We moderns can be awfully smug when it comes to Old Testament laws about ritual impurity. As heirs to post-Enlightenment thought, it’s easy for us to basically assume they were nothing but pre-scientific attempts to avoid disease, as though the Old Testament was principally concerned with “How do I avoid trichinosis?” but kept slipping into “How do I keep the cooties away?” The notion is that the Old Testament was attempting Science (specifically, Epidemiology and Nutritional Medicine) and that therefore what we need are “scientific explanations” of how these ritual taboos arose. All this leads, of course, to a triumphant and confident conclusion that we are 4,000 years smarter than the people who shackled themselves with such barbaric nonsense as taboos on eating pork and staying away from menstruating women. Thanks to be to the Great God Progress, we don’t fall for such ignorant taboos anymore. We know how to cook pork thoroughly, what causes leprosy, and how to refrigerate shellfish to avoid ptomaine. Gleaming Science has perfected what the Old Testament barbarians were groping toward in their ignorance.
This self-congratulatory notion that we are not motivated by such notions of ritual impurity is, however, a tad hasty. For, in fact, the Ick Factor is alive and well in our culture, even where our science tells us that we are in no danger from disease or other forms of biological hazard. That’s why you are in no big hurry to brush off somebody else’s dandruff, chat up strange women on the bus on how their menstrual cycle is going, or touch a corpse. Similarly, before we feel too superior about our coziness with pork and shellfish versus the dietary taboos of ancient Israel, let’s ask ourselves how many insect larvae we’ve eaten lately. Been a while since we’ve had a yen for brains? Or raw blubber? Once again, the Ick Factor is a more universal experience than we may have guessed.
The interesting thing is that Scripture, building on this natural human phenomenon that occurs in every (not just Jewish) culture, is not really interested in establishing a Bronze Age Center for Disease Control. Disease prevention is a side effect, to be sure, of the Old Testament notions of ritual impurity. But the main focus is on connecting what Israel felt about biological ickiness to the Ick Factor of spiritual ickiness. Certain dietary items and certain medical conditions get connected with the concept of sin in ancient Israel. Leprosy, effusions of blood, eating pork, touching corpses and such things get connected with the repellent nature of sin.
Now we could pretend that such connections would never ever happen in our vastly more advanced culture. We could pretend that nobody would, for instance, ever attach a moral stigma to AIDS or talk as though a lung cancer victim had it coming for the Puritan sin of smoking. We could pretend that nobody in our culture ever talks as though obesity or addiction to alcohol is always due to moral turpitude and never to physiology. We could put on blinkers and state that in our day and age nobody treats the mentally ill as guilty of some special sin instead of as victims of disease over which they may have no control at all.
But the more profitable thing, I think, is to pay attention to the fact that the connection between physical impurity and moral impurity is extremely easy for people to make and that almost no power can keep them from making it. Every culture has certain things that evoke the Ick Factor. And every culture tends, at some level, to connect physical ickiness with moral ickiness. The Jews, like everybody else, did this—and so the Old Testament connected their response to leprosy and pork with revulsion toward the ickiness of sin.
In short, God chose to use the image of pollution—of some all-soiling, all-pervading contaminant, like an infectious agent, or cooties, or leprosy, or sewage-stained water—to portray what sin is and what it does. And when you think about it, it’s an apt image: because sin is not something that happens in private. It is not something we can keep to ourselves. It inevitably gets out, like the ebola virus, and wreaks havoc with the whole of human society. It defiles, infects, poisons, spreads, rots, ruins and kills.
The problem is that many people learned the wrong lesson from this. Rather, than seeing disease as an image of sin, not a few (including the apostles) were tempted to see sickness as proof of punishment for sin. Like Job’s Comforters, many have an all too easy certitude that sickness=divine punishment. Jesus would have none of such simple-mindedness. When the disciples ask “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” in John 9, Jesus retorts that the blindness is not the result of sin, but that the works of God might be made manifest.
So Jesus, while using sickness and defilement as an image of sin, does not conflate the image with the reality. Just as he does not teach that sickness means the victim is a sinner, so he rejects the notion that ritual defilement under the Old Testament means moral defilement. As Jesus put it:
“Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:14-23)
His point was that God had taken this natural impulse to say, “Ick”—to regard certain things as “defiling”—and, as with many other natural things, raised it by grace to teach a spiritual lesson. The image of food too gross to eat and things too disgusting to touch was and is an apt image of sin, which sickens the soul as much as pork sickens Jews and maggots sicken suburban Americans. The problem is, it’s easy to confuse the image for the reality. That is why Jesus had to starkly instruct his followers that it was not food that defiled, but sin; that disease was an image of sin, but not evidence of the sinfulness of the victim.
Similarly, Jesus has no truck with the assumption that had grown up under the Old Testament dispensation that sees quarantine as the only possible approach to defilement, whether physical or spiritual. This was the Pharisaic approach (“Pharisee” means “separated one”) and Jesus’ repudiation of it is no small part of why he was so hated by them. Note, for instance, how Matthew describes Jesus’ actions after the Sermon on the Mount discourse in Matthew 8-10. Jesus is noted, not simply for curing the sick, but for curing and insistently associating with the icky and ritually impure. He heals, for instance, the leper. When Jesus reaches out and touches a him, he commits an act which, under the Old Law, should render him unclean. But instead, Jesus cleanses the leper. That act summarizes the New Covenant in a nutshell. We see the same message repeated over and over. What renders you unclean under the Old Covenant is instead itself made clean by the Messiah of the New. In addition to touching the leper, Jesus consorts with Gentiles, touches bleeding women and corpses and (notably for the author of that particular gospel) welcomes the company of a tax collector named Levi or Matthew. The thread that binds all these incidents together is the power of the Spirit to make clean what was unclean.
