Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on August 30, 2015.

Ferdinand Olivier
Ferdinand Olivier

When considering a text such as this one, it is perilously easy for us to “get up on our high horses” and begin with thoughtless critique and dismissal of the “dead legalism” of the Jewish leaders portrayed in this encounter.  There is much to be learned and appreciated by trying to understand their perspective before looking at how Jesus reframed it.

After the exile, the religious leaders of the Jews said to themselves, “Never again will we allow our people to so disregard God’s Law that cataclysmic judgment falls on our nation.  In order to prevent the people’s breaking of ‘the Big Laws,’ we’ll set up a hedge or a fence of smaller guidelines that will keep people far away from such transgression.”  These guidelines began to accumulate as “the tradition of the elders” (7:3), and were eventually written down in the third century A.D. as the Mishnah.  Various commentators include samples of these traditions in their expositions of this text.

A key thing to understand is that in the beginning, this effort was a well-intentioned one.  The goal was not simply to prevent cataclysm, but also to give ordinary folk clear and useful guidelines about how to live a holy life.

There is not, in fact, any requirement in the Mosaic Law about washing one’s hands before eating, but there was a requirement that priests wash themselves before approaching the holy things (Exodus 30:17-21; Numbers 18:8-13).  The “traditions of the elders” expanded this requirement to include everyone, and, in a sense, this was the first “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:9), because the goal was to sanctify all of life as an offering to God.

Over time, of course, things change.  Although originally the point was more about one’s attitude toward God and the gift of life, over the years, the “external and visible signs of internal, invisible grace” began to become more and more important, such that “the tail began to wag the dog.”  Then, as now, it was frighteningly easy to focus on external signs and behaviors without paying any attention at all to one’s inner, spiritual condition, and it was to this that Jesus addressed Himself.

It is also important to consider how Mark has arranged his material in terms of context.  This pericope has no clear connection to what precedes it, but it appears immediately before the account of Jesus’ encounter with a Syrophoenician woman, and has much to do with preparing the way for God’s extension of grace to the Gentiles.

Mark has already shown that Jesus’ teaching differed fundamentally from commonly-accepted piety with respect to sharing meals with outcasts (2:13-17), fasting (2:18-22), and Sabbath observance (2:23-28).  Now, fundamental differences appear with respect to ritual defilement as well.

Never one to mince words, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ critique about failure to observe the ritual hand washing (this encounter had to do with ritual, not with hygiene) by calling them hypocrites, actors who pretend to be something that they’re not.  Quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus tells them, “You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.  Your worship is both vain and in vain, because you are teaching and following merely human rules” (7:6-8).

After giving an illustration of such merely human rules that actually contravene the intent of the Law (7:9-13), Jesus dropped a bombshell that it’s easy for moderns to miss.  Jesus declared that no food is intrinsically defiling or forbidden.  No Jew in Jesus’ day believed that, and most Jews don’t believe it still.

Jesus illustrated what He meant by a somewhat coarse illustration about digestion and excretion.  Interestingly, a well-attested variant reading of verse 19 suggests that food becomes clean in the process of its elimination.  According to the Mishnah, although human excrement may be offensive, it is not ritually unclean.  If this was Jesus’ point, He was not declaring all foods ritually clean so much as noting that all foods eventually “come out clean.”  This would explain why His statement here was not used in the later debates about what foods are appropriate for Christians to eat (Acts 10:9-29, 11:1-18, 15:1-29; Romans 14:1-4, 14-15, 20-21; Galatians 2:11-21; Colossians 2:16-23).

In any event, Jesus clearly put the emphasis on the internal condition of one’s heart, not on observable behaviors that can be faked.  Jesus then illustrated His point with a list of six plural nouns that refer to immoral behavior and six singular nouns that refer to defects of moral character.  Commentators will offer explanations of each of these terms. There is no comparable list of sins in any of the Gospels except the shortened version of this one found in Matthew 15:18-20.  Similar lists can be found outside the Gospels in Romans 1:29-31, Galatians 5:19-21, and 1 Peter 4:3.

We end as we began, reminding ourselves to “look in the mirror” as we apply this text.  The truth of the matter is that it is just as easy—and probably just as common—for us as it was for the ancients to believe all the correct doctrines in a perfunctory way while our hearts and wills are not engaged with God at all.

Contemporary Christians are unfortunately more known in many quarters by our rule-bound hypocrisy than by our self-giving love.  We argue and divide over points of doctrine just as arcane and irrelevant as those of first-century Judaism.  We insist that baptism and Communion be observed in particular, specific, and exclusive ways.  Our application of the principles in this passage should cause us to be far more concerned about the pollution or defilement that we ourselves may cause in the lives of others than about whether “every ‘I’ is dotted and every ‘T’ crossed” theologically.

Psychologists of religion have long noted that some people wear their religion rather like a coat that they put on and take off as the occasion warrants, while other people’s religious life is more like a persistent inner fire.  “Coat Folks” practice what is known as “extrinsic faith,” while “Fire Folks” practice “intrinsic faith.”

Extrinsic Faith is committed to “the letter of the law.”  Persons who take this approach tend to view life mostly as “black or white.”  “Coat Folks” tend to think in terms of “us” and “them,” are suspicious of religious enthusiasm, and tend to be secretly afraid of God.

“Fire Folks,” on the other hand, are committed to “the spirit and the intent of the law” more than to “the letter of the law.”  Folks whose religion is an inner fire find that this fire is the organizing principle of their lives, rather than something peripheral or “tacked on.”  “Fire Folks” view God as loving and forgiving, and are passionate about their intense and personal relationship with God.   The distinction between “coat folks” and “fire folks” is what’s going on in this passage.


Dr. David C. Stancil
Columbia Baptist Fellowship, Columbia, MD



Tags: context, defilement, extrinsic, hypocrisy, intrinsic, legalism, piety, purity, self-examination

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