Defilement is the topic of this week’s Gospel reading. Defile is a word that is not used much in common conversation. Its meanings include:

  • To make filthy or dirty; pollute
  • To debase the pureness or excellence of something
  • To profane or sully
  • To make unfit or unclean, especially for ceremonial use

The Pharisees, teachers of Jesus’ time who taught ordinary people how to be holy and who encouraged the strict keeping of Jewish laws, question Jesus about why his disciples do not follow the law of washing their hands before eating. The Pharisees are of the opinion that the disciples defile themselves or make themselves unclean by not observing the Jewish traditions about washing before eating. For the Pharisees, the following of these laws was a way of insuring Jewish identity, that is, a way of setting off Jewish people from the rest of the society. Further, the believed the laws gave people concrete ways to live out their commitment to God.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees first by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as dogma.” What Jesus means is that the Pharisees are encouraging people to keep these human traditions for the wrong reasons. People follow the laws because they are supposed to, not out of a deep love of God.

Jesus then calls the crowd to him in order to explain further what he is saying. He says, “Nothing that enters into a person from outside can make a person impure; it is the things that come out that defile.” With this, Jesus begins breaking down the laws that define Jewish identity and in so doing offers a new understanding of defilement. The disciples have not defiled themselves by eating without washing their hands properly, because people are not defiled by what goes into the body. What is more important is how we act. Each of us is responsible for keeping ourselves pure and holy, and we live up to this responsibility by acting on our love of God, self, and others.

Reading this Gospel on defilement brought back a memory that I had not thought about in years. In the cold Minnesota winters, I usually opted to wear uniform pants and a uniform sweatshirt to school. But after a shopping trip during which I purchased striped grey tights and fun platform shoes, I decided to wear our uniform jumper to school with the new tights and shoes. For once I felt fashionable, no small feat for me, and I spent most of the day smiling, pleased with the confidence this slight transformation had given me.

Chemistry was last period of the day. I slipped into my desk, paying no attention to Jim, the football star who sat next to me. He was as slick as his overly gelled hair, admired by many, and had little occasion to notice that I existed. Until that day. As the teacher called class to order, Jim turned to me and whispered, “You should wear a skirt more often.” It was part what he said, but even more how he said it, looking me up and down, trying to caress me with words, which made me want to hide under a paper sack and never come out. Having spent most of the day feeling confident and happy, I slunk out of class that day feeling dirty and cheap. In a word, defiled.

It was not until many years later that I learned that what I had experienced that day in chemistry class was a form of harassment, that is, an act that made me feel uncomfortable. Harassment in this form–little comments made as you walk down the hallway, crude things yelled from a car window while you are out for a run, prank phone calls with heavy breathing or lewd suggestions are made–is so common that many people do not even think to call it harassment. Every woman I know has experienced harassment of this sort, and almost everyone felt similar to how I felt afterward: defiled.

But this week’s Gospel has helped me realize something that never occurred to me before. While harassment has made me feel defiled, it does not actually defile me. Jesus is clear; what defiles is not what comes from the outside but what comes from the inside. Jim did not have the power to debase me that day. Why? Because I am made in the image of God, and no one can take that away from me, regardless of how poorly they treat me.

Harassment is horrible. Much more needs to be done to stop it, especially in high schools. But one thing each of us can do in the face of harassment is to refuse to let another person make us feel as if we have no worth or dignity. We have worth and we have dignity, because that is how God made us. And no one can take that away from us.

Have you had an experience where you felt defiled by the actions of someone else? What did you do about this experience?

When have you acted with questionable intentions? What actions have you taken that have defiled you?


Photo courtesy of Pabadoo via Creative Commons License

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