It is this conviction that animates the Christian tradition and urges on us the duty to visit the sick. It is also this conviction that links, in the Catholic tradition, two sacraments in particular as the “sacraments of healing”: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. This connection is already present, of course, in the words of our Lord: “They that are sick need the physician,” he says, noting that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). Once again the image of sickness of body and sickness of soul are linked, but (once again) sickness is not identified with sinfulness. Similarly, in each of these sacraments, the relationship of sin and sickness is noted, yet the Church also does not make the mistake of conflating them, as though sin is a sure-fire proof of God’s wrath. That’s why there is a distinction between the sacraments—Reconciliation for the sinner, Anointing for the sick—yet the sacrament of Anointing, while certainly directed at physical healing, is also primarily intended for spiritual healing.
It should be noted that beyond the sacramental life of the Church, what the tradition commends as a work of mercy is visiting the sick, not curing the sick. What is in view is not the development of the science of medicine (though that will be a happy side effect as the Christian tradition invents the hospital system and encourages the growth of the sciences). Rather, what is in view is, once again, the human dignity of the sufferer. Being around sick people means being around vomit, pus, running sores, blood, stool, mucus, ghastly injuries, tears, misery, fear, pain, and death. All the corporal work of mercy asks us for, at its most basic, is to screw our courage to the sticking point and have the guts to enter a room, sit down, and hold somebody’s fevered hand. And even that is often more than we can muster.
There are, of course, good reasons for that, especially if we happen to live in a time of plague when nobody has the slightest idea what causes disease. Part of the reason the Black Death broke the back of medieval Europe is because it decimated the very classes of people (doctors and priests and other educated people) who lived the corporal work of mercy by visiting the sick—and contracting the plague. It takes real courage—and often a strong stomach—to visit the sick.
It can also require moral courage. The Veronica legend records the risk of opprobrium that can sometimes attach to those who reach out to the sufferer. Veronica has the face of the sufferer impressed on her cloth—and her soul—forever. No small part of that is because she has the raw courage to stick out of the crowd and go do a small act of kindness for the sufferer while everybody else either watches him stumble by or, worse still, joins in screaming at him that he would be better off dead—a sentiment echoed more and more loudly each day by our Euthanasia Culture. She also, by the way, is emblematic of the Catholic courage to visit the sufferer, not just from bodily pain, but from moral disease as well. Veronica has not the slightest idea who the condemned criminal is who is being marched to his death. He’s just one of the rabble that Rome sentenced to die. Judging from the screams of the crowd, he might be a very bad man indeed. Yet she sees his bloody face and he gives her his face to remember forever. In that moment, she becomes the mother of every saint who has gone to minister in prison. In such ministers the willingness to visit the sick and the sinner and to shun the defilement that conventionality fears produces saints like Catherine of Siena. Here she is, writing of her care for the condemned criminal Nicolo di Toldo, who asked her to be with him at his execution, and whose death she describes:
“I have just taken a head into my hands and have been moved so deeply that my heart cannot grasp it . . . I waited for him at the place of execution. . . he arrived like a meek lamb and when he saw me he began to smile. He asked me to make the sign of the cross over him . . . I stretched out his neck and bent down to him, reminding him of the blood of the Lamb. His lips kept murmuring only “Jesus” and “Catherine,” and he was still murmuring when I received his head into my hands . . . my soul rested in peace and quiet, so aware of the fragrance of blood that I could not remove the blood which had splashed onto me.”
The urging of our Lord to visit the sick is, at bottom, the insistence that we see the sick including those suffering from the sickness called sin—as Catherine of Siena did. It is the call to put faces to names, to honor their human dignity. Instead of calling them “the appendectomy in Room 8” or “that loser that everybody hates” or “that burden on society” we are to call them by their proper names and look them in the eye. The statistical bent of our culture is against this. In our culture without mercy, much can be excused, but nothing can be forgiven. So sinners are to be thrown away, not redeemed. As Malcolm Muggeridge observed, to say that God cares more for the one sheep who is lost than for the ninety and nine who are not is an “anti-statistical remark”.
In a cash-strapped culture full of aging Baby Boomers who are only going to cost more as they age and sicken, it will soon be a subversive and anti-American remark. For as we deal with the morally sick mercilessly now, so we shall soon deal with the physically sick and especially the aged. What else can we expect from a culture that kills a million and a half perfectly healthy babies every year for the sin of being inconvenient? The push, which is already well under way, is not to visit the sick, but to hurry them on to the grave lest they destroy what is left of our economy with their selfish desire to not be murdered by efficient cost-cutting bean counters. Christians who oppose this will soon find themselves the subject of intense legal pressure to play ball and off the expensive and used-up geezers, just as they already find themselves the subject of intense pressure to play ball and kill the unborn. When that day dawns, we may again find an appreciation for a Veronican Spirituality that looks at the face of sufferer instead of turning away and babbling happy talk about how he or she will be better off dead—or we may cave to the culture. Our choice. But whatever we choose, we will still, sooner or later, face the verdict of the King who teaches (and warns) that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to him.
(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).