Chow Ping’s note: This piece was written for Progressive Malaysian Christians (PMC) and was published on the PMC Facebook page as a note.
Apocalyptic prophet. Messiah. Moral teacher. Son of God. Really, who WAS Jesus?
There are two versions of Jesus. The gospel Jesus is based on faith, whereas the historical Jesus is based on facts, and there is a disconnect between the two. Traditional christian theology capitalises on the gospel Jesus.
I regard blind faith a vice, and this reality sipped away at what was left of my depleting christian faith. If the historical Jesus was disparate from the Jesus of my christian construct, then what do I believe? How do I draw from the person of Jesus Christ with critical intelligence?
I found answers to this impasse in Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First time. Drawing from his own metamorphosed faith, he built a bridge between the historical Jesus and a more authentic christian life.
Before we proceed, it is helpful to appreciate the context of first century Jewish Palestine, when purity was political. The entire society was a purity system, and holiness was synonymous with purity. In other words, purity was a culture map of where everything should be.
When Jesus came, he attacked this system, replacing the politics of purity with politics of compassion.
Purity was one convoluted web. Firstly, birth and origin mattered- priest and levites were the elite, followed by “Israelites”, then “converts”, “bastards” and those born without a penis.
Purity laws, duh, had to be obeyed.
Physical wholeness was also crucial. The chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, etc. were impure.
While being rich doesn’t guarantee purity, poverty almost always meant impure since the poor cannot afford to observe purity laws.
And while being male or female does not explicitly mean pure or impure, the natural bodily processes of childbirth and menstruation were considered sources of impurity. By extension, women were more likely impure.
There was also a divide between the jews and gentiles. By definition, gentiles were all impure and unclean. On top of that, tithed produce were pure, un-tithed produce were impure, and this played into the politics of the temple.
In Jesus’ day, there were sharp social dichotomies: pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not, male and female, rich and poor, jew and gentile.
See? So many rules.
Then came Jesus. He introduced an alternative social message, replacing “holiness” and “purity” with compassion.
No more “holy” and “pure”. Only compassion.
Purity is on the inside and not the outside (Mark 7:15), Jesus said.
Be like the the good samaritan, He taught. The priest and the Levite ignored the injured man because they were obligated to a certain level of purity, and touching a dying man would definitely incur impurity. On the other hand, the Samaritan (super impure by purity standards) acted “compassionately” and is highly praised.
From the gospels, we learned that Jesus touched lepers and haemorrhaging women. He approached a man who was demon possessed AND lived near pigs (unclean animals). Furthermore, he chastised temple authorities for turning the temple into a “den of robbers”, a likely reference to the monetary gains the temple elites profited from the purity system.
Another way Jesus radically upturned the purity system is by sharing meals with the “tax collectors and sinners”. Sharing a meal meant mutual acceptance. In 1st century Palestine, there were a myriad of rules surrounding meals that stemmed from the purity system. By sharing meals with those his culture considered impure, He was essentially ignoring the purity codes. As Borg wrote, “the meal was a microcosm of the social system, table fellowship an embodiment of social vision.”
On top of that, Jesus radically included women in His ministry. From his defence of the woman who washed his feet with her hair to being hosted by Mary and Martha and implying Mary as disciple, Jesus did not hold back in his affirmation of woman.
Through His actions and teachings, Jesus took the purity system, shook it up, then smashed it up with a giant hammer. The purity system is no more. “Compassion instead,” He said, feasting with the marginalised and “impure”.
Last but not least, here’s an aptly said quote from the book: “whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.”