When I see a father walk into a public restroom with his young son, I already know what I’m about to overhear:
“Don’t touch anything…
no, stop, keep your hands away….
come here and wash…
get plenty of soap on your hands.”
I’ve heard it hundreds of times. Children (especially boys!) aren’t born with a knowledge of germs. They must learn the meaning of “dirty,” “nasty,” “gross,” or “filthy.” Adults pass on to children the categories of clean or unclean, acceptable or disgusting. It’s Parenting 101.
But the learning of disgust extends far beyond good hygiene. We learn, for example, which foods are disgusting. If I invite some Americans over for dinner and tell them I’m serving barbecued dog, they’ll be outraged and disgusted. Yet, in some parts of the world, my guests would show up with an appetite. We learn early on which foods are considered acceptable, and which are not: Cow? Delicious! Dog? Disgusting! But, notice, this is completely culturally determined. What is disgusting to an American might be a feast in South Korea.
There are, though, some elements of disgust that are more universal. One of these is that, once something has been deemed unclean, polluted, toxic, or contaminated, it not only remains that way, but it also passes on its disgusting quality to whatever it touches.
For instance, if I had in my possession a sweater regularly worn by Hitler, would you put it on? Highly unlikely. You’d feel dirty having that next to your skin. Or, if I were to drop a cockroach into a glass of juice then remove it, would you drink the juice? Of course not. Even if I filtered it numerous times, you’ll probably still balk at the idea of putting that into your body. Once polluted, always polluted. Hitler’s sweater will always be Hitler’s sweater. A “cockroached” glass of juice will always be a “cockroached” glass of juice.
Some things, once they are deemed disgusting or contaminated, permanently carry that quality with them. These things are even thought to be “contagious,” negatively affecting whatever they come into contact with.
But what about people?
People who are deemed dirty or disgusting or contaminated.
Does the same apply to them?
DO SINNERS MAKE JESUS UNCLEAN?
In a well-known example from the New Testament, the Jewish religious leaders grumbled and murmured when they saw Jesus eating with “sinners” (Luke 15:1). On another occasion, when these same leaders saw Jesus in the home of a tax-collector, sharing a meal with him and his fellow “sinners,” they asked his followers why their Rabbi would eat with such people (Matthew 15:11). And on still another occasion, “a woman in the city who was a sinner” actually wept on Jesus’s feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with perfume. The Pharisee in whose house this happened said to himself that, if Jesus were truly a prophet, he wouldn’t let this kind of woman touch him (Luke 7:36-38).
Each of these are cases of disgust and contamination. The religious leaders are appalled that Jesus would let himself come into contact with unclean people, even to the point of letting that woman’s tears, hair, and lips touch his body.
The implication is clear: the uncleanness of these “sinners” will wear off on Jesus.
Their contamination is disgusting.
But notice something very important: the religious leaders don’t even entertain the possibility that the reverse might be true. Rather than seeing these sinners as contaminating Jesus, why not see Jesus as purifying them? Why not? Because, as Richard Beck points out in his book Unclean, “The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. [According to this logic,] Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.”
In the minds of the religious leaders, once contaminated, always contaminated. Moreover, once contaminated, always contagious. And, unfortunately, this isn’t just the theological and psychological mindset of religious leaders in the 1st century. It still dominates many minds and hearts in the church today.
FORMER PORN PRODUCER
Let’s imagine a former adult film producer has left his career, become a Christian, and joined your church. Now at your congregation, laypeople regularly assist with parts of the service, such as the Lord’s Supper. Would you be OK with him serving you Holy Communion? Those hands, which had directed women and men to do all sort of sexual acts, would you be fine with those hands passing to you the body and blood of Jesus? As he stood there at the altar, would you still see him standing behind the camera?
How would you see this man: as contaminated or cleansed? Contagious or forgiven?
Or, we might ask this: when the early Christians met Paul, how did they see him? Did they look upon his hands as still stained with the blood of Christians? When they saw his feet, did they see them as the feet at which the killers of Stephen had laid their cloaks (Acts 7:58), or the beautiful feet which bring good news?
How did they see Paul: as contaminated or cleansed? Contagious or forgiven?
Well, that depends. If we’re working with the logic of the world, the logic of the negative dominating over the positive, then we would see the former porn producer as unclean, disgusting, contagious—just as an early Christian might have seen Paul as still a bloodthirsty, disgusting, contagious persecutor of the church. Once polluted, always polluted, right?
But if we’re thinking counterintuitively, if the cross of Christ is crucifying our minds and hearts to raise them to a new resurrection way of life, then we will see our brother or sister at the altar as a forgiven, pure, holy child of God, no matter what his or her past might be. A new creation. Just as the early believers evidently saw Paul.
This view of people is extremely counterintuitive. It’s a reversal of how we are prone to view life.
Bugs make juice unclean; juice doesn’t make bugs clean.
Sinners contaminate the church; the church doesn’t make sinners clean.
So, our common, law-oriented, disgust psychology tells us.
But Jesus says otherwise. He turns our minds and hearts and worlds upside down: if anyone is in him, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come. Not only does Jesus welcome sinners; he eats with them, lets them kiss his feet, dies for them, and even incorporates them into his very body. He calls them not only friends but his brothers and sisters.
Jesus and his gospel upend our deeply held convictions about disgust.
The person he has called clean, holy, forgiven, and beloved—that’s who and what that person is.
Let us do likewise.
I remain deeply indebted to Richard Beck for his book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, for many of the insights and illustrations used in this article (and others).