The New Kosher
From an animal welfare perspective nowhere do we see the battle between faith and religion more than in the interpretation of Jesus’s teaching on ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. I personally regard this as one of the most abused teachings of Jesus in the history of Christianity. It represents nothing less than a betrayal of Christ. In a famous passage recorded in both Matthew and Mark, Jesus seeks to overcome the typical religious distinction between what is externally ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. The immediate context is actually discussing the eating of food without having gone through ceremonial hand-washing:
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” […] Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”(18)
First of all it must be remembered that these verses actually constitute a parable (Verse 17). Likewise, the Gospel of Matthew concludes the passage with a reference to unwashed hands as a summary of what has just been taught: ‘But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.'(19) The great irony of this whole teaching is that it is precisely about those who claim to champion it, and have continually abused of it in Church history. It perfectly describes the hypocritical Pharisees who Jesus condemns as a group:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.(20)
So we’ve seen that these verses do away with external ritual purity, ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ and replaces them with a teaching that posits a person’s inner purity and motivations at the centre of his/her spirituality. And it is here that religion goes into overdrive. Religion is essentially minimalistic, external and hypocritical: it really constitutes a counterfeit spirituality that pretends to promote genuine goodness and holiness but actually is only an empty veneer under which a cesspool of evil remains. Almost all religions also have food laws, fixed dietary regulations that render their adherents righteous: we see this in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and others as well. This is what has happened here also. A new minimalistic food law has been sought for the religion of ‘Christianity’. And this is how this passage is almost always interpreted by religion, the basic idea goes something like this: ‘in the Old Testament the Jews couldn’t eat certain foods whereas in the New Testament Jesus declared all foods clean so now we can eat whatever we want’. And voilà the religionist now has a perfect excuse for doing whatever he/she wants in a way that is totally detached from any real spiritual or ethical considerations. The problem is that this is simply not what Jesus taught. While Jesus often spoke about overcoming ritual forms of religion he never once lowered the ethical standards of the Old Testament but always internalised them, and raised them to new and dazzling heights.(21) The concept that Jesus Christ, the greatest teacher ever to walk the earth, and much more than a teacher, would actually affirm something like the standard interpretation is simply preposterous. In many ways what has been introduced here into the Church is a form of antinomianism:(22) instead of a holiness of the heart that promotes a noble vision of self-sacrificial love, compassion and righteousness, Jesus’s teaching has been transformed into a grotesque license for gluttony and cruelty.(23) The Bible itself seems to anticipate the fact that this teaching could easily be abused of if it were to fall into the wrong hands. One recurring theme when Jesus discusses his return is that many of his professed followers would give themselves over to inordinate and immoral eating and drinking. It is in fact a characteristic of false Christianity and the end of the Age:
But suppose that servant is wicked and says in his heart, ‘My master will be away a long time.’ And he begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.(24)
As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking […].(25)
Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.(26)
In a similar way, when the Apostle Paul expanded on the topic in his discussion of meat sacrificed to idols and the greater principles that the whole situation introduced, he was quick to underline, as a check against antinomianism, that each of us would one day answer to God for their actions:
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.(27)
Various pagan philosophies have always tended to circumscribe righteousness to limited areas of a person’s life, while neglecting others, such as those regarding the body. The Corinthian believers had come under this influence when they began quoting slogans, some eerily reminiscent of the words of many contemporary Christians, like ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’,(28) or ‘All things are lawful for me’.(29) Likewise, other groups justified sexual promiscuity on the basis of the idea that the spirit could not be defiled by what was done in the body.(30) This was normally done under the guise of a twisted concept of “freedom”, which in the New Testament is always about serving others in love in the power of the Holy Spirit, and never self-centred: ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.'(31) Judaism and later Christianity instead taught that God is interested in every aspect of our lives, from our sexuality and our speech to how we use our money, treat the poor, use our time and also our food choices. The idea that this area of our lives is now unimportant under the New Covenant is simply unscriptural. The Apostle Peter affirmed that we should be seeking holiness in all we do: ‘But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.'(32)
What Jesus does in this passage in Mark and its sister text in Matthew is create a new form of Kosher. Whereas the original Kosher regulation was limited to fixed external regulations the new Christian Kosher is based on the individual’s personal relationship with Christ and is motivated by love.(33) Even though the New Kosher doesn’t command us to be vegan, I believe, at the very least, veganism should be seen as a strong possibility in today’s world. And while both legalism (the enforcing of binding dietary rules) and asceticism (the mortification of the body for the attainment of holiness) are both condemned in Scripture, so is the kind of carefree antinomian attitude that most seem to follow in regard to their food choices.
The fact that the professing Christian Church, apart from notable exceptions,(34) in a world ravished by hunger, disease and extreme animal cruelty and before which looms the spectre of environmental catastrophe and collapse, has not promoted the truth of Jesus’s teaching is nothing short of an enormous evil. Likewise, the way in which these systems continue to be perpetuated and justified through false and twisted interpretations of Scripture is simply tragic.
(18) Mark 7:1-23.
(19) Matthew 15:20.
(20) Matthew 15:8-9.
(21) See for example the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:17-48, where Jesus always increases the standards of the Old Testament.
(22) A form of lawlessness that believes that salvation by grace through faith means that Christians are not under any moral law.
(23) See for example Jude 1:4: “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”
(24) Matthew 24:48-49.
(25) Matthew 24:37.
(26) Philippians 3:19.
(27) Romans 14:10-12.
(28) 1 Corinthians 6:14.
(29) 1 Corinthians 6:12.
(30) 1 Corinthians 6:16.
(31) Galatians 5:13.
(32) 1 Peter 1:16.
(33) See Colossians 2:16, Romans 14.
(34) God’s Church is never completely left without a witness to the truth as testified to by the words of Jesus: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18.
Stay tuned for Part Five over the coming weekend.
Thank you for reading and following our blog! Please share with others, and any comments or questions are welcome. Blessings ~ Marcello