Gospel: Mark 7:14-23
Epistle: Eph. 6:10-20
Lesson: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136
CLB Commentary: Pastor Bruce Hillman
Text: Mark 7:14-23
OUTLINE OF COMMENTARY:
A. CONTEXT OF PASSAGE
B. MAIN POINT
C. EXEGESIS: VERSE BY VERSE
D. APPLICATION: HOW TO PREACH IT
A. CONTEXT OF PASSAGE:
Preachers and students of this passage do well to begin with a summary review of the Book of Mark’s purpose and movement. Reminding ourselves of these themes helps situate our passage within the greater framework of Mark’s intent and shields us from potentially focusing so myopically on the text of the week that we loose Mark’s overall goal in the Gospel.
Readers are well aware of Mark’s accepted primacy as the earliest Gospel, though it is commonly accepted that Mark (as well as other writers) may have had access to the evasive “Q” source and an oral tradition. Any perusal of an outline for Mark will present a rather simple structure and reveal the intent of book. Chapter 1:2-13 give us a brief introduction of Jesus. Mark does not waste time with inns and stars, magi and angels, he does not give us any picture of Jesus’ youth or mention of his father, Joseph. Mark, in his summary, non-imaginative fashion gives us the facts: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, the Son of God1.” His style has more in common with the stereotypical trench- coat donned detective of TV than the poetic prose of John or the historical flare of Luke. One of Mark’s favorite and oft-used words (used 47 times in Mark) is euthus or “immediately.” Mark is giving us data, but quickly, as in bursts, straining as it were to get us to the Passion where he spends 1/3 of all his time. Indeed the Passion account is the central theme and focus of the book.
1:14-9:50, focus on Jesus’ Galilean ministry in the Northern part of Israel (it is in this section that our verses are concerned) and the final section prior to the Passion account that begins in chapters 11-15. These all take place in Jerusalem, an astounding 5 chapters focusing just on Jesus’ last week, though we received no information on his first 30 years! You can see what Mark thinks is important in retelling Jesus’ story2.
This should not be lost on modern readers. Precisely because our verses fall within the Galilean-ministry section it can be tempting to forget the greater purpose Mark has in mind. We do well to remind ourselves of these greater themes so that we are best informed to ask, “Why did Mark include these verses in a story that is mainly about Jesus’ death?” “What is it about defilement and cleanliness that serve Mark’s overall thesis?” Failure to recognize the larger themes may give us a strained reading or application.
Finally, the book ends with Chapter 14, most likely verse 8 in the original manuscripts. There has been much written on this, perhaps more than anything else about Mark. It is my belief that Mark does end in verse 8 and that he intended it to end here (i.e. we are not missing the real ending). However, this does leave us with a challenge, for if this is Mark’s original ending we do not get any first-hand, eye-witness accounts of the resurrection. Even the “young man” at the tomb (who tradition ascribes as an angel) does not declare what he saw but gives an explanation of why the tomb is empty, “He has risen, he is not here” (16:6). Scholars who do not have a respect for the text as the inspired Word make too much of this. Not only do the other Gospel accounts give us eye-witness testimony, but certainty those accounts are not contradicted by Mark’s sudden ending. It is more likely the case that Mark, who is writing mainly to Gentiles, seeks to evoke a response in his readers probably though the ministry of the Church whom Mark assumes would carry his Gospel to the ends of the earth—indeed an old tradition says he himself ministered in Egypt. The “fear and trembling” ending does not let everything conclude “happily ever after” but with a sense of foreboding and wonder. “If this man is who he says he is and came back from the dead, what does that mean for me?” Indeed this is Mark’s grand question. A question that seems to me to be carried along from the opening title to the last verse. We do well to see it in action in our verses here.
B. MAIN POINT:
Although the pericope divides chapter 7 into parts, usually 7:1-12 and our text 14:-23, it is textually better to treat these sections as one. That does not mean that one cannot preach on the first or second half, but one should understand the artificial division is arbitrary and take special care that such surgery does not neglect the information found in the whole passage.
