What Defiles?

Jesus and the Pharisees are at it again.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

February 16, 2020

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Commentary on Mark 7:1-23 

Jesus and the Pharisees are at it again.

I guess we could say the Pharisees started it, by calling out Jesus’ disciples and their grubby hands. Why do they neglect to wash the world off before coming to dinner as their elders taught them? As a teenager I know would say: yeah, it’s judgy.

But does Jesus come back with a proportional response when he takes up a damning prophecy from Isaiah and throws the book at them? No. Jesus’ argument is this: the Pharisees regularly confuse the interpretation of the Law with the Law itself.

Here’s the problem, though: laws don’t interpret themselves. They never have. “Honor thy mother and father”—what does that mean? Is it obvious what honoring might entail? Or who might be included in the categories “mother” and “father”? We might even wonder if the whole scuffle about handwashing might be seen in a different light. Maybe the Pharisees’ concern that the tradition of the elders is cherished is also a response to the commandment to honor mother and father.

But Mark’s Jesus tells us that whatever they think they are doing, they got it wrong—with regard to handwashing and the odd practice of Corban and “many” other things (verse 13). It is a time to scold, apparently, not to deliberate. The Pharisees disappear from the scene after Jesus’ reprimand (who can blame them?)—without a word.

But Jesus is just getting warmed up, calling the crowd to gather round. In what turns out to be a very brief address, he extends the theme of clean vs. unclean, holy vs. unholy beyond the dinner table. The gist of Jesus’ message is that nothing outside of a person can affect her holiness factor. It’s what emerges from within that matters.

Whether or not the crowds could make any sense of this, Mark doesn’t tell us. But it is clear that the disciples (is anyone surprised?) do not know what Jesus means. Backstage, Jesus explains it to them, with a hint of exasperation. His instruction takes the form of a rather crude analogy and a laundry list of deadly sins. In a context in which everyone has been formed to be so careful about moral and spiritual contamination, Jesus argues that nontraditional food, shady people, and profane contexts are not to be feared.

It may be disappointing to many of us that the off-putting idea that people should be sorted into clean vs. unclean, holy vs. profane is not challenged by Jesus here. As far as he is concerned, the infection is real. But Jesus insists it is not contagious. Rather, we might say, our heart problem is genetic. Jesus assumes human hearts are already loaded up with the potential for evil; notice that even the intention signaled by the things on the list defiles a person, even if that is as far as it goes.

Protests arise in many of us: can all the feelings, impulses, and desires evoked by that list be contained? “No” seems like an honest answer. And Jesus suggests that when there is an outbreak (of fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and/or folly), the person in question is rightly understood as unclean, unholy, and unfit for the things of God.

But many questions rush in. Here’s one: how long is a person who, say, experiences (or indulges in) envious intentions, defiled? Is there a time limit on this status? Or is there a practice that will restore such a person to the good place—I think it’s safe to say it’s not hand-washing. And what does it actually mean to be unclean, really? Is that state detectable to the person so designated? Is this how God sees the person? Jesus doesn’t tell us, and it is troubling to be left there, stuck with these binary options and so little information.

Of course, the idea that human beings are both bearers of God’s image and ungodly monsters hums in the background of many biblical texts. Saints and sinners, wheat and chaff, sheep and goats, simul justus et peccator. Why not clean and unclean? A toggling back and forth all of our days.

It sounds grim until you remember where all this is going, until you remember the consequences for Jesus and for us: there is no reason to be afraid of the unholiness of others, of some unsavory dimension of creation, of places and situations that may appear godforsaken.

The world Jesus invites us to see has no quarantines, no holding cells, no decontamination chambers. So he eats with sinners and tax collectors, touches lepers, handles dead bodies, preaches to pig farmers, and, in the text that follows this one, has a deep conversation with a pagan woman.

Nothing can keep Jesus away from them, or from the Pharisees who clearly drive him a little bit crazy, or from the disciples who persist in incomprehension, or—hear this—from us.


Teacher Jesus, too often we blame external people and situations for our heartaches and brokenness. Help us to look inward to uncover and heal the things that defile: bitterness, hatred, jealousy, and greed. Help us instead to be agents of peace, hope, generosity, and love. Amen.


Lord, let my heart be good soil   ELW 512, TFF 131
The Son of God, our Christ   ELW 584


There is power in the blood, Louise Jones