Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
At least one part of this passage is straightforward, although disturbing: Jesus explains where evil comes from.1
It comes from within all those people who bug you. But also from within you. Me, too.
Of course, it takes a while for Jesus to get to that basic point in this tongue-lashing delivered to a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. Their exchange begins with a question to Jesus about traditions, particular interpretations of laws given through Moses.
Following the discussion
Jesus’ followers (Jews, all of them) didn’t adhere to the same purity practices. “Some” disciples did not wash their hands in particular ways prior to eating. This alone means little, as the wider Jewish population at that time didn’t exhibit strict consistency in such matters. The narrator’s comment in verse 3 about “all the Jews” overstates the case; different Jews followed different traditions.
Yet the scribes and Pharisees’ question in verse 5 implicitly criticizes those disciples. Even more, it indicts Jesus. Even though no Old Testament texts call for anyone to wash hands before eating (but see what priests do in Exodus 30:18-21; 40:31), by Jesus’ day certain practices had arisen among some Jews. Why don’t all of Jesus’ followers abide by these more recent customs? What kind of teacher leads his pupils to violate revered elders’ teachings, that is, the legal interpretations affirmed by at least these scribes and Pharisees?
In verses 6b-7 Jesus cites the Greek (Septuagint, or LXX) version of Isaiah 29:13. He thus likens the “traditions of the elders” (verse 5; cf. verse 8) to mere “human precepts” (verse 7) that misconstrue God’s “commandment[s]” (verse 8). In no way does Jesus deny the validity of either the Mosaic law in general or its individual commandments; he rejects how certain interpretations—and thus, certain practices—may have deviated from or obscured the intent of laws meant to safeguard purity.
The reference to Isaiah 29:13 (LXX) also allows Jesus to redirect the conversation (which proceeds as a monologue, really) when the setting changes later, beginning in verse 14. The Isaiah passage introduces a contrast between the lips/mouth and the heart, and Jesus builds on this contrast to transform the issue into one about defilement and how a human body becomes polluted. Simply put, impurity is a matter of the heart, not the mouth.
And so the passage ends with a representative (not exhaustive) list of things capable of making a person impure (verses 21b-22). Some are deeds, others are character traits and attitudes. All originate, Jesus says, in “the human heart,” which for the ancients represented the seat of rationality and will. Defilement dwells deep within.
What Jesus does not say
According to Mark’s commentary on Jesus’ speech, in verse 19b (which the lectionary omits, as does a parallel passage, Matthew 15:1-20), Jesus thus “declared all foods clean.”2 Yet, it’s not patently clear that Jesus’ words point exactly to this conclusion. Mark may be asserting that Jesus, in this moment, made all foods clean. (Compare “God has made clean” in Acts 10:15.) But this is hardly the main point of the passage, and the lectionary’s scalpel encourages preachers to keep more central matters in view.
Despite the radical nature of verse 15a, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” we have no evidence that Jesus himself disregarded the dietary laws. (Notice Peter’s practice according to Acts 10:14.) In any case, the parabolic nature of Jesus’ comments (see reference to “the parable” in verse 17) supports the conclusion that hand-washing and foods are not the main concern here. Instead, Mark 7:1-23 speaks much more plainly about the source of defilement: it’s more internal than external. It’s more about who you are than about the foods or filth you avoid.
To be clear, Jesus does not dismiss the issue of defilement as insignificant. He does not declare the Mosaic law unimportant. He disagrees with these scribes and Pharisees’ interpretations of certain laws. He reasserts the law’s basic concern to be about restraining evil and avoiding defilement. Yet here’s the problem for us human beings: evil and defilement stem from places rather deeply embedded within our very selves.
As any reader of the Old Testament knows, Jesus was hardly the first to propose such an idea. Further, not all of his contemporaries would have experienced offense over his disagreements with these scribes and Pharisees. So don’t preach about differences between Judaism and Christianity. Don’t extol the bacon cheeseburger as a sign of God’s benevolence. Preach about the evil output of the human heart. Tell people:
“We have met the enemy and [it] is us.”3
From text to sermon
I offer four comments about what such a sermon might include.
First, Jesus’ outlook on the human heart needs careful qualification. For example, he does not denounce the heart for producing only evil intentions. Believe in total depravity if you must, but I still think it’s worth underscoring that people are occasionally capable of great good and selfless compassion.
Second, remember: it’s not the scribes. Not the Pharisees. Not the law. What Jesus subjects to fiercest criticism in this passage is the human being. Joel Marcus notes the concentration of the word anthrōpos (“human being” or “person”) eleven times in the span of Mark 7:7-23 and says:
“The basic problem Christians should be concerned about, Mark seems to be saying through this striking pileup [of the word anthrōpos], is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of the anthrōpos. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world.”4
Third, Jesus’ comments propel us to keep our evils in the spotlight. Whatever Satan is in Mark’s Gospel, it is not the cause of wrongdoing. That job belongs to the human heart. Placing blame on a diabolical entity lurking in the shadows risks diverting attention from our own propensity to rebel and destroy. Truly “evil intentions” dwell, not only within society’s notorious figures, but within ourselves and those we love and trust most fervently.
We know enough about the human condition to say that evil is about more than an individual’s selfishness or bad decisions. It roams our collective existence, our social, economic, and familial systems. We are at once perpetrators and victims. And our victimization furthers our capacity to perpetrate. “The human heart,” or the human will, remains a complex thing. Our kin and culture usually keep us ingrained in patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.
Fourth, the biblical text needs a preacher to make Jesus’ point personal, so we can see his generalizations made concrete within our particular experiences. The same goes for the solution we believe Jesus promises to this deeply rooted problem. Without soft-pedaling the passage’s negative focus, preachers and other worship leaders also must direct a congregation toward the love and mercy God nevertheless extends to each and every broken anthrōpos.
- Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 2, 2012.
- This comment, considered alongside the generalized description of Pharisaic practices in verses 3-4, indicates Mark writes to a Gentile audience or a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience possibly debating the ongoing validity of dietary restrictions. If Mark understands the abandonment of dietary laws in Christian communities as the abolishment of a significant marker separating Jews and Gentiles, then this passage sets an interesting context for next week’s Gospel lection, in which a Gentile woman contends with a resistant Jesus to receive his help.
- I know nothing about the old comic strip Pogo, except for this line.
- Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 460-61.