Chapter 7 is interesting because it is the last time Jesus confronts the religious leaders in his Galilean ministry. In this chapter he goes for the jugular, so to speak, of Jewish identity, provoking shock, confusion and anger. It is almost as if he strains to make himself seem the illegitimate messiah to the religious leaders. For all the talk on contextualization today, these passages provide a confusing rhetorical style. Jesus is trying to win over the crowds, but he does so by becoming a stumbling block to the religious leaders and cultic-ritual traditions. A similar sense of what Paul describes in I Corinthians chapter 2 may be at play here where the Word is “foolishness to Greeks” and “a stumbling block” to Jews? There may be no more offensive discourse in all of Mark than this section where Jewish identity is degraded, deconstructed and reinterpreted—certainly reinscribed.
But there is something profoundly blatant about where chapter 7 situates itself that cannot be ignored. Chapter 6 contains the miracles of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus’ walking on water, and healings. These healings appear to be to and for mostly Jews. Immediately following our passage we three more miracles, the exorcism of the Syrophoenician Woman’s daughter, the healing of the deaf man and the blind man at Bethsaida.3 In these three person-specific miracles, the focus is on grace being given to Gentiles. This means our verses function as a kind of overture or prelude to Mark’s intention to show Jesus’ miracle ministry moves from Jews to Gentiles. He must justify this move and begins to do so with the extended conversation on ritual purity, cleanliness, defilement and so on found here in our text. The outcome is not just a precedent for Gentile-caregiving by a Jew but a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry to save the whole world. The Gentile-miracles section gives way to the Transfiguration where Jesus’ authenticity as the Son of God is again reiterated (a similar confession was seen in Jesus Baptism in chapter 1). By chapter 10 Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and the stage is set for Mark’s main narrative purpose—the Passion.
If the function of the passage is purposed as a practical bookend between Jew and Gentile ministry by Jesus, and solidifies Jesus as the Savior of the whole world for both Jews and Gentiles, what is the main point of our specific passage?
The passage is a warning against hypocrisy and the seductive power of tradition to blind us to what is really important. Traditions are not bad, and certainly Jesus never asked or implied that traditions should be abandoned. This would be a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ criticisms. Rather, Jesus is pointing out that the externals, the works of the law, the rule-keeping and outward moral righteousness that tradition interprets and inscribes, can, ironically and conversely, function to undermine the very heart of what it seeks to protect. Tradition’s nature is to develop habit. By developing habit, tradition seeks to ground behavior not in reason but in history. Traditions are not to be questioned specifically because they function as transcendent to the popular and contemporary. Traditions function to root a community in its past so that it does not get swept up too quickly in faddish thought or discourse. By doing so, traditions ground the community in something beyond itself (transcendence). The power of tradition is that it is not easily malleable by reasoned discourse. You don’t follow a tradition because it makes sense, you do so because it’s what you do. The rhythms and motions of tradition are not, however, supposed to make us anti-reason, but redirect us to an older, more timeless wisdom that may not be so easily seen in the shifting, spurious fads of contemporary knowledge and experience.
But in order for traditions to be more than mere proverbial heirlooms they ground must themselves in activity. Things like holidays, liturgies, birthdays, and the rituals that accompany them are more than add-ons, they are integral to the experience themselves.
What Jesus criticizes in our passage though is the promotion of tradition over tradition’s wisdom—or to be more specific to the text, the promotion of man-made traditions over and against the commandments and Word of God. Because traditions need externals—rituals—to survive time and ground them in something more than story, they are always at the risk of well-meaning ideas. We must be careful to see that in most cases the traditions of the Pharisees arose from good intentions with a deep respect and fear of God. But Jesus deconstructs these traditions to show that what has been lost is the very commandments of God. By pointing people away from their external works and back into their hearts as the source and wellspring of evil, Jesus shows just how tradition can go terribly wrong. Works always tempt us with moral justification. If we just do the right things, we think, God is happy. So we make more and more “dos” and “don’ts” in an honest attempt to respect, love and please God. But in so doing we necessarily develop a policing attitude where those who don’t do what their supposed to become ostracized, chastised or punished. Additionally, we wrongly convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter what our motivations and feelings are that spur us to moral action, only that we do the required action. What results in the very opposite of the commandment’s purpose. God’s commandments are not blanket statements of moral rectitude, they are the very standard of righteousness required for God and man to have a relationship. In this very real sense, God’s laws are necessarily, relationally- purposed for they seek to unite God and man. But Jesus in this passage (and Paul in his letters) clearly shows the ability of the law to actually create this unity is impossible. In fact, the law instead functions to show us our bad hearts, condemning us as unworthy recipients of God’s fellowship.
