The Pharisaic Approach to Purity

We tend to be hard on the Pharisees without seeing the difficulty they faced.  They were not cartoons.  They were men—men who, like us sometimes, learned the right lesson but drew the wrong conclusion from the Law of Moses.

Under the Law, ritual defilement was intended as a kind of sign or shadow: to show us in our pride that we could not, by our own strength and power, keep ourselves clean from sin.  The intended lesson: we need God to cleanse us through Christ.

But the Pharisees took away something very different.  They concluded they could find sanctity in only one way: separation.  Indeed, the word "Pharisee" comes from the Hebrew term meaning "separate".  So they separated themselves from Gentiles, from touching the dead and dying, from lepers, and from menstruating women.  They were right to see in these ritual prohibitions an image or sign of lifelessness.  But they were wrong to conclude that by separating themselves they could avoid the sin which ritual uncleanness signifies.  And so in an ironic way, they took the mirror of ritual uncleanness that God has given them in the Mosaic Law, and instead of seeing in it an image of their own uncleanness and defilement by sin, the turned it around and said to those around them, "See how unclean you are!"

The problem came when Jesus brought a higher revelation and a higher law: one that was capable of actually overcoming defilement.  It was a classic case of paradigm shift.  The Pharisees had invested their entire being in mastering the paradigm they had created in their pride under the Law of Moses.  Suddenly, Jesus appeared on the scene saying, "I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it" and promulgating a New Law of the Spirit summed up in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

 Matthew very carefully constructs his gospel to make this point clear—in a decidedly premodern way. Bookended with the Infancy and Passion narratives, Matthew consists of five books (just like the Law), each composed of narrative and discourse sections. Jesus propounds the New Law on a mountain, like Moses.  And when he comes down from the mountain (in the transition from discourse to narrative beginning in Matthew 8), he encounters one person after another who, under the Old Law, was defiling.

So the first healing miracle recorded by Matthew is performed for a leper.  What is notable is the method Jesus chose to heal him.  He could have merely said, "Be healed!" (as he showed when he healed the centurion's servant (8:5-13)).  But instead, Jesus does something very deliberate and significant: he touches the leper (8:3).

Under the old Law, such an action meant you were ritually defiled and could not go up to the Temple to worship.  You had to go through a whole week of purification.  Uncleanness, sin, and defilement were more powerful influences than cleanness, sanctity, and purity.  In the old Law, sin was the superior power.  When someone afflicted with some ritual uncleanness that symbolizes sin touched someone who was clean, the "flow" of power went in one direction only: the clean person was defiled but the unclean person was not sanctified.

But when Jesus touched the leper something astounding happened: the leper became clean and Jesus was not defiled.  The flow of power was, for the first time, reversed.

Naturally then, the Pharisees simply do not know what to do with him and are motivated by their pride to misunderstand him.  Jesus systematically turns the Pharisaic understanding of the Law on its head.  He touches lepers and they are healed (8:14), receives Gentiles and they receive faith (8:5-13), consorts with demon-possessed people in a cemetery and they are restored (8:28-31), permits the touch of a menstruating woman and she's healed (9:18-22), touches the dead and she is raised (9:25), and eats with tax collectors and sinners and makes them saints (9:9-13).

Yet, in all this, the Pharisees see only the ritual defilement, not the revolutionary reversal in the flow of power.  For, as Jesus points out elsewhere, pride has blinded them (John 9:35-41).  They are so certain they are clean they cannot say with the leper, "Lord, if you're willing, you can make me clean."  So they miss the crucial lesson that the time for separation is past.  In Israel's childhood, separation from uncleanness and sin was necessary just as it is necessary for us to keep our children from "bad influences" lest they become imitators.  But with the dawn of the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the bad influences that are to be conquered with good ones, sin that is to be conquered with virtue, and death that is to be conquered with life.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Guest


    Wow again…

    Great article!

  • Guest

    Mark, in all my readings and years .. this is the most straightforward piece I've read that best describes the Pharisees viewpoint and insight, along with the revolutionary impact of our Lord. 

    Thanks again.

  • Guest

    dwcrago, that was EXACTLY my thought.

    Mark, you were filled with the HOly Spirit when you wrote this!

    Thank  you! 

  • Guest

    Me, three!  That was exactly what's needed to complete the picture.

    I've always defended the Pharisees (particularly in the Good Samaritan story) for doing what the Law taught.  But I never saw what was "under" that, "behind" that Law.  This is the "puzzle piece" I didn't have.

    So, now I've got questions: is this why Jesus read that specific passage from Isaiah (because it predicted that Messiah would turn everything upside down)?, and is this what Jesus was trying to teach in the passage you quoted about not destroying but fullfilling the Law?

    What G-R-E-A-T Good News!!!

  • Guest

    cooky, isn't it exciting when things just "click" in bible study?  You truly do grow in grace and love God even more for the awesome gift of His word and The Word.

    One of the things I miss most about the rigorous vocation of mothering and homeschooling a large family is that I no longer am able to do systematic Bible study.  I participate in weekly studies year round for about 15 years.  Now, I do what I can on my own through spiritual reading…it's hard, but I feel the Holy Spirit is infusing  certain truths into my soul through the living of my vocation and trying to do His Will.  

    Still, I feel full from the nourishing meal of this article.  Finally, connections have been made that have helped me in my journey to God. 

  • Guest

    It's easier for us Gentiles to see the paradigm shift and to accept it because we were never under the law in the same way as were the Israelites. They were chosen to be examples to us how to perceive God and His ways as well as examples of how NOT to do it. We are the beneficiaries of both examples. For that, we owe the Jews, at the very least, consideration.

    Look at how many so called Christian sects are into this separation concept. How many of us also look down on those who don't see it our way. The same pride is alive and well today.

    Christ came to save that which is lost and broken and wanting. He wants all His children and jealously goes in pursuit of me, my friend and my enemy. 

  • Guest

    Mark's articles are truly inspired.  I have yet to be disappointed by one of his articles.  

  • Guest

    Elkabriker: don't know if you'll see this, but I wanted to encourage you.  I believe that God will "grow" you, if you're willing, in whatever way suits you.  Right now, you've got your hands full with little ones.  I've taught for years that there is nothing on earth like children and small domestic animals to put our relationship with God in perspective.

    There will come a time–sooner than you can imagine, right now–when you'll have time for all those Bible studies, again.  And, look at how much richer your participation will be from all your experiences.  Really!  Hang in there, dear one.

    Goral, thank you for reminding me that my enemy isn't necessarily HIS!