Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In this text, Jesus addresses three different audiences: a group of Pharisees and scribes who raise the question of defilement, the crowd that is perpetually present, and the disciples who, true to character in Mark’s Gospel, don’t understand.
The message is delivered differently to each of these groups, but its essence is the same: our very selves are defiled, made unholy, not by what we take in, but by the corrosion of the human heart. Jesus’ three different versions of this message build on one another, thus enabling a fuller understanding of what is at stake: we must prepare our hearts, and thereby our selves, for the kingdom of God. This requires not worrying over what we “eat,” but how.
The first audience to whom Jesus speaks here are Pharisees and scribes “who had come from Jerusalem” (Mark 7:1). The writer of Mark’s Gospel often mentions apparently small details almost nonchalantly, in passing, seemingly on the way to a larger point. But these small details often make an even larger point, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Such is the case here. The fact that these Pharisees and scribes are from Jerusalem matters a great deal. For Mark, Jerusalem’s greatest significance is that it is where Jesus will die. Mark’s narrative is breathlessly hurtling toward Jerusalem, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus that will set the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in motion. By noting that these Pharisees and scribes are from Jerusalem, Mark is linking not only them, but this entire event, to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is because the kingdom is at hand (Mark 2:15) that it’s imperative that Jesus’ message is understood, right now.
The conflict between Jesus and these scribes and Pharisees begins with a question of ritual purity, although Jesus quickly steers the conversation in another direction. The Pharisees and scribes notice that some of Jesus’ disciples “were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (Mark 7:2). The text continues with a parenthetical explanation, that the Pharisees, “and all the Jews” (verse 3), follow “the tradition of the elders” by washing their hands thoroughly before they eat. The claim that “all the Jews” follow the same tradition is an overstatement; the mere fact that only “some” of the disciples did not wash before eating tells us that not all Jews followed the same practice. The “tradition of the elders” refers to oral interpretations of the Mosaic law, which the Pharisees and scribes consider authoritative.
As the parenthetical explanation continues, those who follow these traditions “do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it” (Mark 7:4). This phrase can also be read “when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they purify themselves.” Either way, the reference to the market is another example of Mark’s subtle way of calling our attention to what really matters. The passage immediately prior to this one, in which the sick are laid out “in the marketplaces” (Mark 6:56) for Jesus to heal them, demonstrates the in breaking of the kingdom of God in the world. As I discussed in my commentary on that text, in the economy of God’s kingdom, “many of the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). By linking Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees and scribes to the marketplace of chapter six, Mark is asserting that the order of God’s kingdom trumps all other orders, and is shifting the focus from questions of ritual purity to preparation for that kingdom.
Jesus knows, of course, that when the scribes and Pharisees ask why some of his disciples do not wash their hands, the question is not an innocent one. It is meant to indict Jesus. Asking why some of his followers “do not live according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5) is really accusing Jesus of not following the law himself, of acting as if he believes himself to be above the law. Knowing this, Jesus responds with a rebuke from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:6-7), which changes the direction of the conversation: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6b). Jesus calls them “hypocrites (Mark 7:6a),” because they “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:8). This reproach is more than a condemnation of empty worship practices; it is a condemnation of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ distortion of tradition in order to circumvent the law. Jesus is not rejecting the law; in fact, he is rebuking them for their failure to uphold it.
Mark 7:9-13, which are not a part of the lection for today, clarify Jesus’ point. Jesus condemns the scribes’ and Pharisees’ use of Corban: a practice of willing assets to the Temple, assets that may no longer be used for the family’s, including elderly parents’, care. Such a practice, Jesus asserts, violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), for it enables the denial of support to parents who are in need. The scribes and Pharisees are allowing people to circumvent the moral and legal imperative to care for their parents through the use of Corban, and are “thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on” (Mark 7:13).
Thus even with regard to the scribes and Pharisees, the issue at hand is not that of ritual purity, or even of what traditions Jesus’ disciples ought to follow (or not). The issue is the state of the human heart. Jesus brings up the matter of the heart with his quotation of Isaiah: the hearts of “this people” are far from God (Mark 7:6b). “This people,” it becomes clear in verse 14, includes not just the scribes and Pharisees. As Mark writes, “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand’ ” (Mark 7:14). Jesus is speaking here to all who are gathered around him, including, presumably, the sick whom he had just healed and the people who had carried them to him. What they must understand is that it is not what you take into yourself that renders you impure, but rather “the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15). Whatever your practice, Jesus is saying, whichever traditions you do or don’t uphold, these are not the things that, by themselves, get you ready for God’s kingdom. And you must be ready now.
As is to be expected in Mark, the disciples don’t get it, so Jesus provides further explanation. In Mark 7:18-19, also not included in the text for today, Jesus shows that unlike food that simply passes through one’s system, that which is produced in the heart affects the whole person. “For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21a). The heart is understood here as the center of human will and rationality, in addition to desire. It is the place from which all our intentions arise. Jesus offers a list of evil intentions that, while not comprehensive, certainly reveals the depth of corruption that the heart suffers. It must be noted that Jesus does not proclaim the heart to be utterly corrupt; this is not Augustine’s heart that cannot but choose evil. Good intentions also come from the heart. But Jesus’ three audiences need to hear this word, so that in this crucial time no one is distracted by extraneous arguments, but all are focused on preparing their hearts, and thereby their entire selves, for the kingdom of God.
By the end of the passage for today, Jesus has turned the whole notion of consumption that defiles on its head. While the list of sins in Mark 7:21-22 provides nothing unexpected (we see similar lists in Romans 1:29-31; Galatians 5:19-21, and 2 Timothy 3:2-5), it adds another layer of meaning to Jesus’ message. Each of these particular vices is, in some way, a sin of consumption. Adultery, theft, avarice, envy, pride — each of these springs from a desire to take, to grasp, to own, to devour. Here is something that this Markan passage and Augustine do have in common: the corruption of the human heart is rooted in desire baring its fangs. And this is why Jesus does not reject purity laws here. It turns out that our consumption (or lack thereof) does affect our hearts. If our desire for self-satisfaction is allowed to run rampant, we become insatiable consumers: of things, of course, but also of pleasure, of people, even of our own energy. (How good do you actually feel after spending a day binge-watching something on Netflix?) Practices like purity laws, therefore, are central to forming our hearts to desire in the right way: to desire as God desires. How do the practices in which we engage (or not) form our hearts to desire rightly, we who are living in the already/not yet of God’s kingdom?