Cleaning House and Sexual Ethics
[The following is excerpted, with some minor changes, from Jeff Mallinson, Sexy: The Quest for Erotic Virtue in Perplexing Times, and draws from themes in the Gospel according to Luke.]
I’ve come to consider the meaty part of the Gospel according to Luke—the teachings of Jesus recounted in the chapters between the birth narrative and the passion narrative—as the most important treasury for understanding the New Logic of Jesus. That the Incarnate one entered the world at Christmas; the idea that this same Lord died and rose again are of course central to Christian teaching. But we too often skip from the beginning to the end without attending to the powerful teaching of the Messiah. Among other things, I believe a key theme in Luke is that of religion as a human impulse to obsessively keep one’s house clean.
In Jesus’ day, this is precisely what the Pharisees were after. If they could just get people to follow the Law, they thought, God would bring about his kingdom. Israel would be set free from Roman oppression, and a new Davidic rule would commence. In other words, they believed that God wouldn’t show up unless they cleaned the house first. This caused them to naturally conflict with Jesus, who claimed he was the God who already had arrived. Since they refused to accept that their religious house cleaning was unimportant, they failed to recognize the one who was the way, truth, and life.
We find an intimate illustration of this addiction to house cleaning in the story of two sisters. I find that this subtle encounter holds the key to understanding the overarching point in the rest of the book about the nature of spiritual house cleaning. Luke recounts the following encounter between Jesus and these women:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Martha represents a typical religious inclination. It is well intentioned, and recognizes the importance of the presence. But it gets distracted by the “many things,” and thus fails to listen properly to the One present, the “only one” thing needed. Those many things here are not worldly, sinful things. They are religious things. They are good and proper in their own way, but religious distractions remain distractions from the Tao of Jesus.
How lamentable is it that the people who are named after this Jesus so often fail to internalize the message. Jesus becomes an abstraction. In turn, people become abstractions. This causes us to treat people who fall into erotic vice as political issues rather than fellow wayfarers in a strange and perplexing land. All of us, at least at times in life, exist in a painful tension between biology and spiritual values, hormones and holy longings. Riddled with guilt, we seek to stitch our religious fig leaves together; we seek to hide our nakedness and shame. We focus on establishing a long list of rules about what to touch and not touch, what punishments are suitable for those who violate the principles of erotic virtue, and what penance we can perform to expunge our erotic guilt. But Jesus invites us to “choose what is better,” as Mary did. And what is this? Listening to the Word himself.
Note that Mary isn’t performing a work of “worship” in this account. She is not serving Jesus here. She is allowing herself to be served by the bread of life—which is the New Logic that flows from the mouth of the embodied God. With this, the rest will be made clean in their time. Martha has things backward: we don’t clean up our act so God can show up, but rather we let God show up so we can clean up our act.
Thus, we can stand before the Lord of Song precisely because we come before him empty. We sit at the Master’s feet. We breathe. We pray. We heed. We are healed even after it all went wrong; more precisely, we are healed only after our best efforts go wrong. This is because death through the condemnation of the law leaves only one path to life open: the Gospel.
Luke’s account of this Gospel has a lot to say about getting the spiritual house in order. Today, the Western church is in conflict because of the dissonance between its sexual ethic and the sexual ethic of the world. This leads many to focus on sweeping out those who have failed in the quest for erotic virtue, but this misses the point. Here are what I think are the particularly helpful points of this encounter for us to consider and apply:
1. Jesus has arrived in God’s house, even though we often fail to recognize him. Jesus’ first words in Luke occur when he was twelve. His parents lost track of him, only to find him in the Jerusalem temple, conversing with the religious teachers. When they show up to retrieve the boy, he says: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)
2. Even when Jesus shows up in the house, he is found unacceptable by the housekeepers. Thus, Jesus said: “… no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” (Luke 4:24) This is because religious folk develop their own expectations of what God wants. When his way conflicts with theirs, they reject the Way.
3. Jesus didn’t come to cast sinners out of the house but to invite them in. He says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) Repentance is an awakening, a change of perspective that the New Logic of Jesus creates in a person.
