MARK 7:1-23. THE CONTEXT
This story is bracketed by stories of Jesus’ power to do miraculous works and people’s response to his display of power:
• It is preceded by the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44), Jesus walking on water (6:45-52) and the healing of the sick in Gennesaret (6:53-56). The concluding verse of chapter 6 reads, “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (6:56).
This story is followed by several stories of ministry with Gentiles:
• The healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30).
• Travel through Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis (literally, “Ten Cities”) (7:31). Tyre and Sidon are Phoenician cities. The Decapolis has a large Greek and Roman population. To speak of Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis is to speak of Gentiles.
• The healing of a deaf man in the Decapolis (7:31-37).
• The Feeding of the Four Thousand which, in the absence of any additional geographical marker, appears to have taken place in or near the Decapolis.
The Pharisees in today’s lesson ignore compelling evidence of Jesus’ power to do good, and focus instead on the failure of his disciples to observe their traditions. They ignore the inbreaking of God’s power, and focus on trivial concerns. The church today is similarly tempted to ignore its core ministry—word and sacrament—and focus instead on new fads in ministry—or even the color of the carpet.
We should be careful not to portray the Pharisees as completely bad. The Pharisees are dedicated to obeying and pleasing God. They observe distinctive practices, such as kosher food and circumcision, that help them to maintain their identity as God’s people in a world that tempts them to worship their neighbors’ gods. Their traditions, which come into question in this text, grow out of a need to maintain that identity.
Jewish law, while quite detailed, leaves room for interpretation in many situations. The Pharisees, out of a desire to obey God, established rules to clarify the law in those situations. Their findings became known astradition of the elders. As time passed, these traditions hardened into a surrogate law that Jewish leaders regarded as if it were scripture. They lost sight of the line between God’s law and human opinion. Their emphasis on human tradition sometimes caused them to neglect the underlying Torah law.
The church always struggles with knowing God’s will. What is God’s will concerning abortion? Homosexuality? AIDS? A host of other issues? Men and women of faith find themselves in opposition to other men and women of faith over such issues. How do we determine God’s will in such matters? As we consider that question, perhaps we can appreciate the Pharisees and the problems that they were trying to solve.
The church today is always in danger of giving too much weight to its own “traditions.” Do we find ourselves asking, What did Wesley have to say about this issue? Or Luther? Or Calvin? Or our denominational convention? While it is not wrong to ask such questions, we must be careful not to allow these authorities trump Biblical authority.
Denominational loyalties often assume far too much importance. Over the years, I have too often heard sermons entitled, “Why I am a (Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, etc.).” Seeing the title, I knew that I was going to hear, not an exposition of scripture, but a collection of not-very-helpful opinion. Where, by the way, do you find a text for such a sermon? We have no right to criticize the Pharisees for love of their traditions when we hew so firmly to our own.
Furthermore, if we paint the Pharisees as bad-to-the-core, we gut the story. The story has life only insofar as Jesus faces worthy opponents. The Pharisees are, indeed, worthy opponents. However misguided, they are deeply religious men trying to do God’s will.
MARK 7:1-5. EATING BREAD WITH DEFILED HANDS
1Then the Pharisees, and some of the scribes gathered together to him, having come from Jerusalem.2Now when they saw some of his disciples eating bread with defiled, that is, unwashed, hands, they found fault. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, don’t eat unless they wash their hands and forearms, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4They don’t eat when they come from the marketplace, unless they bathe themselves, and there are many other things, which they have received to hold to: washings of cups, pitchers, bronze vessels, and couches.) 5The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders (Greek: ten paradosin ton presbyteron), but eat their bread with unwashed hands?”
“Then the Pharisees, and some of the scribes gathered together to him, having come from Jerusalem” (v. 1). Mark seems to distinguish local Pharisees from Jerusalem scribes. The local Pharisees have already demonstrated their opposition to Jesus (2:16, 24; 3:6). The scribes from Jerusalem might also be Pharisees. They join with the local Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.
The word “Jerusalem” carries an ominous quality, because Jerusalem is the seat of opposition to Jesus, and they will kill him in Jerusalem. Mark has already told us that the scribes have determined that Jesus is demonic (3:22), and the Pharisees have begun a conspiracy to kill him (3:6). It seems odd that these Jerusalemites are in Galilee. Jerusalem draws pilgrims from afar, and not the other way around. It seems likely that these men have come to Galilee for the purpose of destroying Jesus (3:6, 22).
“Now when they saw some of his disciples eating bread with defiled, that is, unwashed, hands, they found fault” (v. 2). Leviticus 11-15 prescribes in detail how Israel is to deal with various issues of ritual cleanliness, to include food (11:1-23; see also Deuteronomy 14:3-21)—animals (11:24-47)—purification of women after childbirth (chapter 12)—leprosy (chapters 13-14), and bodily discharges. This is Torah law, handed down by God, so the Pharisees and scribes are right to take it seriously.
