Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Sept. 9, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
If we were to take the time to study our North American culture, we should be able to notice readily its major preoccupations. Such preoccupations are matters of universal concern among the populace, consciously or even unconsciously. They can be either good or bad, but they direct our way of thinking and, therefore, effect behavior.
A study of Afghanistan’s culture, for example, may reveal a preoccupation with the isolation of women from society (at least as far as the Taliban are concerned). Women there must cover the entire body when in public – including arms and faces. A study of our culture in the United States may reveal our preoccupation with human rights. Even school children are often known to scream for their “rights” when they are disciplined for misbehavior!
The recognition that every culture is driven by its peculiar preoccupations actually can help us better understand the Gospel – and therefore make better application of its saving power to our own lives. One of the preoccupations of the culture of Jesus’ day was cleanliness. No, not cleanliness as we Americans tend to think of it – showering daily and smelling nice. The people with whom Jesus rubbed elbows were preoccupied with spiritual cleanliness, or cultic purity. This kind of cleanliness, in turn, dealt with standing right before God. The spiritually clean were seen as righteous. But that raises the question: Who needs to be clean? And who is cleaning whom?
Even the most brief look throughout the Gospel stories shows evidence of this preoccupation. Those who belonged to the tradition of the Pharisees evidently sought to keep themselves immaculately clean. The key point here is that they kept themselves clean. They are the self-righteous whom Jesus lambastes as hypocrites. Numerous were those whom the religious society of Jesus day considered unclean – the tax collectors; anyone with an open sore; lepers; prostitutes; those who worked on the Sabbath; those who didn’t wash pots and pans properly; those who didn’t wash their hands before eating.
Uncleanliness dealt with far more than hygiene; it dealt with being okay in the eyes of God. Such a mentality would lead to all sorts of religious practices which were followed intensely by the devout to prove to God that they were spiritually okay, that they stood tight before the Heavenly Throne.
Such an attitude could not be more contrary to the unconditional love of God which Jesus preached – and practiced. He constantly insisted that men and women do not make themselves okay in the eyes of God. We are created okay. The only way to be not okay – to be unclean – is rooted not in some physical deformity or fault of religious practice, but in the realm of free choice to turn away from a relationship with God. It lies in the realm of sin. Jesus sought to free the people from their sin, from their alienation from God – and therefore from their alienation from themselves and one another. Jesus proclaimed the righteousness of God. According to the Gospel of Jesus, spiritual cleanliness can never come from our human efforts, but as grace from God. And that grace is freely given.
God’s righteousness – and not self-righteousness – lies at the heart of the Gospel. It’s wonderful news for those who either feel or are constantly told by society (religious or secular) that they are no good in God’s eyes. That’s why the poor, public sinners and people like lepers flocked to Jesus – to be assured of their goodness before the God who created them. Did not Jesus comment that such presumed rejects were going to enter into the Kingdom of God before those who kept themselves immaculately clean? Did he not say that such sinners were going to know the joy of God’s kingdom before those who preoccupied themselves with the most minute effort to remain culticly pure?
Shocking and challenging news for a culture steeped in its own self-righteousness. But where does all this leave us – centuries later, and in a different culture? We may have to do a little cultural translating, but the challenge remains the same for us. It wasn’t so long ago when we may have preoccupied ourselves with a form of cleanliness dressed as sin. Is it a sin to weed the garden on Sunday? Is it sin to chew gum in church? Is it a sin to be late for Mass? Is it a sin to let the sanctuary candle before the Blessed Sacrament to go out? Is it a sin to mistakenly eat meat on Good Friday? Is it a sin to….?
In such a culture we perhaps were delighted when the priests would tell us our daily sins. Oddly, it made us feel comfortable, because we all knew how sinful (or unclean) we really are. Like the unclean people of Jesus day, we could easily identify with what’s not okay with us.
Someone studying our culture may have spotted a preoccupation of a sort. Call it cleanliness or sin – in either case, we needed to focus our attention on the freeing love of God. Perhaps nowadays, we have matured beyond such misleading preoccupations. Interestingly, this observation does not mean that since God’s love frees us from sin, cleanses us, and makes us whole – that we no longer need concern ourselves with sin or spiritual uncleanliness. Ironically, we so-called modern Christians may take our cleanliness in Christ a bit too liberally. The attitude can become rather pervasive: since God is totally loving and forgiving, one need not concern one’s self with sin. God forgives – so sin and do what you want?
It would be a huge mistake if we heard in the Gospel the abolishment of the reality of sin. Jesus does not say that people are never unclean. But he does properly focus our attention on what makes us unclean. Sin – call it mortal, venial, or “poor choices” – its ugly reality is the same, in any of its forms.
Sin is not an automatic misstep or fault that renders us unworthy of God’s love. Sin is our free choice to reject the goodness of God. It is self-dirtiness, if you would. Jesus has not removed the reality of sin from the world – it still exists aplenty if we are honest about ourselves.
Perhaps those who study our culture today may recognize certain preoccupations. Perhaps they may even recognize a lack of preoccupation, a pretense that sin does not exist and that we need not concern ourselves with it. When sin becomes reduced to just bad potty training or inadequate child rearing, or just human imperfection, then we are in real spiritual trouble. It’s one thing to know God alone is the source of spiritual righteousness; it’s another to live as if we were already perfect and not in need of God’s cleansing forgiveness and love.
Is it possible that, if Jesus were to preach the Gospel in our cities and towns today, he would actually have to chastise us for our lack of preoccupation?
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
Inland Register archives
© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved