Marc Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning.
Jesus thought a great deal about garbage. He had been raised in a tradition that made a fundamental distinction between purity and impurity, kosher and treif, the sacred and the profane. These seem like very strict and absolute binary divisions but Hebrew scripture also contained an ambiguity. The sacred texts abound in narratives that contradict the absolute division between the clean and the dirty by celebrating people who were closest to the grimy ground, the rejected and the dejected. Prototypically, there were slaves of Egypt who became the chosen people (slaves being those who do the dirty work of society); there is also Ruth gathering gleanings (i.e. picking up food not worth the farmer’s time); and also the many unkempt prophets who were closer to God than all the Rabbis. Consider Jonah: a man of God swallowed by a whale and then extruded, the prophet as vomit or excrement, yet fulfilling his divine mission even in his humiliation. (The story of Jonah is one that seems to have been particularly dear to Jesus).
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” Psalm 118: 22 (echoed by Jesus in the Synoptic gospels).
Again and again, Jesus talked about waste and refuse, about the stone the builder rejected, about old wine sacks and garments needing patching, about the appropriateness of eating unclean food. There are some limits to recycling: as a practical matter new wine shouldn’t be put in old sacks, lest they burst (although even this injunction comes with a reminder that it’s better to drink old wine than new). There is a kind of linguistic recycling as well in the way Jesus often preferred to reuse the words of the Hebrew scripture rather than come up with anything new.
Jesus kept company with those who were condemned as “dirty”: prostitutes, lepers, fishermen, debt collectors, Samaritans. (The Samaritans apparently had the same social position in ancient Palestine that the untouchables have in India). The Scottish preacher George McLeod once took note of the fact that the crucifixion seems to have taken place near the town garbage heap.
The Jesus movement can be seen as a reclamation project: an attempt to redeem what the world rejects as “garbage”, to take trash and make it useful again. The critique of “purity” lies at the heart of the project: we can’t be pure just by separating ourselves from garbage.
One way to think about God is to see him as wholly other, completely outside of humanity and nature, a pure being. But Jesus had the intuition that this was wrong; that God was not so far away; that God was inside of him (and inside everyone else); that being pure meant not just keeping one’s exteriors clean (obeying the law) but also being clean inside, in thought and spirit. This is of course a spiritualizing of the law, but it also has an interesting side effect in making it possible to see that the material world is not unclean, nothing is unclean except that we make it so through our bad purposes.
“Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” Mark 7:15.
Part of our ecological problem comes from the way we think about garbage, or more exactly the way we don’t think about garbage. Our material abundance is such that we can put garbage totally out of our mind (something not possible for Jesus, living as he did among the poor in the ancient world). There is always someone else to attend to our waste; our affluence saves us from worrying about effluence. The assumption we live by is that our resources are endless, that everything we consume can be disposed of without thought and perpetually replaced. This is not true, and we need to think more seriously about garbage. Those who call themselves Christians might want to attend to how Jesus himself dealt with trash.