Mark 7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Mark 7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Mark 7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
With this Gospel reading, we are back on the Markan readings and the change may come as something of a shock, with its directness and even earthiness. The verses omitted by the lectionary are restored in italics, as they help towards a fuller understanding of the passage as a whole.
As we read the passage, it may be good to recall that all religions have evolved “traditions” which can be at variance with the core vision of the faith. It is true of Islam, Judaism and, within Christianity, of all the churches. The passage is an invitation not to past accusation but to present self-examination.
Kind of writing
The text is a series of arguments, offering a thesis and proofs in a sequence. The chart overleaf traces the sequence, which is structured according to the principles of “anecdote” (chreia) rhetoric (persuasion).
Old Testament background
The food laws were, and are, a vital part of Jewish identity. In general, scholars would reckon that the dietary laws came in at a time when assimilation was a great threat. This could have happened at many times in Israelite history, but perhaps the greatest danger of assimilation / annihilation was at the time of the Exile in Babylon (587-539 bc). It is probable that the identity markers of Judaism came into being then: the dietary (kosher) laws, Sabbath observance and, perhaps, circumcision after birth.
It may be added that such protection has shown its value over two and half millennia. At the time of Jesus, there was in some quarters a tendency to casuistry, to nit-picking regulations to test the practical application in everyday life.
New Testament Foreground
The extent to which the early Christian movement ought to have held onto earlier traditions was a problem from the start, arising first of all in Paul’s letters. His understanding of the cross led him to think that God now included all humanity in his plan of salvation and that to remain distinctive by outward signs (the identity marks of Judaism) no longer served the kingdom of God.
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.
Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God.
Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom 14:13-23)
Verse 1 Pharisees, in particular, were concerned with the details of the Law. In some way, their approach was liberal and “lay”, taking the sacredness out the Temple and making it a reality in daily life. It could lead to scrupulosity (OCD). Verse 2 Ritual washing was essential before eating. Verses 3-4 The explanatory note here tells us that Mark is writing for an audience with reduced direct experience of Judaism, hence the need for clarification. Verse 5 The tradition of the elders meant rules not found in the Bible but developed over time by the community. The Pharisees, in particular, laid great store by this unwritten, oral tradition, which they traced back to Moses. Verse 6 Argument from Scripture would have been very powerful for the Pharisees. The prophets regularly condemn the religion of mere outward observance. Cf. Spare me the din of your chanting, let me hear none of your strumming on lyres, let justice flow like water, and uprightness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:23–24, NJB) Notice the bodily imagery here—to be developed later. Verse 7 Always a risk in all religions and not unknown in our own (ahem!). Verse 8 A very stark first conclusion, not lacking in clarity. The verses which follow illustrate this with the example of Corban, which allowed people, evidently, to get around their filial duty to their parents. Verse 14 This is a formal address, calling for special attention. Verse 15 Here is the principle behind the example and teaching which follow. In the omitted vv. 17-20, a fairly graphic illustration is made, which comprehensively undermines the concern with food laws. It is not all that clear that Jesus himself would have been so absolute—otherwise, why was there so much trouble with the issue in early Christianity? Verses 21-22 This teaching is, of course, consistent with Jesus’ move to the heart as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the Antitheses (Matthew 5:21-48). Verse 23 Jesus is therefore not denying that there can be defilement—it’s just that it comes from within, not from without.
Pointers for prayer
1. Certain sections of the Jewish people put great store on the importance of rules and conventions as a measure of the goodness of a person. Jesus challenges this view. How have you found that getting appearances right did not necessarily make you a good person? 2. Even fidelity in religious practice is not enough. “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me”. How have you experienced the importance of carrying your faith beyond attendance on Sundays? When have you seen that in others? What brought this home to you? 3. What Jesus seeks are followers whose faith is whole-hearted and warm, people whose religion is not primarily in dutiful observance but in their enthusiasm for life and their care for one another. It is good to be with them. Think of the contrast between a dinner party at which everything is just right but very formal, and another party which is rather haphazard and casual but full of great warmth. 4. “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” It is also from within that good intentions come. We do have choices. When have you been faced with the choice between good and evil? When did you realise the importance of accepting responsibility for your own life and choices? How has this helped your growth as a person?
Father of light, giver of every good and perfect gift, bring to fruition the word of truth sown in our hearts by your Son, that we may rightly understand your commandments, live your law of love, and so offer you worship that is pure and undefiled. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
As disciples, we all need a kind of personal “rule of life” and we are supported by the community of faith and its practices. But the externals of religions—the very supports we need—risk becoming merely cultural, an empty shell, if our heart is not in it. All three readings this Sunday underline the point: Pure, unspoilt religion is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it. Prayer Heavenly Father, you know the human heart, that most devious thing of all (Sir 42:18; Jer 17:9). Help us to know ourselves. Help us to grow in integrity, rooted in purity of heart. Help to serve our neighbour in need with undivided hearts that we may come before you in heartfelt praise and thanksgiving. Amen.