ESSAY
Pastoral Reflections on Purity Laws
POSTED
March 23, 2021

The Son of God took on human flesh and entered into the sin and suffering of our world. His life and teaching and suffering from His conception to His suffering on the cross teaches us a lot about how the good news enters into the world.

Recently, I was teaching on the Heidelberg Catechism and I stumbled on a particular phrase. In defining good works, the Catechism defines good works in Lord’s Day 33 as: “Only those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the law of God, and to his glory, ​and not those based on our own opinion or on precepts of men.​”

This brought me to look for the Biblical basis for such a definition. My attention was brought to Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew 15 over the ritual hand washing that was expected before eating. There Jesus responds sharply to the Pharisees when they challenge his disciples on not doing the ritual hand-washing. He tells them that they teach as doctrines the commandments of men.

Living in the times that we are, I have now been reflecting for months on many of the laws surrounding COVID-19. While education over the last 200 years has led to higher levels of hygiene, cleanliness, and understanding of nutrition, the varying laws and regulations in many Western countries have hit a whole new level. Are we instituting new purity laws?

In my own province in Canada of around 150,000 people, we have had about 94 listed cases to date with no deaths or hospitalizations. Because I live on an Island (PEI), we can maintain relatively strict control of the borders (entry by bridge, plane and ferry). Our Island government has also brought about social distancing, limits on gatherings, masking during singing for the last 11+ months. We also have a strict 14-day self-isolation policy for those who have travelled off-province. We now have strict mandatory masking in all public places in the last two months.

In all this, I have turned to the gospels. I have been preaching through the gospel of Luke. Teaching through the Heidelberg Catechism has brought me to reflect on other points in the gospels where Jesus comes into conflict with the purity laws of His own Jewish people that go beyond the Laws of the Old Testament and so become based on the laws and precepts of men.

The legalities surrounding COVID-19 are a topic for another day. We could go back and forth about how hyper-cleanliness can also be detrimental to public health and how the cure is worse than the virus. But what brings together all Christians of various nationalities and ethnicities and opinions better than the Word of God?

There has been something psychologically calming in looking at the example and teaching of Jesus in the storm of all these new laws and regulations. There is something beautiful about the words and actions of Jesus in the middle of the struggle among Christians who are wrestling with questions of how to live as Christians and to minister to the depressed, the elderly, the sick, and the poor in a world divided by politics and policies. The answers might not be simple, but they should bring us back to the Word and to the Word made incarnate.

As a pastor, I have seen increasingly that people need in-person worship and contact. Obviously everyone wants their personal boundaries respected. But I don’t think there is a single person who does not want this kind of contact in some way. As people made in the image of God, we need human contact and community. This is in contrast to the disembodied world of social media and internet. This is in contrast to rules upon rules in the real world that drive us apart rather than bringing us into the Christian community of embodied, brotherly love.

How does the Word of Christ speak into the ongoing storm of medical opinions and government policies? Well, in this passage of Matthew 15, Jesus focuses on having a clean heart. A number of people have remarked and I have observed that people who catch COVID are now frequently shamed, especially if there is an indication that they broke one of the many changing laws. But that is not what defiles a man. It is what proceeds from the heart and comes out of the mouth, on social media, in conversations between Christians, in public discourse in the public square that defiles a man. It is not whether or not one wears a mask. It is what proceeds from the heart, regardless of the mask, that defiles a man.

Jesus often ignored purity laws and disregarded the honor-shame culture that His people had created based on a faulty reading of the Old Testament. He touched lepers, forgave prostitutes, and ate with tax collectors and sinners. When He was challenged on this He spoke with clarity and precision. This is good news from top to bottom. This is the good news of the incarnation.

The incarnation of our Lord is an excellent reminder of the reality that Jesus entered into our germ-infested, virus-filled world to minister to those who were so desperately in need of good news. This is not anti science. It is pro image of God. Science is an excellent tool in its proper place. In fact, it was Dr. Luke, a medical doctor, who spoke of the wonders of Jesus as He and His disciples entered into this world with a message of hope. Jesus came into this sin-stained and misery-ridden world to bring the hope of salvation and He sends out His followers to point to Him.


Nathan Zekveld is the pastor of the United Reformed Church in PEI. He lives with his family just outside of Charlottetown. He received his undergraduate degree at New Saint Andrew’s College and his graduate degree at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.

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