"Bacon buttie, vicar?" Why Christians break the law.
Why do Christians eat bacon? This theological question surfaced just after my muesli with fresh fruit and yoghurt. I was enjoying my lavish breakfast in our hotel in Dubai where we stayed for four days en route from Perth, Western Australia Next, as always, a full English breakfast which, if I have any choice in the selection, will be dominated by bacon, preferably with HP brown sauce sadly not always obtainable in Australia. But where was the bacon? There were eggs cooked in a whole variety of ways I had yet to encounter, beans, mushrooms and brown hash – the usual suspects. But where’s the bacon? Then I realised. I was staying in a Muslim country and Muslims do not eat pork, as prohibited in the Qur’an. I assume there is a direct linkage to the Hebrew Scriptures and here Leviticus does not beat about the bush, burning or otherwise. “The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cloven-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.” (Leviticus 11:7f) You can’t get any clearer than that and so Jews will not eat pork either. So why do Christians eat bacon? The answer is simple: because Jesus allows it. As it happens I have been working my way through Mark’s Gospel in following the excellent BRF Guideline notes. The section on Mark is written by Steve Motyer of the Motyer dynasty. Jesus is being challenged by the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5). As Motyer points out “This purity was not about hygiene; this was about bringing all of life in conformity with God’s word.” Jesus’ response is to say that this is simply human tradition uncommanded by God. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Powerful words. Motyer continues: “And all that takes us under the surface to the underlying question: who has the right to interpret and apply scripture authoritatively?” The argument moves on to the Jewish food laws. And here Jesus gives it straight “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:14) He argues that we are made impure not from without but from within, certainly not from what we eat which simply passes through the body and out again. The different English translations here use a variety of euphemisms here to explain the biological process! And then Mark adds something for the reader, just to make sure we understand what Jesus is actually saying. (It’s in brackets). “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
Just like that, or as the Message translation puts it “(That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are fit to eat.)” Over the years, of course, I’ve read these words but only this week did they really sink in as I searched in vain for the bacon in the Anantara hotel restaurant. Jesus is directly contradicting scripture. He is taking it upon himself to pronounce that this clear teaching from the Hebrew scriptures is now redundant. It no longer stands. We can safely ignore it. Again to quote Motyer: “A string of Jewish heroes had faced martyrdom rather than being forced to eat pork. To eat pork would have been to deny their whole identity as Jews’” But that’s the very point. Recent scholarship has emphasised the role of the various Jewish laws and traditions, like the food laws, as acting as boundary markers. Jewish people living in a Gentile environment needed to show to themselves as much as those around them who they were. And by not eating unclean foods, such as bacon, demonstrated their membership of the covenant people of God. But now things have changed. The cross, as the apostle Paul, repeatedly reminds us, has broken down all barriers – between us and God and also between Jew and Gentile. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14). So if the barriers are down and the boundary between Jew and Gentile no longer exists, why have boundary markers? They are altogether redundant. Mark’s Gospel is carefully crafted: geography and ordering are important. So as soon as Jesus has finished giving his radical teaching on the human heart as the source of corruption, we go with him to the Gentile area of Tyre. Here Jesus is challenged once again, this time by a Syrophoenician woman, who begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. After a strange interlude (which Motyer explains very well), Jesus responds to her request. What Mark is saying here is that if this Syrophoenician woman is included in Kingdom of God, then everyone is welcome. And now, in these days of the resurrection of Jesus, we show we are disciples of Jesus by our love and not by missing out bacon in our full-on English breakfast.