For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community. To put it boldly: compassion for Jesus was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated instead what might be called a politics of compassion. This conflict and this social vision continue to have striking implications for the life of the church today.
Purity versus Compassion
To see this, we need to look at the role that purity played in Jesus’ social world. He was often in conflict with his critics about purity laws and issues.
Purity was political because it structured society into a purity system. It took as its starting point a verse from the Book of Leviticus: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). As an imitation dei, the passage joins together an image of God and an ethos for the community: God is holy, therefore Israel is to be holy. Moreover, holiness was understood to mean “separate from everything that is unclean.” Holiness thus meant the same as purity, and the passage was understood as, “You [Israel] shall be pure as God is pure.” The ethos of purity produced a politics of purity – that is, a society structured around a purity system.
Purity systems are found in many cultures. At a high level of abstraction, they are systems of classifications, lines and boundaries [the concept of purity is central to all Urizenic, left brain religions – the logic of pure reason/impure world]. A purity system “is a cultural map which indicates ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.” Things that are okay in one place are impure or dirty in another, where they are out of place. Slightly more narrowly, and put very simply, a purity system is a social system organised around the contrasts or polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean. These polarities apply to persons, places, things, times, and social groups.
Most important for our purposes is the way “pure” and “impure” applied to persons and social groups in the first-century Jewish social world. The purity system established a spectrum of people ranging from the pure through varying degrees of purity to people on the margin to the radically impure.
Jesus’s identification with the radically impure
One’s purity status depended to some extent on birth. According to one purity map of the time, priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) come first, followed by “Israelites”, followed by “converts” (Jewish persons who were not Jewish by both).
But one’s degree of purity or impurity also depended on behaviour. Those who were carefully observant of the purity codes are “the pure” of course. The worst of the nonobservant were “outcasts”. They included occupational groups such as tax collectors and perhaps shepherds. “The righteous” were those who followed the purity system, and “sinners” were those who did not. Though the word sinners had a range of meanings in first-century Palestine, it was not understood to include everybody (as it does in the mainstream Christian theological tradition), but rather referred to particular groups of people, the worst of whom were “untouchables”.
The polarities of the purity system got attached to other contrasts as well. Physical wholeness was associated with purity, and lack of wholeness with impurity. People who were not “whole” – the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, and so forth – were on the impure side of the spectrum. The purity contrast also was associated with economic class. To be sure, being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side, but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure. To some extent, this association resulted from popular wisdom, which saw wealth as a blessing from God (“The righteous will prosper”) and poverty as an indication that one had not lived right.
The Myth of Holiness
‘Holiness is a word which Blake often used in a pejorative sense, as the virtue of the Pharisees, the state of the “Fiends of Righteousness” who enact and execute cruel laws. It is opposed to Mercy. “The Fool shall not enter into Heaven let him be ever so Holy. Holiness is not The Price of Entrance into Heaven” ‘ (Damon, A Blake Dictionary)
At the centre of the purity system were the temple and the priesthood. The temple was the geographical and cultic centre of Israel’s purity map. Its priests were therefore bound by the more stringent purity rules, which applied to those nearest the centre of purity. Moreover, the income of both temple and priests (and Levites) depended upon the observance of purity laws by others. That income flowed largely from “tithes” – in effect, taxes on agricultural produce. Tithing was closely linked to purity; untithed produce was thus impure and would not be purchased by the observant. So temple and priesthood had economic as well as religious interests in the purity system.
[The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ – kedushah – literally means ‘to set apart’ or separate, just as the word ‘temple’ derives from the Greek temenos meaning ‘to cut off’ – a deft way in which these left-brain priests simultaneously invested ‘holiness’ in their cultic centres and drained it from everyone else; see Douglas Purity and Danger, Tweedy, God of the Left Hemisphere]
It should be added that the temple was also the centre of the ruling elites among the Jewish people. Not only were the high priestly families the religious elite, but they overlapped the economic and political elites, being linked with them by frequent intermarriage and other associations. Thus the politics of purity was to some extent the ideology of the dominant elites – religious, political, and economic.
Dead Sea Purity: The Pharisees and the Essenes
Purity was also central to two Jewish renewal groups in first-century Palestine. The Pharisees sought the extension of the more stringent priestly rules of purity into everyday life; and the Essenes withdrew to the desert wilderness along the Dead Sea, believing that purity could be attained only in isolation from the impure world of culture.
It is in this context of a purity system that created a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, that we can see the sociopolitical significance of compassion. In the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion.
Jesus’s Attack upon the Purity System
The challenge is singled at the outset by the imitation dei of which Jesus speaks. It is striking that “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” so closely echoes “Be holy as God is holy,” even as it makes a radical substitution. The close parallel suggests that Jesus deliberately replaced the core value of purity with compassion. Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God.
Many of Jesus’s sayings indicted the purity system. He criticised a system that emphasised tithing and neglected justice: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God.” Tithes on produce amounted to taxes paid to the priests and temple, and untithed produce was impure. Thus, in the name of purity, the meticulous payment of tithes was insisted upon, to the neglect of justice.
He called the Pharisees “unmarked graves which people walk over without knowing it,” a criticism that might seem obscure to us. The key is that corpses (and therefore burial places) were a source of severe impurity. To call the Pharisees “unmarked graves” is stunningly ironic: they were a movement seeking the extension of purity laws, and Jesus declared them to be instead a source of impurity.
Jesus spoke of purity as on the inside and not on the outside: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” To say that purity is a matter of what is inside is radically to subvert a purity system constituted by external boundaries.
The critique of the purity system is the theme of one of Jesus’s most familiar parables, the story of the Good Samaritan. Most often interpreted as a message about being a helpful neighbour, it in fact had a much more pointed meaning in the first-century Jewish social world. It was a critique of a way of life ordered around purity. The key to seeing this is to recognise the purity issues in the story: the priest and Levite were obligated to maintain a certain level of purity; contact with death was a source of major impurity; and the wounded man is described as “half-dead,” suggesting that one couldn’t tell whether he was dead without coming close enough to incur impurity if he was. Thus the priest and Levite passed by out of observance of the purity laws. The Samaritan (who, not incidentally, was radically impure according to the purity system), on the other hand, is described as the one who acted “compassionately.” Thus this beloved and often domesticated parable was originally a pointed attack on the purity system and an advocacy of another way: compassion.
We see the challenge to the purity system not only in Jesus’s teaching but also in many of his activities. The stories of his healings shatter the purity boundaries of his social world. He touched lepers and haemorrhaging women. He entered a graveyard inhabited by a man with a “legion” of unclean spirits who lived in the vicinity of pigs, which were of course unclean animals. In the last week of his life, according to the synoptic gospels, he brought his challenge to the centre of the purity system – the temple – with his action of driving out the money changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. His charge that the temple authorities had turned the temple into a “den of robbers” may very well refer to the economic interest that the temple elites had in the purity system.
The meal practice of Jesus also had sociopolitical significance. He frequently ate with outcasts, as well as with others. His practice of “open commensality” incited criticism from the advocates of the purity system; this criticism has been preserved in the gospels in a number of places. Jesus is accused of “eating with tax collectors and sinners” and is charged with being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” As already noted, tax collectors were among the worst of the untouchables and sinners should be given the meaning it had within a purity system: impure people, “dirty” people.
In short, there is something boundary-shattering about the imitatio dei that stood at the centre of Jesus’s message and activity: “Be compassionate as God as compassionate.” 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.
Marcus J. Borg is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, and the author of Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (2006), and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001). The above article is an excerpt from his eye-opening book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (1994).