All the more incredible than is God’s grace in light of this revelation. Human hearts are capable of sometimes, by sheer act of will, going through the motions of moral obedience. But even when this is possible human hearts despise God’s rules that restrict their freedom and those successful at moral righteousness tend to look down upon and degrade those not as gifted in sheer will power. What Jesus wants us to know here is that tradition cannot change hearts and that a look into our hearts shows us where the real problem is. You cannot fix the human problem with externals. For that, you need a Savior.
C. EXEGESIS, VERSE BY VERSE:
In 7:5 the Pharisee’s ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” In verses 14-15, with the crowds around him, Jesus begins to answer their question more to the point. He has already established in verses 7-8, using a quotation from Isaiah 29:13, about the hypocritical nature of the inquisitors. He now begins to directly oppose the Pharisees with an invitation to the crowd to think beyond the traditional parameters of the halakhic codes the Pharisees are promoting.
The “Hear me all of you and understand” invitation of Jesus to the crowds reminds the reader of 4:3 and the prophetic call to listen. Jesus’ next statement will be important and is worthy of an audience to hear it. What follows is what William Barclay has called, “Well-nigh the most revolutionary passage in the New Testament.”4 Indeed this may be so, if one has a Jewish audience in mind. In these verses Jesus upends the holiness code, not just denying the Pharisaical assumption that unclean hands make unclean food (defilement), but going even further and condemning the nature of the human heart, declaring it defiled and unclean. Modern readers should not gloss over the offence in Jesus’ statement.
Even up to the present day, sects of Judaism take with extreme seriousness the cultic practices of clean and unclean (kosher/non-kosher foods). This is because so much of Jewish identity is entangled with Jewish practice. Part of what it means to be Jewish is to be the chosen people of God—chosen recipients of God’s law, his Torah, and as such chosen guardians of God’s righteousness. The entire history of Judaism is one of struggle where Israel succeeds and fails, over and over again, to keep or violate the law. Such anxiety was sure to breed traditions and man-made laws that attempted to keep adherents from accidentally breaking a commandment or veering too close into a gray area of interpretation. But with Jesus’ statements here, what you have is a direct challenge to those traditions and the ability of the Jewish law to create righteousness before God.
To give a sense of the deep-rooted respect for cleanliness one need not go much further than Leviticus, but if one wanted, Jewish tradition as it developed shows a surprising continuity in promoting the purity laws. A very vivid example of this is the famous story in 2 Maccabees 7 where a widow with seven sons functions in the text as a exemplar for righteousness and faithfulness by allowing her sons to be killed, one after another, rather than eat pork. The story is sadistically graphic: the mother is forced to watch (with a reducing number of sons who watch as well) as the first son’s tongue is cut out, then he’s scalped, and subsequently, “having been reduced to a helpless mass of breathing flesh” is thrown into a pan and cooked till death. The second son meets no better a fate having his hair and skin manually pulled out by the gathered soldiers, (literally torn to pieces by hand), then he is “tortured” till death. Though they ask him to eat pork throughout the ordeal, he does not. The third brother gives a confession, having seen the torture of his two other brothers that he will not eat pork. He is killed along with the fourth, fifth and sixth. Then the story focuses on the mother who is interpreted as being , “the most amazing one of all…deserv[ing] a special place in our memory.” While the mother is speaking, her last son (the seventh) who appears to be the youngest, bravely yells at the evil king that God will punish all unrighteousness. He says, “My brothers suffered briefly because of our faithfulness to God’s covenant, but now they have entered eternal life. But you will fall under God’s judgment and be punished…” Angered at his words we learn the evil king was so furious that he had the last brother, “tortured even more cruelly than his brothers.” Apparently the writer could not think of worse tortures than he had already graphically given and so leaves it to our imagination (and horror) what that might entail. The moral of the story is not too hard to discern, “And so…the boy died, with absolute trust in the Lord, never unfaithful for a minute.” Indeed, seven times— eight if you count the mother, each person remains faithful to the Lord and kosher, despite unspeakable horrors. The point is clear, a good Jew is a faithful Jew who keeps God’s Laws no matter what, to the point of loosing family and life—even in the most terrible way.
It is into this context and tradition that Jesus says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And now you can grasp a sense of why Barkclay calls this “the most revolutionary passage.” It is important to note that Jesus is not undermining ritual purity, but deconstructing it. As the passage evolves we see he reinscribes purity as being centered in the heart of the person; he does not eliminate the idea of purity as a whole. By saying that unclean hands do not make foods unclean, he is challenging the long-established understanding and tradition that touching the unclean makes one unclean. Indeed, it would be hard to read the Levitical laws and not come to that conclusion. But Jesus is going deeper, arguing that it is not what is on the surface that makes one pure or impure, but the heart. The heart cannot be washed clean like hands, it remains forever dirty and deceitful. To remedy its uncleanliness is to need a washing not capable by human work or effort. Jesus’ point then, which becomes clearer later, is that the purity laws function to point one to the human heart’s condition. When one finds the heart in such a condition and drinks up the consequences of its malady, one like Paul in Romans 6-7, a vivid picture of the contradiction between head and heart where one agrees with the law and calls it good, but cannot carry it out. What is needed then is not more traditions, rules or acts of willpower, but a Savior to rescue us from the present evil age and give us a new heart, assisted by the Spirit and nourished by the Word of God.
Verse 16 is omitted in most bibles because it is generally agreed to have been an add-on/redaction at a later time. The verse reads, “Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Neglecting the passage in no way effects the meaning of the text whose function only adds emphasis. I follow the lead of those scholars who omit it.
The scene changes and the crowds and scribes are gone. We get a more intimate setting, “the house”, where Jesus meets with his disciples. This is a common idiom in Mark, “the house” usually functioning as a private space where revelation is given (see Mk, 9:28, 33, 10:10). In this familiar setting, the disciples reveal their own confusion, asking Jesus about the “parable.”5 Jesus’ question, “Then are you also without understanding?” seems to indicate that the disciples and the crowd—in this case—are the same in their ineptness. This is an interesting juxtaposition, the intimacy of the house setting with the Twelve conveys a privileged place often in contrast to the crowd. But here it functions to only show the disciples alignment with the crowd’s ineptness rather than as trained students of the Christ. This seems to be a way for Jesus to introduce his statement on hearts.
William l. Lane has shown in his commentary that this Galilean section of Mark interprets the disciples lack of understanding Jesus’ miracles and works as an issue of hardness of heart (6:52, 7:18; 8:14-21). If Lane is right, and I think he is, the implication is important. The human heart not only condemns us before God because or its full depravity, but also hinders and restricts us from understanding God’s Word. Indeed we should be thankful for the Holy Spirit that Jesus sends in his place to be with the Church and help her and all Christians make sense of God’s Word. For human hearts are stubborn and evil, prone to flights of lust and covetousness and all sorts of evil activity as Jesus will soon show. By assigning the disciples a place more aligned with the crowd than the Son, Jesus shows the need and importance of the teaching ministry of the Word. For without teaching, the Word becomes lodged in our hearts but devoid of explanation and we are left confused and anxious. While no earthly teacher can have the full knowledge and perfection of Jesus, we mimic the holy Rabbi when we proclaim and rightly teach the Word of God, and by so doing give understanding, peace and joy to those who receive God’s often hard but good words.