However, when they criticize Jesus’ disciples for eating with defiled hands, the Pharisees and scribes go beyond the requirements of God’s law by trying to enforce human interpretations of the law that have been handed down by rabbis through the centuries.
Exodus 30:18-21 and 40:31 require the cleansing of hands, but only for priests (“Aaron and his sons”)—and only when they go into the tent of meeting or come near the altar—in other words, when they are attending to sacred duties within sacred space. The Pharisees gradually adopted this practice of ritual handwashing as a way of showing devotion to God—and as a “boundary marker,” a way for Jews to proclaim their identity as distinct from their pagan neighbors (Hooker, 441).
Ritual cleanliness has nothing to do with hygiene—Pasteur will not discover germs until the 17th century, and will have difficulty even then persuading physicians to wash their hands before performing surgery. People of the first century have no understanding of hygiene. Pharisaic handwashing involves the use of only a small amount of water poured over the hands to wash away ritual defilement, such as defilement caused by touching an unclean object or person (i.e., a bodily discharge such as spittle or semen, a dead body, a leper, a menstruating woman, or a Gentile). While most of us would want to wash our hands for hygienic purposes in many of these circumstances, the manner in which ritual handwashing is done offers no hygienic benefit.
By the time of the writing of this Gospel (probably 65 to 70 A.D.), Christians have begun to free themselves from the observance of Jewish law. Stories such as this one help to provide a rationale for the church to distance itself from Jewish law. They also instruct Christians who might otherwise hold too closely to Jewish law and traditions.
“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, don’t eat unless they wash their hands and forearms, holding to the tradition of the elders” (v. 3). In verses 3-4, Mark explains Pharisaic tradition to Gentile readers who might not otherwise understand it. While the Sadducees concern themselves only with obedience to the Torah, the Pharisees give almost equal weight to their traditions.
“All the Jews” is hyperbole (exaggerated language). Only some Jews follow these strict rules.
The Torah prescribed handwashing for priests (Exodus 40:12; Leviticus 8:6), but only the tradition of the elders prescribed such a rule for the general populace.
“holding to the tradition of the elders” (v. 3b). Prior to his Damascus road experience, Paul (a Pharisee) was especially zealous with regard to observing and enforcing the traditions of the elders (Galatians 1:14).
The “tradition of the elders” is oral tradition at this point. By the third century it will be codified as the Mishnah.
“They don’t eat when they come from the marketplace, unless they bathe themselves, and there are many other things, which they have received to hold to: washings of cups, pitchers, bronze vessels, and couches” (v. 4). This is consistent with the emphasis on ritual purity of food. If the food is to be clean (ritually clean in accord with Torah law), the vessels in which it is cooked or served must also be clean.
Leviticus 11 prescribes the washing of clothes and other objects that have been touched by unclean animals (Leviticus 11:28-38), saying, “Every earthen vessel, into which any of them falls, all that is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break it. All food which may be eaten, that on which water comes, shall be unclean; and all drink that may be drunk in every such vessel shall be unclean. Everything whereupon part of their carcass falls shall be unclean; whether oven, or range for pots, it shall be broken in pieces: they are unclean, and shall be unclean to you” (Leviticus 11:33-35).
We see this sort of emphasis on dishes and utensils in kosher kitchens today where people have “meat” dishes and “milk” dishes to avoid mixing meat and milk. They do this to honor the commandment of Exodus 23:19, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
We must recognize, then, that Jewish people have cause for concern regarding the ritual cleanliness of food and the containers in which food is prepared or served. Torah law requires them to be concerned about such things. In being observant, they are trying to carry out God’s will as prescribed by scripture, a concern which we must respect.
Jesus’ dispute with these Pharisees and scribes has to do, not with the observance of Torah law, but with traditions that had grown up around the law. These traditions were an attempt by rabbis to define how the law should be applied in specific situations. That, too, was honorable—an honest attempt to determine what people must do to please God. The problem arose when people began to equate their traditions with the law itself—to regard their interpretations as equal in importance to the law.
“Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders (presbyteron), but eat their bread with unwashed hands?” (v. 5). Jesus has given his opponents plenty of opportunity to criticize him directly. He has healed on the Sabbath (1:21-34; 3:1-6); touched a leper (1:41); claimed to forgive sins (2:5); called a tax collector to be his disciple (2:14); defended his disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath (2:23-28); and blessed an unclean woman who touched him (5:24-34).
While his opponents have criticized Jesus for his personal behavior, here they choose a less direct approach—drawing attention to the failure of Jesus’ disciples to observe the tradition of the elders. If Jesus is an authentic teacher, why doesn’t he require his disciples to observe the traditions?
