by Daniel Harrell
I’ve never been accused of being a neat-freak, but even the messy among us have our limits. Clutter I can handle, but food scum, grease and mildew push my boundaries. I’ve a good friend for whom time spent cleaning is wasted time. Besides, she says, roaches have to eat too. This would be fine if she had somebody else clean for her, but it’s just not important. “Love me as I am,” she says. I try. Whenever I’m in town, I try to stay at their house, a nightmare for me never knowing what might lurk in the bed sheets or behind the shower curtain or crawling of a drain. One one visit I could no longer stand it, so while she and her family were out, I called in a local cleaning service to decontaminate the house, which I rationalized as doing my friends a favor, but which they took as mildly insulting, but hey, it beat razing their house to the ground which is what Leviticus 14 would command that they do. As one translation puts it, “If defiling mold and mildew appears in the house the priest [or the minister in my case] goes and and examines it and finds the mildew has spread in the house, it is a persistent defiling mildew; the house is unclean and must be torn down and hauled out of the town.”
Now in fairness to my friends, they are not dirty people. They shower almost every day. This is a good thing as far as Leviticus goes, for if they got an infection on their skin, they would be required to tear their clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their lip and shout “unclean” on their way out of town. Interestingly, the Hebrew word used to describe mold in your house is the same word used for an infection on your skin. Both are called simply “afflictions.” More interesting still, both come from the same source. Rather than being derived from a common bacteria or even a microbial demon, Leviticus names the cause of affliction as the Lord God himself. “The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession…’” Some say that mildew is an act of divine judgment. Others categorize it as an act of creation. Either way, that mildew comes from the Lord does explain why the stuff is so hard to remove.
I’m going out on a limb here guessing this to be the first sermon you’ve ever heard about household mold and mildew. I devoted a whole chapter to it in my sadly out-of-print book about Leviticus—which probably explains why its out-of-print. Christians and Jews for whom Leviticus remains Holy Scripture hardly heed its obsessive compulsive commands anymore, even though our highly sanitized society is tailored for it. From the anti-bacterial soaps and scrubs that scour our homes to the anti-oxidant exfoliants and creams that scour our skin, cleanliness is a religion. Add our fixations over food (something Leviticus also addresses in pedantic detail), and you could describe America as largely Levitical. I should preach a whole sermon series. Or write a book or something.
The cosmetic industry understands the religious nature of skincare. Drop by the Sephora store at Southdale and you’ll find a whole line of skincare products tied to theological virtues: Amazing Grace Firming Body Emulsion, Unconditional Love Bath and Shower Gel, Hope in a Jar Therapeutic Moisturizer for Dry Sensitive Skin, Righteous Body Butter. Go online and you’ll find the same virtues for your home: By Faith Floor Wax, Hope’s Perfect Granite Countertop Cleaner, Purity All-Purpose Cleansers and Righteous Rags House-Cleaning Service.
My mom always told me, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” but Leviticus carries cleanliness to a whole other level. In Leviticus, cleanliness is not next to godliness but appears to be godliness itself. Beyond basic health and hygiene, and even beyond the ceremonial ritual to which cleanness is often confined, in Leviticus being clean goes straight to the high standard of holiness. Holiness is that reflection of God’s own character manifest in his people. “Be holy because I am holy,” the Lord commands, in both Old Testament and New. But to be holy, you first have to get clean. This was not as hard as it sounds. For the ancient Israelites, grace made them clean. God chose Israel to be his people because he loved them, not because they were special or deserved it. You see the same thing in the New Testament. Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” And then, “You have already been cleaned because of the word I have spoken to you.”
Christians mark this with the sacrament of baptism. Baptism represents God taking initiative in our lives. Baptism is our initiation into the community of faith, our starting point of our journey of faith. For the ancient Israelites, crossing the Red Sea served as their baptism. For Christians, it was Jesus’ baptism that filled the font for our own. Baptismal waters wash us clean by grace. The hard part is staying clean. Professing faith is one thing, keeping faith is another. For the ancient Israelites, staying clean meant staying away from the ungodly things that would sully their souls. They were headed for a land flowing with milk and honey, but it was also a land oozing with wicked Canaanite culture. Thus their need for Levitical boundaries.
Growing up, I always thought it silly how kids from fundamentalist families never got to go to the movies. Their puritanical parents didn’t want aberrant Hollywood values seeping into their children’s souls. While the rest of us piled into theaters on Fridays and Saturdays, the fundy kids practiced piano and played outside (which is why my fundy friends are great musicians and athletes leaving me to excel at managing my Netflix queue). I rolled my eyes at fundamentalists’ priggish logic back then, but now I watch movies and find I am bothered by the gory violence, the obscene sexuality, the abusive language, the drugs and deceit—and that’s just the PG-rated fare. Not that I ever get up and leave the theater. Just like I did as a youngster, I sit there and soak it all in, entertained by the very things that disturb me. And while no movie has yet caused me to do drugs, cheat on my wife, blow away my enemies, or careen my car through city streets, surely I’ve been desensitized to violence, vulgarity and cruelty.