Jesus’ statement here gives depth to the whole chapter. It is not externals that make people evil, rather evilness (and defilement) issue from bad springs. The traditional idea was one of pollution—one is clean and becomes unclean by coming in contact with a polluted source. In other words, a fresh spring becomes polluted when it mingles with, say, toxic waste. But Jesus upends this. Instead, he declares the human heart the toxic waste! It is the human heart that is the pollutant. Attempts at cleanliness are only surface-deep. The water of a polluted river may be cosmetically cleaned of all its unsightly garbage and litter—but that does not indicate the very water itself may be full of carcinogens and chemicals. Jesus’ shocking statement is that the human heart issues forth evil and violence, polluting the world with more and more sin and evil. We are the problem. It is not the outside world—pork or shellfish that make a man impure, rather what is impure is the very heart of man himself. What this means of course is that the human condition is far worse off than assumed. A simple surface-clean of moral rectitude and righteousness is not enough to fix the problem. For that, the very spring itself must be cleansed and that is beyond human effort. For that cleansing God Himself must make all things new. And that means he must get down into the filth, he must expose himself to its violence and poison. To fix the pollutant of human sin God must come into contact with it, exposing himself to its corrosive nature. Mark’s long focus on the Passion narrative is the graphic detail of this incarnational reality. To fix the problem of human depravity, Christ enters into it, exposing himself to the corrosive elements of sin and falling victim to its power. But the power of God is greater than the power of sin. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrates his power over sin. To extend our metaphor, in his resurrection Jesus cleanses us from our pollutants by creating new hearts gifted with his righteousness. These new hearts are, “already but not yet” hearts. They are fully declared righteous by God even though they still are being cleaned by and through sanctification. There is an irony here: set free from the law, human hearts washed by Christ are the only one’s capable of doing truly good works. But until the heart is cleansed, which no human effort can effect, any attempt to gain righteousness by the law only goes surface-deep. This is the implication of Jesus’ teaching in this passage.
There are some difficult texual issues here that are not easy to discern. The phrase, “He declared all things clean” in verse 19 is often cited as being a later addition or a comment added by Mark. We know from other New Testament books that the issue of purity laws and eating certain foods would take time and much debate, Paul and Peter both having to speak on the matter. It is likely then, that “thus he declared all things clean” is a later addition.
Still, David E Garland has pointed out that the phrase “thus he declared all things clean” is not actually in the text. He shows that the text literally reads, “cleansing all foods” which is a bit archaic and wooden sounding and so is often fluffed and draw-out in English translations to, “thus he declared all things clean.” But should we do this? Garland thinks the original wording makes the most sense to understanding the passage. Depending on what manuscript/variant reading you are using, a decision must be made if “cleansing” modifies “he says” in 7:18 or not? The consequences of this decision may change the inference of the verse. If we go with the traditional translation, “thus he declared all things clean” we get a statement, whether from Mark or not, that Jesus’ point was to say something about purity laws. If we do not go with the traditional reading and instead go with a variant reading found in some manuscripts, we get the idea that when food is expelled though defecation it has become clean. This may take a bit of explanation.
According to the Jewish Mishnah, excrement is not ritually impure itself even if it remains offensive.6 The point Jesus may be making is this: If human waste is considered ritually clean than how can it be said that food is ritually unclean before it passes through the digestive track? It is hypocritical to assume that food can be inherently unclean prior to eating but then what remains after digestion is declared clean. In other words, if food can defile a person, why is all waste which is made up of food, declared pure? If this scatological reading is correct, it seems to me to make more sense of the text7. In this reading Jesus is not making some grand point about foods being clean or not, but exposing the Pharisee’s hypocrisy. This seems to be more fitting with context and allows for a nice transition to “what comes out of a man defiles him.” Jesus is upturning the conventional wisdom. It is not what goes into a man (food) that makes him unclean, it is what comes out of him that is unclean.8 The excrement in the cleanliness conversation is quickly associated with the human heart. It is the human heart that produces all kinds of evil, not foods which come in and go out again.
Focusing on the “sin list”, scholars assume this may not be an exact quote from Jesus but a summary or a Markian redaction given in a catechismal manner so as to aid in teaching.9 The structure of the list give credence to this understanding. The list is composed of 13 vices, “evil thoughts” being the first, and acting almost as a broad introduction to the list as a whole, followed by 12 sins. The 12 are divided into two sections of 6 each, the first six being plural specifying evil acts and the second 6 being singular and specifying evil vices.
Jesus’ use of the sin list is to demonstrate the deep fallenness of the human person, specifically the human heart. Contextually this is a response and objection to the scribal tradition that the interior essence of a person is clean and becomes unclean through exterior pollution. Such a view necessarily keeps the community in a unsavory binary of law-keepers and breakers and misses the entire point of both morality and the severity of the human condition.
