice. They had put up such strong boundaries to keep themselves “clean” that they didn’t even allow themselves to associate with tax collectors and sinners. They thought having contact with the outcasts of society would contaminate them. Their boundaries were so strong, there was no way they could love a tax collector or sinner. They couldn’t even share a meal with them.
The Response of Jesus
The response of Jesus is pretty clear. Jesus prioritizes love. Jesus wasn’t focused on setting up rigid boundaries so he could avoid contamination. Instead, Jesus constantly broke down boundaries so he could love.
What do you think about the conflict between purity and love? Which one do you tend to prioritize?