God rightly worried that his chosen people would choose to go with the perverse Canaanite flow, threatening their own integrity and witness as his people on earth. God commanded that his people be holy—set apart, uncommon, special, and distinct, or as the King James puts it, peculiar. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed…” that you may do “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a high mountain to conquer. So in order that his people might have a chance at the summit, he gave them a clean leg up.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?” asks the Psalmist. “Who shall stand in his holy place? Those with clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” “Clean hands” lead to a pure heart, though obviously, washing off dirt from your fingers or mildew from your shower does little to purge your soul any more than baptism saves your soul. Still, religious habits shape our attitudes. The rituals Leviticus commanded reoriented your attention toward the need to get your heart right before God—just as the habit of saying grace at meals reminds you to be grateful to God even if you don’t always feel grateful when you say it. Good habits shape our attitudes. They help form our motives and intentions.
My brother Greg tells the story of the night a young suitor came by to pick up his high school daughter for a date. Greg has definite rules for dating his daughter, which include how you pick her up for a date. The young man pulled up to the house in his sporty car, but instead of getting out of his car and coming to the door, he summoned my niece from the driveway by laying on his car horn. My niece grabbed her stuff and was on her way out when her father stopped her, telling her in no uncertain terms that any boy who wanted to date his daughter had best respect her and her father by coming to the door and introducing himself first. Impatient, the ill-mannered boy blew his horn a couple more times, clearly not getting a clue. He then called up my niece on her cell phone and told her to hurry up. Bad move. My brother got on the phone and set the young suitor straight. That boy and my niece never went on that date. It’s not that my brother minded his daughter going out with this boy; it’s just that he wanted him to demonstrate the good intentions of his affections by showing some respect—the kind of regard that signals you think of somebody as more than just a pretty face.
It’s the same with God. “Clean hands and pure heart” showed proper respect and good intentions. Yet there persist so many things, so many unclean things, that cloud our intentions and hinder us from even wanting what is good and acceptable and perfect, unclean things that we, frankly, prefer. Thankfully, God does not give up on us. Knowing that holiness is best for us yet unwilling to coerce us into it, God’s only option is to show us how much we need it so that we’ll want it bad enough to do something about it. How does God do this? Affliction. Once affliction shows up, priorities shift. Get a zit on your face or mold in your basement and you’ll do whatever it takes to clean it up. In Leviticus, with no doctors to call or fungicides to deploy, all you could do was pray for help. And this was the point: People need the Lord.
Ironically, it was a point missed in the New Testament by the very religious establishment in charge of ritual purity. The Pharisees figured that by washing their hands they were holy enough. The Pharisees were fakers. Piety pretenders. Keeping their hands washed clean substituted for being clean. They figured that as long as the outside looked good, you could hate and envy and lust and be as mean and selfish as you pleased on the inside. But Jesus was clear: beauty is only skin deep. “You hypocrites!” he said. “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence.” A friend of mine who grew up in one of those homes where you weren’t allowed to go to the movies told me how he got to watch whatever he wanted on his TV inside his house. All that mattered, it seemed, was how you appeared to others. Just keep that cup and dish clean.
I’m finishing an inspiring biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind entitled A Hope in the Unseen. Still very much in print, it’s the true story of Cedric Jennings, a young black man from the ghettoes of DC, who by determined faith and hard work, fueled by a fiercely moral mother and supportive church, made it to Brown University against all odds. Cedric proved to be a man of enormous discipline, shaped in no small part, by a devotion to cleanness. You see its significance once Cedric arrives at Brown where he rooms with this slovenly rich kid from Massachusetts. Suskind writes:
It has not been a good first month for Cedric Jennings and [his roommate]. First, there was the issue of cleanliness, born of a cultural collision between one boy who grew up in casual comfort with a cleaning lady twice a week and the other who spent his life scrubbing dishes and toilets to stave off squalor. Cedric has always been fastidious about his person. …He always has been neatly dressed and exhaustively scrubbed in public [because] nothing was ever private. …Possibly the best explanation why Cedric Jennings is at Brown is that he managed to steer clear of the buffet table of adolescent experimentation, believing—rightly, it turns out—that in his neighborhood most of those dishes were poisoned. This was an extraordinary feat, considering how peer pressure was backed up by violence and the almost irresistible urge for teenagers to salve deep despair with sex, drugs, and music. Cedric knows all this, just as he knows his resistance was made possible, back when, by his mother’s fierce code, his pastor’s admonitions against all such licentiousness, and the constant reminders of his father’s broken journey, testifying to what can happen when someone without hope of personal betterment discovers drinking and drugs. But, eventually, something else took root. Cedric, needing to justify his monkish routine night after night, developed a genuine belief that sacrifice, hard work, and extremely clean living would lead to rewards, including a scholarship to a top college.
I assigned this biography to the seminary course I’m currently teaching and managed to track down Cedric Jennings and had him Skype with us in class last Thursday. Still impeccably dressed and articulate, Cedric spoke to us from the ravaged DC neighborhood where he grew up. He returned by the will of God, he said, wanting to give back by helping kids afflicted by all the deficits their environment causes. He wants to help them find a better way out of their despair. After Brown University, and graduate school at Harvard and the University of Michigan too, he returned to be a youth minister to help kids find God. Through education, strong faith and yes, clean living, he pushes them to want and to work toward a good life. A holy life.
Clean hands shape our desires. Our deeds reveal our motives and can form our intentions. We will try to fake it sometimes, we’ll try to pretend. But it’s exhausting and ultimately futile. Nothing is really private. People sense a faker and God knows your heart. This is why Leviticus is necessary. God gets under our skin and behind our doors to expose us for the fakes and failures we are. But in the end that’s just what we need. When you see yourself as you are, covered with mold and living life on the outs, all you want is to get clean and get right, whatever it takes. That’s purity of heart. And as Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”