Morally, the law is not simply an external code that hovers out in space as a standard or rule of right and wrong. The law is a reflection of who God is, and the righteousness required to fellowship in peace with him10. Moral codes and rules exist to set the standard of righteousness required for man and God, and man and man to live in righteous peace. But the laws only reflect deeper truths that transcend their obvious literalism. For example, when Jesus comments on adultery in the Gospels he shocks his audience by stating that even being enticed with mental lust for another is a violation of the commandment. In so doing Jesus is showing the heart of the law is more than literalism. There is a deeper sense in “do not commit adultery,”– a sense of loyalty, obedience, faithfulness and responsibility to one’s spouse that transcends the physical act of adultery and requires that adultery be actually wrong. The call to not commit adultery is not merely a call to refrain from sexual cheating, it is a condemnation of all and any movement away from the essence of what it means to be one flesh with another.
The problem was the assumption, promoted by the Jewish leaders, that following the law made people righteous. Jesus is showing that what problems exist in the external world are caused by the sinful actions of depraved hearts. By locating the problem of human misery and sin in the human heart, Jesus condemns humanity to helplessness. For if the righteous works of the law and obedience to the commandments cannot change the human heart’s production of evil, than the entire Jewish project of seeking righteousness through the law would be a failure in this regard. By condemning the human heart—the very center of a person—to helpless guilt, Jesus makes his own ministry prominent. To fix the problem of human sin, humanity will need someone from outside it to enter in and make things new. Humanity needs a Savior who can both keep and come under the law.
D. APPLICATION: HOW TO PREACH IT:
Preachers must be cautious in texts like this because the fecundity of the subject material can make it difficult to garner the main point for preaching. On the one hand one must stay clear of making sure the sermon doesn’t devolve into nothing more than a moralistic reflection on human vice, with an implied or overt call to try to be better. At the same time the Gospel-centered preacher must fight the temptation to ignore the deeply ethical substance of the passage and not move so quickly to Christ that one belittles Jesus’ statement on the dark condition of human hearts. Finally, there is a temptation to spend too much or too little time in the Jewish cultic and purity laws so that it may be entirely possible that one preach this entire text exegetically but never applicably—and a good preacher should do both. So what are we to do with a text like this? How are we to preach it?
For me, a few steps help with this process. First, it is helpful for me to review the major themes of Mark and try to ascertain how this particular text fits into those larger themes. Mark is a short Gospel and we know he included almost nothing about Jesus’ childhood and family background. So then why did Mark include this text? The answer cannot be because he simply found it interesting or that it was one of many stories he was able to collect about Jesus. No, Mark is too savvy for that. Rather, as we have seen, Mark spends time in Jesus’ Galilean ministry before focusing the majority of the book in the Passion narrative. It seems then the that Galilean ministry is a type of extended introduction or context in which we meet Jesus so that we can understand his death and resurrection. In other words, our passage is (broadly) selected because Mark thinks it tells us something about Jesus, something we need to know in order to understand that he is not just another criminal who dies at the hands of Rome, but a special person, worthy of personal reflection.
Secondly, can we sum up the main point of the passage in a sentence or two? While such reductionism is sure to leave things out, if we have done our exegetical work, we’ll know that our summary is impregnated with more meaning than appears on the surface. Can we try that? How about this?
Cultic purity only foreshadows the genuine purity required for peaceful fellowship of God with man. Cultic purity deals with externals but the inner purity of the heart needs a washing not capable from human effort.
If that (or something like that) is the main point, we are ready to move beyond exegesis and into application. This is the creative and fun part of the sermon, and can be done in various ways, depending on audience, preacher and style. The preacher should feel freedom to approach this however they want, and so my suggestions below may not be fitting with your personal approach.