MARK 7:6-8. YOU SET ASIDE THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD
6He answered them,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites,
as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me.
7But in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8“For you set aside the commandment of God,
and hold tightly to the tradition of men—
the washing of pitchers and cups,
and you do many other such things.”
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites” (hypokriton) (v. 6a). Instead of defending the disciples (and himself), Jesus goes on the offense, accusing his accusers of hypocrisy.
In classical Greek literature, the word translated “hypocrites” (hypokriton) is used for acting on a stage. The actor was a pretender—a person who appeared to be someone other than who he/she really was. That would not, in itself, be evil. To know whether it was evil, we would need to know the context.
But in the New Testament, every mention of hypocrisy represents some sort of evil conduct. Hypocrites“say, and don’t do.” They “bind heavy burdens (on others), but they “will not lift a finger to help them.” They do their works “to be seen by men.” They love public acclaim. They love being called Rabbi. They “devour widows’ houses, and as a pretense …make long prayers” (Matthew 23:1-13).
When Jesus tells these Pharisees that they are hypocrites, he means that their apparent devotion to God is false. Their apparent religiosity is a pretense.
Elsewhere, Jesus says that hypocrites will end up “where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be” (Matthew 24:51).
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (vv. 6b-7). Jesus quotes scripture, adding force to his accusations. The quotation is from Isaiah 29:13, and is in keeping with other prophetic pronouncements (see also Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24; and Micah 6:6-8).
As noted above, Exodus 30:19 requires priests to practice ritual handwashing before coming near the altar, but later Pharisaic tradition expanded such observance to ordinary people on ordinary occasions. While the expanded practice is intended to honor God, it has the opposite effect, undercutting the Torah (Brueggemann, 192).
“For you set aside the commandment of God, and hold tightly to the tradition of men” (v. 8). Jesus employs two contrasts here:
• The first is the contrast between the tradition of the elders (the phrase used by the Pharisees) and the tradition of men (the phrase used by Jesus). By changing one word (presbyteron to anthropon), Jesus brings the lofty elders down to earth. They are no longer elders, enforcing God’s laws. They are only men, enforcing human opinions.
• The second is the contrast between “the commandment of God” and “the tradition of men” (or “human tradition”). This contrast highlights the Pharisaic reliance on human opinion rather than the will of God.
Jesus does not condemn all tradition, but only the improper elevation of human tradition to sacred status. The church needs to learn from that. We have a responsibility to preserve tradition, but must take care to distinguish between scriptural teachings (essential) and other traditions (non-essential).
We are always tempted to require that which is not essential. For instance, a generation or two ago, many Christians emphasized “dressing up” for worship as a mark of respect for God, but not many people observe that rule now. Today, we are more apt to make a litmus test of Political Correctness—values drawn from our culture rather than from scripture.
MARK 7:9-13. CORBAN
While these verses are omitted from the lectionary reading, they illustrate what Jesus meant when he said,“You set aside the commandment of God” (v. 8a). In these verses, Jesus shows how his accusers, apparently devout men, use human tradition to sidestep one of the Ten Commandments—”Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which Yahweh your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment means, among other things, providing financial support to aging parents. In Jesus’ day, aging parents often transferred property to their children, who then assumed a responsibility for the parents’ welfare in their old age.
Corban was a form of deferred giving, similar to today’s tax-avoidance scheme of transferring title to a charity now (and receiving a tax deduction now) with the provision that we can continue to use the property until our death. In like manner, a person in Jesus’ day could declare something Corban—dedicated to God—and then tell his or her parents that their old-age support had been given to God. In truth, the property had only been promised to God, but that promise would give the adult-child an excuse to dodge his or her obligation to parents. It was treachery cloaked in religious garb. The religious establishment encouraged the practice, because a portion of the deferred gift might end up in the religious treasury.
MARK 7:14-15. THAT WHICH DEFILES
14He called all the multitude to himself, and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.15There is nothing from outside of the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man.”
“He called all the multitude to himself” (vs. 14a). The fact that Jesus can summon a crowd means that the Pharisees and scribes have failed to discredit him. The people are anxious to hear Jesus’ response.
“Hear me, all of you, and understand” (v. 14b). It is not just the Pharisees and scribes who need to hear what Jesus has to say, but “all of you”—Pharisees, scribes, crowd, and disciples alike.
“There is nothing from outside of the man, that going into him can defile him” (v. 15a). When Jesus explains this to his disciples (vv. 18-19), he will make it clear that he is speaking about food. He says that it is not the food that we eat (or ritual defilement) that makes us unclean, but the thoughts and feelings of our hearts (Matthew 5:28).
