The Unclean Become Clean
Have you ever felt like an outsider? I suspect most of us have at one point in our lives. I spent most of my teenage years feeling like an outsider. I enjoyed solving math problems but grew up in an era when girls weren’t supposed to be smart or enjoy math and science. I thought the mall was boring and wished my Dad had taught me to play golf and fix things around the house. When I left home for college, I realized the world was much bigger than I had thought. Girls didn’t have to spend all their time talking about fashion and home decorating.
I’m drawn to Mark’s gospel because in his gospel the outsiders are brought to the inside. Let me show you what I mean. Everyone expected the Messiah would appear to the religious elites in Jerusalem, but he didn't. Instead, Jesus begins his ministry in rural Galilee and gathers a couple of local fishermen as followers (Mark 1:16-20). These men are nobodies, but they’re exactly the people Jesus wants to be around. He shows the extent of his concern for these men by healing Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30-31). He dignifies this elderly woman by entering her sick room and lifting her up by the hand rather than casually speaking a word from the other room as he easily could have done. Jesus brings outsiders into the center of his ministry.
Making the Unclean Clean
But it goes deeper. Jesus didn’t just come to bring outsiders in, but to make the unclean clean. When he begins his healing ministry, Jesus focuses on the unclean. He heals both a demon-possessed man and a leper in chapter one. The man with leprosy would have lived as an outsider, unable to attend the local synagogue and required to call out a warning when people approached, lest the clean touch him inadvertently and become unclean themselves. This man begs Jesus to heal him, and Jesus is moved with pity. Jesus heals the man in a most extraordinary way. He touches him (Mark 1:41). One wonders how long it had been since this man had experienced human touch. Not only that, but the physical contact does not make Jesus unclean. The exact opposite occurs. Through Jesus’ touch the unclean man becomes clean. This man is not only restored from a ravaging disease but also restored to relationship with his family and society.
In chapter two, Jesus continues to associate with those considered unclean. He calls another follower, but this time it’s not a local fisherman but a tax collector, one of the lowest members of Israelite society. Not only that, but Jesus eats in the homes of sinners and tax collectors. The Pharisees are appalled. They go on to accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath regulations, regulations imposed by the Pharisees themselves. They used these regulations to help decide who’s an insider and who’s an outsider. Jesus answers their accusations by healing a man on the Sabbath, breaking their rules. The Pharisees have had enough. They begin consultations with the Herodians on how to destroy Jesus (Mark 3:6). They’ve decided that Jesus is not only an outsider, but he’s a dangerous outsider who must be destroyed.
The Pharisees and the Gentile Woman
One of the greatest contrasts between the clean and unclean occurs in chapter seven of Mark’s gospel. The Pharisees, who presume they are clean, have come down from Jerusalem to find fault with Jesus and his disciples. They try to demonstrate that Jesus’ disciples are not doing enough to keep themselves clean. This time it's because the disciples didn’t follow the religious traditions (Mark 7:4). Not only does Jesus reject their logic, but he explains that nothing outside a person can make him unclean; rather it is the evil in a man’s heart that alienates him from God and ultimately makes him unclean (Mark 7:18-23). The Pharisees, who think they are keeping themselves clean, are actually unclean. Jesus wants them to see this, because only those who realize they are unclean will turn to Jesus for help.
Then, as if to drive this point home, Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon in the far north. Sidon will sound familiar to Mark’s audience since this is the region Jezebel came from (1 Kings 16:31). If ever there was an unclean region it would be Gentile Tyre and Sidon. Here Jesus enters into a conversation with a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit. Everything about this woman screams “unclean” And yet, unlike the hard-hearted Pharisees, she is a humble woman of great faith. The contrast is intended to be stark. This “unclean” woman is cleaner than the Pharisees who prided themselves on being clean. And in response to her faith, Jesus casts the demon out of her daughter and makes her clean.
Jesus Becomes Unclean to Make Us Clean
The climax comes at the cross. Jesus, the divine son of God, becomes unclean in our place. He who had no sin, bears our sin and dies a cursed death, between two robbers. When he has fully paid for our sin, the temple curtain is torn in two, signifying that those who have turned to Christ and become clean can once again be in the presence of God. Who is the first to recognize this? None other than an unclean Gentile, the centurion guarding the cross. Those who realize they are unclean are able to trust in Jesus' death and resurrection to make them clean.
Satan tries to trick us. Even though Christ has made us clean, Satan still accuses us of being unclean. Then he tells us lies of how we can cleanse ourselves. The lies we hear are that we need a certain social status, or a certain relationship status in order to be “insiders.” Of course, even if we have all of those things, Satan never allows us to feel really clean. So, we feel we must fake it with our wardrobe or our Facebook posts. All the while it seems that others are living the clean/insider life and that we are forever on the outside, unclean. We must expose this for what it is – lies, lies, lies. Once we’ve done that, we remind ourselves that we need nothing but Christ’s death on our behalf to make us clean and to bring us inside, into God’s presence.
Once you start looking for the theme of clean/unclean in Mark’s gospel you will appreciate how Mark has woven it throughout his narrative. If this post has intrigued you, come to the Verity Forum on February 3rd, where we will look at this and other themes in Mark’s gospel in more detail.