I begin application by trying to think of the people in congregation. I want to ask myself some questions that take some time to answer. After a long work week, what are the hopes, dreams and fears of the people who have gathered here to hear from God? Does this text engage them in that experience or is it just “information” about God? If this text is true, what does that mean for my/their life? How has my preaching in the last few weeks allowed me to focus and ignore certain emphasis’ in this text (because I’ve covered it already)?11 Finally, I personally try hard to avoid any sense of “I know where this is going” or predictability in the sermon. I think that often if the sermon is engaging their hearts and minds and is done creatively, one does a favor for one’s listeners. It can be easy to be the one talking, listening is hard! So let’s make it as engaging as possible.
I would preach this text to my congregation through the idea of justice. If you look at what is happening in the world today what you see is a marketplace of competition over identity. From race-relations, immigration, the LBGTQ movement, the relationship of Church to State, healthcare etc., these issues, popular in the press and in our social environment, are narrations—they are power struggles of competing identity, each interest group (this includes Christians by the way) vying for the power to inscribe what it means to be human or citizen or taxpayer. Democracy invites such participation. But the problem with identity struggles is that they move the conversation away from a seemingly more objective “What is best for my group?” to “This is who I am?” Identity is more than a mere opinion about externals, it is reflection of what it means to be person, agent and receiver in the world. As such, it is a fundamental narrative that situates a person in a group and gives meaning to their lives.
What all that means is that when you have competing identities you don’t just have competing ideas, you have competing narratives of meaning. You no longer have the luxury to say “I disagree with that” because doing so really says, “I disagree with who you are.” What results is not just a marketplace of competing ideas, but a war-zone of narratives that seek to inscribe purpose, meaning, expectancy and value on human life, community and behavior. What is at stake is not just rhetoric, but justice.
Congregants may not have so succinct or philosophical a summary of the situation as I have stated above, but make no mistake they feel it. Christendom is all but dead in the West, and those who remain “Christianized” are waking up to the fact that they are in the minority. The culture simply does not care and takes offense at Christian prescriptions regarding life and culture. What results is a Christian minority that feels deeply oppressed. You hear it in their speech all the time, “You can’t say anything anymore.” “Why can’t people understand I love the sinner not the sin.” “I just can’t wait for Jesus to come back.” Such popular statements remind me of the Psalmist who cried out, “How long O Lord!” they are cries for justice.
But lest we get too high on our horse, we must recognize that the culture feels a similar way. The Gay Rights Movement frames itself as a movement for rights (think justice) the Civil Rights movement was a movement for rights (think justice) the Pro-Choice movement is a movement of rights (think justice). To each of these there is a Christian opposing view, but to advance one interest over the other is to necessarily restrict or limit the rights of the other. That is why the US courts have, at least traditionally, tried to stake a middle-way in these issues as best it can. The Justices are only too aware that to swing the votes too far to either side is to disenfranchise the one over the other.
What this means is that both the believers and the non-believers in your congregation feel the imperfection of our system and long for justice. This text, our text, gives a very important insight into that longing.
The Pharisees in the text believed that breaking the purity laws was part of what was wrong with the world. To be right with God was to be obedient to the externals. Jesus challenges this. He shows how the traditions and laws, though well meaning, can be part of the larger problem of injustice. In focusing so much on the letter of the law, the spirit of the Commandments was lost. Ironically and sadly, more laws only brought about more manipulation, corruption and injustice. We can pause here for a moment to reflect on our own situation. Christian or non-Christian, each side believes that legislation brings legitimacy, value and affirmation. This may be true as far as the letter of the law is concerned, but it is not true in matters of heart. A Supreme Court decision does not often change people’s opinions on the subject, it only gives boundaries to the question at hand.
Jesus never says that traditions are bad anywhere in this passage. And it would be highly inaccurate to suggest he implies anything of that sort. What he does do though is show the weakness in tradition and legislation. Laws, rules and traditions are good, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that good laws will make good people. It is the human heart which is the well-spring of evil. Laws rightly work on externals, but for every law there comes a new form of injustice. For every law can be manipulated, loopholed and misinterpreted by those in power so that while laws curb some injustice they also create opportunities for abuse.
What this means for people looking for justice is that it justice is only imperfectly given through legislation. The law is simply not capable of producing the righteousness it envisions and inscribes. This is what Jesus is saying in our passage. The traditions and cultic purity laws were designed to bring people into closer union with God. But they fail, precisely because the human heart is in rebellion to these laws. While it is possible to follow rules, one can do so in such a way that one looses the point of it all and becomes a more oppressive tyrant in pursuit of righteousness.
