What defiles a person

This passage shows us a response to one issue within first-century Judaism, which was hardly homogenous across the Greco-Roman world.

February 12, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 7:1-23 

This passage shows us a response to one issue within first-century Judaism, which was hardly homogenous across the Greco-Roman world.

In this brief commentary, we will give attention to how the passage fits into Mark’s story of Jesus in order to grasp its literary and theological purpose, and explore it claim upon us today. 

The Context

The controversy over Pharisaic tradition and what constitutes defilement follows a section in the Gospel about Jesus’ powerful works and growing popularity in a Jewish region (6:7-56). After Jesus is rejected at Nazareth, he sends the Twelve on a successful mission in which they imitate his ministry of preaching, exorcisms, and healing. The word about Jesus continues to spread (see 1:21-28, where his fame begins). People start to speculate — even important people like Herod Antipas — about what kind of important figure Jesus could be (6:14). Could he be John the Baptist returned from the grave? Or, could he be Elijah, the herald of the Messiah? Or could he be a prophet, perhaps one like Moses? Jesus miraculously multiplies bread for a hungry multitude, confirming his importance, even if people do not yet understand him (see, e.g., 6:51-52). As a result, when Jesus crosses the sea, crowds clamor to seek the benefits of his healing ministry.

The Question (verses 1-5)

Mark tells us that some Pharisees now come along with scribes “down from Jerusalem,” revealing the seriousness of their concerns, since Jerusalem is “Judaism central,” as if a new Olympic-caliber athlete were receiving a visit from officials from Colorado Springs (see also 3:22). The Pharisees and scribes have noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples eat with defiled hands, and ask why they do not follow the tradition of the elders by washing before they eat. 

The word for “defiled,” koinos (“common”), signifies that the disciples have not set themselves apart for God by making themselves ritually pure. Since a master trains his disciples, their question is a veiled critique of Jesus’ teaching (see also 2:18, 23-24). Mark gives the reader inside information by describing the ceremonial practices of the Pharisees (verses 3-4), oral law which includes washing hands, cups, and various vessels. By this tradition, the Pharisees extend the worship of the Temple to the household. This oral law shows people how to set themselves apart for God in the midst of foreign occupation.

Replying to the Challenge (verses 6-13)

At first, Jesus does not answer the religious leaders’ question. Instead, he replies to their challenge. That is, they have challenged Jesus by using their oral traditions as a standard by which to evaluate the actions of his disciples (verse 2). Jesus replies by using the written tradition in Scripture as the standard by which to evaluate the Pharisees’ own traditions.  Speaking in the manner of an Old Testament prophet who rebukes meaningless worship, Jesus quotes from Isaiah. The problem is not with human traditions per se, but with human traditions that have come to supplant the word of God. Jesus gives a specific example of a contradiction between the Pharisaic tradition and the Law. According to tradition, once a person’s property is vowed as a gift (korban) to the temple, that property cannot be released to support one’s parents. Jesus says that this practice contradicts the command to honor your father and mother. Ironically, the very traditions that purport to purify people become a means of contamination, because they keep people from obeying the Law.

Answering the Question (verses 14-23)

Jesus eventually responds parabolically to the question why his disciples do not wash their hands: what comes out, not what goes into people, makes them unclean (verses 14-15). He explains that true defilement has to do with what passes in and out of the heart, not the body. He lists vices that defile people, many of which match prohibitions of the Decalogue (do not steal, murder, commit adultery, or covet what is your neighbor’s). The vices also have to do with mistreating other people, or failing to show love to your neighbor.

Elsewhere, Jesus says that “love your neighbor as yourself” is second only to the command to “love the Lord your God” (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus does something similar in our present text as in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, when he proclaims, for instance, “you have heard it said, ‘do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’; but I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22a). Just so, in our text, Jesus does not abrogate the Law, but intensifies it. These vices defile people because they emanate from the heart. 

Moreover, Mark adds the parenthetical comment that Jesus means to declare all foods clean (verse 19). This is revolutionary. According to Leviticus 11:43-44 and 20:24-26, Yahweh “separated” the clean from the unclean food in order to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding peoples. The Jews preserved their religious and national identity through practices associated with food laws, hand washing, and Sabbath keeping. Mark’s explanation that Jesus declared all foods clean prepares the way for the Gentile mission, because the ceremonial elements that maintain a separation among groups of people. Indeed, from here, Jesus enters into Tyre, Gentile territory, and ministers to a Syrophoenician woman who displays more understanding of his ministry than those closest to him (7:24-30).

Questions For Us

The people of God are not set apart by particular traditions or ethnicity, but by a purity that emanates from the heart, manifested by love for others. We may not need more religion, but more reflection on what proceeds from our heart. Moreover, traditions can be good, and can point others to God. Or, they can communicate explicitly or implicitly, “you don’t belong.” How might we evaluate our traditions in light of God’s word?