Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In the Gospels, it seems that Jesus saves his sharpest words, his most pointed criticism, for the most religious.
It is not the tax collectors and other notorious sinners who are reproached by Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes, the experts in God’s law, the high achievers in religious piety. In the text before us, Jesus calls them hypocrites and says that they abandon the commandment of God for the sake of human tradition.
We have been taught to view the Pharisees and scribes as self-righteous hypocrites and to distance ourselves from them, and passages like this one tend to reinforce that perception. It will be important, I think, for the preacher to “debunk” the popular misconception that the Pharisees and scribes thought they were earning salvation by their obedience to the law. In fact, they understood that God’s choosing and calling of Israel was a gift. They also understood that God gave them the law as a gift, to order their lives as God’s people. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God.
In the book of Exodus, before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6). The Pharisees took this calling to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.
These “traditions of the elders” were seen as a way to “build a fence around the law,” to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life, especially in the midst of Roman occupation. The concern of the Pharisees and scribes when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands was about something much more serious than proper hygiene. They suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine respect for God’s law.
It seems that the scribes and Pharisees had legitimate concerns. Why, then, do they receive such a harsh response from Jesus? There is a clue in the verses Jesus quotes from Isaiah: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.
The problem with the Pharisees and scribes, according to Jesus, was that they had become so focused on the externals of faithfulness that they neglected to examine their own hearts. Their efforts to live faithfully were putting up walls of alienation instead of drawing them closer to God and to their neighbors. The rituals they observed created a spiritual hierarchy between the “clean” and the “unclean.” Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty or contaminated.
An important question the preacher might raise is this: Whom do we consider “unclean” today? From whom do we try to keep a safe distance?
We have been taught to distance ourselves from the Pharisees and scribes, yet perhaps we have more in common with them that we thought. We understand, like the Pharisees, that being called by God is a gift. In response to God’s grace, we want to live in the ways God would want us to live, and we try to discern what that means in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. The problem is that as we are attempting to live faithfully, there is always the temptation to judge those who do not live in the same way, to set ourselves above others. Perhaps we are even tempted to believe that somehow we are more “deserving” of God’s love and grace than others.
But then we have lost the whole point of faithfulness. Jesus tells us to beware when piety gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law: loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. He warns us to beware when our piety separates us from others, for then it is also separating us from God.
Nothing outside of us can defile us by going in, Jesus says. (Our lectionary text delicately skips over Jesus’ graphic statement in verse 19 that what enters into the belly passes out into the sewer.) On the contrary, Jesus warns, what comes out of our hearts can defile our lives and do great harm to others — evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly (Mark 7:20-23).
No law or tradition can protect us from the darkness that lurks within our own hearts. We can try to project a squeaky clean image, but one way or another, the evil within will find its way out. The highly edited version of ourselves, the façade that we present to the world, will crumble sooner or later.
This passage is certainly heavy on law, but there is gospel here too, at least implicitly in light of the larger story. This text shows us that Jesus sees clearly the ugliness of human hearts, yet he does not turn away. He sees right through our highly edited versions of ourselves, knows what lurks in our hearts, yet loves us still. In the larger story of the Gospel, he shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people — tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, scribes and Pharisees, you and me.
This good news exerts a claim on our lives, a call to follow. Following Jesus is not about separating ourselves from those considered less holy or unclean. Following Jesus means that like him, we get our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside. True faithfulness is not about clean hands, but a heart cleansed and a life shaped by the radical, self-giving love of God in Christ.