Pentecost 14: 2 September Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
This is one of the most important passages in the New Testament for gaining an insight into the way Mark and Jesus, before him, handled scripture. It is also one which makes us aware of the major cultural gulf which separates us from the ancient world. For why should there be any dispute about washing hands before meals? It is surely best practice in practical hygiene! That misses the point.
The issue of what is clean and unclean and how such uncleanness is passed on has its roots in the Old Testament law. Careful analysis of how such laws should be applied led to distinctions about levels of contamination. Normally only something which has first degree impurity could make a person impure or unclean. Food which may be touched by unclean hands would be rendered impure with second degree impurity. Such food when eaten could not render a person unclean.
What then was the concern among those here in our passage eager to obey biblical commands? What would be their objection to the disciples’ eating with unwashed hands? It clearly was not the issue of hygiene. Nor could it have been that touching food with unwashed hands rendered the food impure. Rather it was something more subtle. It was related to the likely presence of liquid. Liquid was different. If unclean hands touched liquid, the liquid became unclean with the first degree of uncleanness. If then the liquid in some way touched the food, the food became also unclean in the first degree. It is food which is unclean in the first degree which, eaten, would render the person unclean. To guard against this, perhaps remote, danger, some fairly extreme groups washed their hands ritually before meals. They criticised the disciples for not doing the same.
This was not the stance of Judaism or Pharisaism of the time. It was a rather extreme view. It seems all very strange, b we need to recognise that the focus of the groups was obedience to divine commandments. Ferreting out how a commandment applied in such circumstances was not an idle pastime but an expression of spiritual dedication. Observing laws about clean and unclean food, sacred places and times, is not all that strange for us. Do you remember the film, ‘Chariots of Fire’, with its hero dedicated to sabbath observance? There we saw a similar commitment to keeping divine law. It is an unquestioning and often uncritical obedience. It renders religion ‘cute’ to the sympathetic observer, especially if the focus is cultural diversity and not a Christian religion. It is also an approach which can be downright dangerous.
Mark has little patience for concerns with ritual washings. In almost ridiculing tone he mentions washing not only of hands, but also of cups and plates and other implements. In 7:6-13, only the first of which is included in the Lectionary passage, he has Jesus argue that preoccupation with such externals is closely related to hypocrisy: concern only with outward appearance.
7:14-15 and 21-23 present Jesus’ answer to the criticism brought by the extremists. People are not made unclean by outward things but by what comes from inside. The verses which have been left out of the lectionary passage, 7:17-20, expand on this answer, pointing to the fact that what enters the mouth passes through the digestive system and out into the toilet. It is absurd to give it spiritual value. In 7:19c Mark summarises the argument by saying that Jesus was thereby declaring all foods clean.
This can easily be passed off as Jesus’ dismissing Jewish scruples. It is much more than that. Laws about clean and unclean food are firmly rooted in the Old Testament (eg. Leviticus 11). The distinction between clean and unclean is fundamental to biblical Law. Here, according to Mark, Jesus is declaring such laws not only invalid, but never valid. They make no sense, he is arguing. They never did. How can such external things affect spirituality!
Mark is wanting to show that such biblical provisions must be set aside because he knows they have created enormous tensions between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. Already Paul in Galatians 2 tells of such disputes. According to Mark such biblical injunctions must be exposed as invalid (not just abolished, as though they once made sense) in the interests of being inclusive of all people. Food laws and laws of clean and unclean must not be used to discriminate against Gentiles. The laws are nonsense anyway. This is all part of Mark’s theme in these chapters, where he is showing the bread of salvation offered equally to the Jews, 5000 of them in Jewish land, as to the Gentiles, 4000 of them in Gentile land.
Mark is being much more radical here than meets the eye. People would have found the idea that we dispense with parts of scripture highly controversial. Mark makes Jesus sound so ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’ in his approach’. Fancy ridiculing divine commandment! Clearly Mark did not think Jesus was anything like a fundamentalist. These were not divine commandments. Mark portrays Jesus differentiating critically within scripture and making assessments based on core concerns.
Neither Matthew nor Luke was particularly happy with what Mark wrote. Matthew revises it thoroughly to reduce it to just a dispute about Jewish scruples and not about scripture. Luke leaves it out altogether. It was not that they were being capricious. For they know of other teachings of Jesus which indicates that Jesus steadfastly rejected the suggestion that his teaching went against biblical law. Not a jot or stroke is to be called into question (Matt 5:17-18; Luke 16:17).
How did Mark reach his radical stance? The historical Jesus probably did say something like Mark 7:15 and probably meant by it something like this: ‘It is not so much what enters a person which makes them unclean, but what comes out of them.’ Mark captures Jesus’ priorities, but take them one step further. Not only does attitude and ethical action matter more; external observances do not matter at all and should not stand in the way of including people who are different from ourselves. Would Jesus have come to a similar conclusion had he been faced with including Gentiles? Mark would answer: yes, certainly! Paul, earlier, would strongly agree.
Most early Christian leaders, it seems, agreed in relation to the demand for circumcision laid down in Genesis 17. People who saw biblical law only as something to be obeyed without question and modification found such approaches outrageous. These kinds of Christian hounded Paul all his life. People with a similar approach already became more than an irritation to Jesus. They still plague the church today.
By focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour Mark is encouraging us to rethink our approach to the commandments and the Bible. Paul did a similar thing when he focused on love. Jesus started it all with statements such as, ‘The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). Paul contrasted the two approaches by speaking of ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’. To follow the way of the letter (of the Law), you have more control; everything is defined; people easily fall into the background. The way of the Spirit says that, to God, people matter most. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. We have learned this slowly - from slavery to the position of women. We are learning it slowly in areas such as gender, sexual orientation and of power. It is important that we help people see how Jesus and Mark treated biblical authority, so that it becomes an instrument for health and not harm in our society. That was certainly a central issue in the ministry of Jesus and of the apostles and still is a central issue today.
Epistle: Pentecost 14: 2 September James 1:17-27