4. The house of God is a safe place of refuge for God’s people even though it appears to be a house of many rules. This is so important that, even seemingly unlawful things become acceptable in the New Logic. Thus, Jesus says: “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests … The son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:3-5)
5. The house of God offers a tap with inexhaustible forgiveness; we drink this and dispense it to others. Thus, Jesus explains: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:36-38) Thus, we aren’t to pour out grace in a measured way; rather, when we spill it out without spiritual stinginess, we find that it floods the world with the New Logic, and this flood of grace heals.
6. The house of God cannot be cleansed by self-righteousness, but by a process of personal self-diagnosis and repentance, which can allow us to help bring our neighbors to a place of healing. Jesus submits the following, humorously tragic image: “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:42)
7. The house must be built on the foundational rock, which is Christ. Nonetheless, we tend to want to build the house on our own imagined, but weak foundation. When this happens, and the floodwaters come the “ruin of that house [is] great.” (Luke 6:49)
8. The music in God’s house involves the devastation of the Law and the new life of the Gospel, but religious people don’t really care for that music. Jesus compares those who fail to heed the unwavering ethical call of John the Baptist, and who resist the unwavering forgiveness of his own kingdom to children singing in a market place: “‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’ For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The son of man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinner!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:31-35) The religious tend to resent the strenuous call of John, and resent the freedom of Jesus. They want some artificial, human way, which is light on ethics but intolerant of the broken.
9. The door to the house is open to sinners, when Jesus is truly present. For this reason, despite the shame of a woman “who was a sinner,” she came to Jesus’ feet, washed them with her tears and hair, and anointed his feet with oil. This woman gets it, and thus comes rushing in, even while the religious man scorns her for her shame, and Jesus for not acknowledging it. (Luke 7:36-48)
10. When Jesus casts out our monsters, we are to return and tell the story of our healing, even when it frighten or offends. After casting out Legion from a possessed man, Jesus tells him “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39)
11. God’s house is not fixed in a physical location, but is the house in which you find yourself. Jesus says: “And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And whenever they do not receive you, when you leave that town, shake the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:4-5)
12. The house of God is owned by a loving father. Thus, when we come to the house from a long journey, even in our tattered garments, we will be invited in. Jesus says: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)
13. Strong men who seek to protect the purity of the house through their own strength will fail. Jesus uses this illustration: “When a strong man, fully armed guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil.” (Luke 11:21-22). In other words, in our well-meaning attempts to guard the house of God through power and armor, these attempts—especially when they take the form of institutions and contempt for sinners—end up becoming tools unworthy of our trust.
14. Similarly, even when we think we’ve cast out all the unclean spirits from the house, if we don’t let the Word occupy it, it once again becomes infested by spiritual monsters. Jesus says: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)
15. The true house of God becomes a venue for a banquet that is open to the beautiful losers, not those we admire or have something to offer us. Jesus says: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14) By way of application, if we are to turn the house not into a selective, dignified networking event, but a spilling out of true gift giving.
I share all of this to drive home a point that is all-too-often lost on churches: the house is not an institution that we need to protect, cleanse, or dignify through our own effort. It is a banquet house, where those in need of healing come to sit at Jesus’ feet, hear his Tao, and practice gift-giving with each other. This means it is a place open even to those who’ve failed in the quest for erotic virtue. They aren’t supposed to get cleaned up before they sit down at the banquet. The banquet, on the contrary, is provided for them, and for their healing.
This means that, while Christian communities have a legitimate calling to cultivate a unique sexual ethic, this is not primarily accomplished by keeping people out of the house of God. There are times for church discipline, especially when abusive or destructive behavior would otherwise seem to be winked at by the community. Nonetheless, the church’s concern for purity should emphasize the safety of the place, in terms of its staff, and especially its pastors. That is, people in need of erotic healing need to trust that they are coming to a place that will not victimize or manipulate them further. But they should also know that they are loved when they show up with their emotional and spiritual wounds. They should know that the purity of the church is precisely about having a place where spiritual surgery can take place without further infection, not a place where naughty people are kept out in the first place. In other words, the church should be a safe place for healing the sick, not a place that quarantines