Ground black pepper and holy robes

I’ve recently spoken on Luke 8:40-56, the healing of a lady who had suffered bleeding for twelve years, and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The whole talk is available here, should you be interested.

One of the things I love about these interwoven stories is what they show us about Jesus and impurity laws. There are two things that happened in this passage, that should have made Jesus ceremonially impure according to the Levitical law.

Firstly, his robe was touched by a woman who had been bleeding for many years. According to Leviticus 15:19-31 when a woman experiences bleeding, she and everything she touches are considered ritually impure, and anyone who touches her is also considered impure; them and their clothing. (Note, there is a difference between ritual impurity and moral impurity. The woman is not deemed to have done anything sinful, she is simply considered ritually impure, and restricted from interacting with others or participating in worship until she has been cleansed.) So when the lady in Luke 8 reached out and touched the corner of Jesus’ cloak, Jesus should have been considered impure.

Secondly, Jesus touched the hand of a dead girl, raising her to life. According to Numbers 19:11ff touching a corpse renders someone unclean, and Leviticus 21:11 says that the high priest may not even enter a place where there is a dead body, for he will be rendered unclean. Jesus did both these things.

And yet, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ own impurity. Jairus the leader of the synagogue was there at the scene, and even permitted Jesus to enter his home, knowing that he should have been made impure by the woman who touched his cloak. In both situations, with the woman and the dead girl, what got transformed was not pure and perfect Jesus, but the impure and broken people.

There is something about Jesus that is so powerful that sickness, impurity and death cannot stand to be in his presence.

In grappling with how to communicate this in the sermon, I settled on two angles: a cultural illustration and a biblical picture.

Ground Black Pepper

Do you remember at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the British Government taught us all how to wash our hands? A nation gathered round TV sets and watched our Prime Minister give a solemn briefing from Downing Street, in which – with a straight face – he instructed us to use soap and water, washing our hands thoroughly whilst singing happy birthday twice?

My daughter’s school sent a video with an experiment to try at home, to teach the children about the importance of hand-washing.

You get a bowl of water, and grind in black pepper, which represents germs. When the child puts their finger in the water, it gets covered in pepper, thus demonstrating how easily germs are transferred. But if you first smear antibacterial soap on your finger, then when you put your finger in the water, the pepper completely disperses. It shoots away from your finger to the edges of the bowl. And if you don’t believe me, feel free to give it a go, or watch this video:

When Christ stepped into this broken world, and interacted with impure and broken people, he did not become tainted, but they became whole. When he touched sickness and death, we expected that he would become impure. The opposite happened! Sickness and death had to flee; repelled away from him. 

I’ve heard it said so many times that “God is so holy – so pure and perfect – that He cannot stand to be in the presence of imperfection.” I’ve come to believe that’s entirely the wrong way round. Rather, God is so holy – so pure and perfect – that impurity cannot stand to be in His presence!

Jesus spent his time seeking out imperfect people, so he could make them whole. When people questioned his proximity to sinners, he replied: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31), because “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10).

Holy Robes

I was reading Ezekiel 44 the other week, and this section stopped me in my tracks. I’d never noticed it before. Ezekiel is speaking about the priests, who got to go into the holiest part of the Temple, where God dwelt. Since it was such a precious and Holy place to be, nobody else was allowed to enter there, and the priest could only go in after he had undergone purification rituals to make him sufficiently clean. Ezekiel says:

‘When [the priests] go out into the outer court where the people are, they are to take off the clothes they have been ministering in and are to leave them in the sacred rooms, and put on other clothes…’

…and when I hear that I think “of course! They need to change out of their holy robes so that their robes don’t get made impure by contact with unholy people!” But that’s not what Ezekiel says. The reason they have to change out of their robes is:

‘…so that the people are not made holy through contact with their garments.’

Ezekiel 44:19

When you touch the robe of one who has ministered in the holiest place, you get made holy. If that is true of an earthly priest how much more is it true of the Great High Priest who has spent eternity in the presence of God, who had no impurity of his own to deal with? No wonder when a ritually impure woman touched the corner of his cloak, she got made well!  

What a Great High Priest!

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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