This is strong language in the context of a culture that prizes Jewish food laws. The Torah goes into great detail regarding clean and unclean foods, and Jewish people distinguish themselves from their pagan neighbors by observance of these food laws. To say that a person is not defiled by what he or she eats is a bold statement, although in keeping with Jesus actions in other situations. He touched a leper (1:41), ate with sinners (2:15-17), and was not troubled that an unclean woman touched him (5:30-34).
“but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man” (v. 15b). In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus will make it clear that he is not talking about excrement (vv. 18b-19a). The things that proceed out of the man and defile him are the products of an evil heart, “adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” (vv. 21b-22).
It would seem that Jesus is guilty of replacing God’s commandment with his own teaching—in effect, doing the same thing that he accuses the Pharisees of doing. However, as God’s Son, Jesus speaks with Godly authority to correct errors that have inserted themselves in Israel’s life over the centuries. He clarifies how to fulfill the requirements of the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17).
MARK 7:16, 19b. THUS HE DECLARED ALL FOODS CLEAN
Verse 16 is not included in the best manuscripts, and most modern translations leave it out or mention it in a footnote.
Verse 19b (included neither in this lesson nor in some manuscripts) says, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” These are not Jesus’ words, but Mark’s interpretation. If Jesus declared all foods clean, it took the early church a long time to recognize it. The controversies in the early church regarding the observance of food laws and circumcision make it clear that the matter had yet to be settled (see Acts 10:1—11:18; 15:1-29; Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:1—11:1; Galatians 2:11-14; Colossians 2:20-23).
MARK 7:21-23. EVIL THINGS COME FROM WITHIN
21 “For from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, 22covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.”
“For from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” (v. 21-22). A number of the sins that Jesus lists are direct violations of the Ten Commandments (adultery, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, blasphemy). The others are rooted in the teachings of the Old Testament. Jesus continues to insist on redirecting the concerns of these Pharisees and scribes away from the authority of their traditions and back to the authority of scripture.
In a time and place where people emphasize piety (honoring God by fulfillment of religious duties), Jesus changes the emphasis to ethical behavior (honoring God by right actions in relationship to other people). He teaches us to be especially mindful of thoughts and feelings that give rise to unethical behavior in our relationships with family, friends and neighbors. It is those thoughts and feelings, conceived and nurtured in our hearts that give rise to truly serious sins (Matthew 5:28).
This is an important word for us to hear today. We live in a culture that honors that which comes from within the human heart—that gives us permission to act on our feelings instead of bringing them under control. Our culture tells us to “get in touch” with our inner selves, and to “go with the flow.” It celebrates freedom and personal choice, and fiercely resists any constraint that Christ or common sense would place on behavior. The result is that we live in a world characterized by “adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” (vv. 21b-22).
“All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (v. 23). Jesus points us in a radically different direction. He tells us that “evil things come from within”—from the human heart—and implies that we have a responsibility to nurture holy things rather than evil things in our hearts.
In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that what we take into our bodies can make a great deal of difference to our physical health. We need to learn that what we take into our hearts and minds is even more important, because what we take into our hearts and minds has the potential to injure us spiritually as well as physically—to kill the soul as well as the body (see Matthew 10:28).
In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of the importance of environmental issues. In some cases, the church has placed far more emphasis on the cleanliness of our world than the cleanliness of our hearts—ignoring the degree to which Jesus emphasized the latter. That is ironic, because it is easy to teach a person with a holy heart to respect the environment. Psychologist Gordon Allport observed, “We could probably prove that throughout history those Christians who have accomplished the most practical benefit in this world are those who have believed most fervently in the next.” If we will devote ourselves to holy living and the making of holy disciples, the rest will follow.
The church needs to emphasize healthy reading, television viewing, and entertainment. We need to highlight the corrosive effects of drugs and alcohol, violent video games, vulgar sitcoms, pornography, gambling, and consumerism. We need to call people away from an “anything goes” business ethic. The sea in which people swim today is filthy with spiritual pollution, but we tend to say little about it. We are embarrassed to make a serious issue of “adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” but Jesus was not. He tells us that “All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (v. 23).
The church needs to emphasize practical ministries—ministries that alleviate here-and-now kinds of misery—ministries to those who are especially vulnerable—ministries to those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). There is no shortage of opportunity to do these things. When our children were in high school, we became aware of kids who came to school hungry, because their parents had not fed them breakfast—and in many cases had also not provided for lunch. We became aware of kids who were couch-surfing—sleeping on a couch at one friend’s home for a few days, and then moving on to another friend’s home. What passes for parenting these days is often appalling. Are there ways for the church to reach out to these kids—and to struggling parents? There are many ways. We just need to put our thinking caps on—and then act!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan