Sundays on Mark (19): clean and unclean

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on Mark’s gospel

This week Mark 7:1-23   Clean and Unclean

Jesus has already clashed with the Pharisees over Sabbath, fasting and Table Fellowship with sinners. Now he locks horns over ritual purity.

Jesus is a controversialist – he does not back away from head on conflict in this case. The issue is the complex system of dietary laws based on a rabbinic oral traditions that had been systematised and applied in minute detail to every aspect of  life, supposedly to bring it under the Torah.

Jesus goes for the jugular, calling them hypocrites whose hearts are far from God and who have set aside the law of God and replaced it with their own traditions.

Now that’s pretty polemical stuff. They shared his concern for purity after all. Jesus nevertheless calls man-made (and therefore having no weight) what they considered of ultimate spiritual importance. But even more, it distorted the true Law and was based on false motives and false thinking. The ‘corban’ issue is an example – the ‘law’ was being used to evade family responsibilites.

Jesus’ declaration (that Mark deliberately draws attention to for his later readers) that purity is from within and not from what is eaten (or not), would have far reaching implications for the early church. Jesus is not so much opposing Mosaic food laws as attacking the idea that men can attain true purity by external behaviour which is powerless to change the heart.

It is the heart that is the real problem of humanity. Jesus is pointing to the real and desperate need for purity of heart, of forgiveness of sin, of spiritual transformation from within.

He has the answer that no ‘Tradition of the Elders’ could ever deliver.

PRAYER: Most holy God, perfect in love and holiness, you know our hearts. Renew our thoughts, minds and motives through your Holy Spirit as we confess our sins and seek your gracious forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Clean and Unclean

1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”

6He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ 8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

9And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ ”

17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)

20He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ “

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