What Comes Out of the Body: Jesus, Speech, and Purity

Peter Paul Rubens, Christ at Simon the Pharisee
"It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."

Some of you may have heard, or may have preached, that this passage illustrates Jesus’ enlightened dismissal of the tedious materialism of the Jewish dietary laws in favor of the enlightened freedom of the spirit.

There is an instructive irony about that approach, because it arguably illustrates Jesus’ point precisely by misrepresenting it utterly.

Jesus’ attitude to defilement and the question of what goes in and what comes out is in fact readily understood within contemporary Jewish debates. Of course certain foods were excluded from the diet of observant Jew, and Jesus remained one; this, however, did not make non-kosher foods defiling substances. The laws concerning proper diet in the Torah were not the same as the laws of purity.(1)

Thus when Jesus says "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” he is not preaching against Judaism or its dietary laws but against the specific teaching of the Pharisees - one of the schools of thought in the Judaism of his time, but not the only one - who made what was then a new and contentious suggestion about touching non-kosher food as defiling and hence requiring purification.

When Jesus says that instead "it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” the ancient hearer or reader probably thought of the fact that actual defiling substances - blood, semen, the products of sores - often did come from the body itself, if not precisely from the mouth. What are the sources of defilement? Bodies are, people are. 

The late British anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas pointed out that the way a society regulates the individual body - how it allows or disallows ingestion and penetration - reflects its broader anxieties about itself as social body, body politic. It’s not really an accident that the same leadership now comes the proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, or to be more specific that out of the same mouth come words about building such a wall, and also from that mouth words about banning trans people in public institutions like the military. This also helps understand the link in white supremacy between the erasure and constraint of the individual black and brown body in specific acts of violence and racism, and in the reality of mass incarceration of black and brown bodies relative to the black body politic. The individual body and the body of the whole, of the population or nation, are both the focus of anxiety and of control.

Jesus adds his own twist to this however by making words themselves the key to defilement. But are words really so important? Yes. 

We know, not least from recent events in places like Charlottesville, how powerful speech is. Speech is weapon, speech is blessing, speech is curse, speech is beauty, speech is power. In Genesis God speaks the world into being, and we, made in the divine image and sharing divine creativity, speak our own worlds into being as we say “let there be….”  We ourselves are words from that original creative Word through whom we were made, spoken into being. Speech makes us. Speech can defile us; speech can purify us. Speech is not the end, but speech is the beginning.

Jesus’ shift of the argument from foods to words is therefore not a shift from the material to the spiritual, or a move away from the body as locus of concern, but rather a more finely-honed focus on that particular way we mediate bodily relations by speech. This is how we risk defilement. We risk our bodies when we speak, our souls, even - but we gain ourselves, our souls and bodies, in speech also. 

Comic Lenny Bruce, who was tried on obscenity charges because of words used in his stand-up act and who died in 1966, said "you can't do anything with anybody's body to make it dirty to me. You can do only one thing to make it dirty — kill it. Hiroshima was dirty.”

So the irony of how we misconstrue this text, to be clear, is this: that when we speak of Jesus as a sort of anti-semite in interpreting this story, we perform exactly the kind of defilement of which he speaks. If white supremacy is the defining national sin at present, then anti-semitism is Christianity’s original sin, lurking always at the edge of our sight when we encounter the reality and the challenge of difference. We can’t speak liberation out of a grammar of oppression: whenever we oppose our spiritual or the other’s material, whenever we oppose our freedom to someone else’s legalism, we repeat the ancient defilement. 

Our vocation as scholars here has much to do with speech. We will read and write, but above all we will speak. And how we speak and when, as well as how we remain silent and when, are the marks of our common vocation. We will learn, God willing, how to speak courageously when we have been afraid; we will learn to be silent when others voices need to be heard first. We will risk defilement at times; we will at others find ourselves purified or even remade in the “let there be” of another’s creative word. We will challenge one another, we will make mistakes, we will hurt and be hurt, and we will build worlds together as we do - may those worlds, and our words, and our bodies, our selves, not be defiled by fear or abuse, but by the holiness of truth and the purity of courage.

[Sermon for Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Before the Fall Orientation, Marquand Chapel, August 23 2017; Proper 15 Year A RCL, including Matt 15:10-28]

(1) See Daniel Boyarin's discussion of the work of Yair Furstenberg in The Jewish Gospels (New York: New Press, 2012).


Popular Posts