Mark 7:1–23 (ESV)
: Traditions and Commandments, and What Defiles a Person
This passage starts off with a conversation between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees notice that Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. (Or maybe just not washed in the way the Pharisees expect them to be? I don’t know much about their rules for handwashing.) In a parenthetical remark, Mark explains why the Pharisees and scribes find this surprising:
(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) (verses 3–4 (ESV), parentheses in original)
So they ask Jesus about this; they ask him why his disciples do not “walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (verse 5 (ESV)
). Jesus doesn’t directly answer their question, though. He takes things to a higher level, and turns the accusations back around on the scribes and Pharisees:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
(verses 6–8 (ESV))
He goes on in verses 9–13 (ESV)
to tell them that they have “a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God” for their own “traditions,” and gives an example of this: The Scriptures commanded the Israelites to honour their fathers and mothers, but they have a tradition which allows them to set that commandment aside, and tell their parents that anything that otherwise would have been theirs will instead go to God. Thus, they have created a tradition which they believe somehow supersedes the scriptures.
Jesus then goes back closer to the point the scribes and Pharisees had originally been making by calling the crowd back to him and telling them that people are not “defiled” by things that they consume, it is the things that come out
of a person which defile him. But this issue isn’t just misunderstood by the Pharisees; when Jesus is along with the disciples they ask him about this. His response goes into more detail:
And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (verses 18–23 (ESV))
So the scribes and Pharisees find it surprising that Jesus’ disciples don’t wash (or don’t wash properly) before meals, and because I’m always trying to see things from others’ points of view—even when I know they’re wrong, as is the case here—I am thinking that this might be more than just them picking a fight with Jesus for the sake of picking a fight. It’s possible that they really are surprised that Jesus’ disciples aren’t washing before eating. By this point in history the Pharisees and scribes would have these rules so ingrained in them that they would automatically assume that any rabbi or teacher, even one that they disagree with, would at least adhere to traditions such as this.
Why do I mention this? Because I always wonder, when reading passages such as this, if we have our own
“traditions” that we adhere to more fully than we adhere to the Scriptures. For example, our society will tell us that it’s okay to be “religious” as long as we’re not too
religious. Do we, as Christians, believe that? Do we, like society, believe that we should be Christians on Sundays but chase the ALMIGHTY
from Monday–Saturday? Do we feel that we can be “too Christian?”
Maybe that’s not a good example, but if I can’t think of many examples it makes me all the more worried that I might be blinded
to them; that my culture or my upbringing or the wisdom of the day might be causing me to think improperly on some issues, which cause me to simply not see things that are there in the Scriptures. Things that people from other generations or cultures would see clearly. Make no mistake, this is part of the problem of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus is talking to in this passage. I do firmly believe that they firmly believed they were in the right; I think they were jealous of Jesus’ power and influence and wanted to eliminate a competitor, but I also
think that they really did believe that they were Godly men, and that following their traditions was pleasing to Him. They shouldn’t
have thought that, as Jesus points out to them they should have known better, but they did. So I come back to: what things in our generation and our culture blind us to the Scriptures? I would like to think—I would love
to think—that there aren’t any such issues, and we’re doing fine, but somehow I doubt that’s the case.
Of course, in this passage we have the benefit of Jesus specifically telling
us how the scribes and Pharisees were wrong, so there’s no guesswork. Anytime anything is considered more important than the Scriptures it’s a problem, and that’s obviously the case here. I sometimes go easy on the Pharisees and other religious leaders because I think their original intent was good; the rules they were creating were supposed to help them obey God. The Scriptures say “keep the Sabbath” (for example) so they tried to define how
one keeps the Sabbath. Their problems were, in my mind, that: 1) they went too far in defining their rules and tried to get too precise (which I think has to do with a lack of faith, but I haven’t articulated in my mind how that’s the case), which led to, 2) they started to consider the rules to be more important than the Scriptures they’d originally been trying to clarify. They lost sight of the goal they’d originally had, and ended up in much worse shape than they’d started in. The problem, of course, is that this happened over the course of hundreds of years, so that gradual process made it very easy to get used to the status quo.
I’m sure they were even more surprised when Jesus told them that nothing outside of a person can defile them. On the face of it this actually contradicts the Old Testament Scriptures, because if you examine the laws, all kinds of things
could make a person unclean. Touching a dead body, or a man’s emission, or a woman’s monthly flow, or, yes, eating forbidden food… there were many ways for a person to be unclean. In fact, even touching another person who was unclean would make you unclean; uncleanness was communicable
. If you read Leviticus 11
, as an example, you’ll get quite a list of clean and unclean food. (The link is to my post on Leviticus 11, not the chapter itself, but the post has a link to the text.)
But as is so often the case, Jesus is taking things a bit deeper than the Pharisees are. You can’t just follow the letter of the Law and think you’re good with God; He actually demands more of us than what the Law explicitly states. If you follow all of the dietary laws and wash your hands thoroughly, but have evil thoughts, or are sexually immoral, or steal, or commit murder (or hate people), or commit adultery, or covet, or are deceptive, or envy, or slander, or are proud, or even if you’re foolish
, then you’re not clean.
There is actually a change to the law here, too. Or at least a change to God’s expectations of His people. In this passage Jesus tells his listeners—and Mark makes this explicit in verse 19 (ESV)
—that food cannot make a person unclean, which means that the Old Testament Jewish dietary laws no longer apply. I’m not sure what to say about this, though; 2,000 years later we’ve taken for granted that there are no longer “unclean” foods that we need to avoid, but I’m guessing that at the time this was a bombshell from Jesus. This is no longer “you’ve been misinterpreting the law, here’s what it really means,” this is, “the law used to say something, but I’m now telling you that it’s changing.” However, I obviously don’t understand the nuances of this situation, because when the Pharisees and religious authorities put Jesus on trial they never mentioned this incident; I would have thought they’d be very upset by this. Frankly, it might even have been something that they’d have a leg to stand on, legally speaking, but they didn’t go there (at least not in the recorded events in the Gospels), so I’m assuming I’m missing something on this one.