Rather, the laws and purity codes were given to foreshadow or introduce us to the one who could cleanse us at our fetid source, the heart. The law shows the imperfection of the human heart even as it presents us a vision of justice. To all the people in the pews wondering how this passage means anything to them we say that Jesus is the answer to injustice and the depravity of the human heart.
The way forward to peace on earth is not to abandon legislation, but to recognize its limits. Jesus is the only one who can save us from the terrible vices and sins listed in the sin list. It is only by dying to our selves and our own sense of righteousness that we can follow after him. Repentance is an implicit part of this text. It can hardly be read without that inference. If it is true that the human heart—my human heart—is capable of the wickedness of the vices in the sin list, then the problem of injustice is not bad legislation, not the rejection of the country as a “Christian Nation,” but me—me—I’m the problem. I have to first take responsibility for my participation in injustice and sin. I have to recognize that I have been trying to make the world a better place by advancing legislative efforts, attempting to make the culture righteous by Christian values and morality without telling people about Jesus.
This is the Pharisaical problem: Good laws make just and righteous people. But Jesus says no! Only Jesus makes righteous people. The cry in our hearts for acceptance, for peace, for justice, for safety is ultimately not met up in legislation, but by a Lonely Man on a cross. He suffers the full justice of the law, through the ironic jurisprudence of a sham trial. What you see in Mark’s account is a silent Jesus before Pilate. His only statement to the governing authority is “You have said so.” The law cannot bring about justice. It only points to the One who can.
So what do we leave our hearers with? We show them that the human heart is beyond repair, the source of evil and injustice. Laws are good in that they seek to curb this, but ultimately cannot succeed without opening a door for more injustice. What the law hopes to do and envisions, Jesus actually does. Jesus is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the life. And Jesus is the harbinger of justice and peace for the world. That doesn’t mean Christians should stop using their democratic privilege to advance their causes, but it does mean their hope should never be in good laws. Rather, we, like Mark, must tell the story of the one who truly rescues us and the world from sin, the one who makes all things new. This makes sense of Mark’s “fear and trembling” ending at the close of the book where the reader/hearer is forced to ask themselves, “If this man is who he says he is, than what does that mean for me?”
1 Scholars recognize this is most likely the title of the book and some manuscripts omit, “The Son of God.”
2 Does Paul have a similar outlook for the Corinthians? I Cor. 2:2
3 Prior to this there is another miracle of the feeding of the 4,000. But it seems clear the three person-specific miracles are indicative of grace being given to Gentiles.
4 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Mark: The Daily Study Bible. Saint Andrew Press. Edinburgh. 1965. Pgs 174
5 The usage here of “parable” is confusing since it does not appear to match with any standard understanding of parable or share too many common features with other parables. David Garland suspects the usage is in keeping with Mark 4:11 where Jesus discloses he will speak “parables” to those outside. Jesus did speak with the crowds but Garland raises the point that the disciples lack of understanding may position them as “outsiders” in a sort of semi- derogatory way—“Then are you also without understanding?” Jesus asks them.
6 Garland, David E. Mark: The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan. Grand Rapids. 1996. Pgs 276
7 There is another reason to favor this variant reading. With the sheer number of New Testament verses that debate the food issue, no appeal to this verse is ever given. Even assuming that Paul and others might not have had direct access to Mark’s gospel when they wrote their letters, we know the oral tradition was quite strong. It seems strange to assume such a comment as “thus, he declared all foods clean” would not be appropriated but those advocating for the eating of non-kosher foods. Yet no such quote exists in any non-Gospel, New Testament source.
8 The ridiculousness of the traditional claim is now clear. People think waste is clean and food is not. But Jesus is appealing to common sense—the waste is not clean, the food is.
9 Lane, William T. IBID. pgs 256.
10 Of course, the law functionally only condemns us, for we cannot actually meet its requirements.
11 For example, if I have been preaching through Mark, I may not need to focus on who the Pharisees are, or who Jesus is because I’ve covered that in past sermons. When preaching I should be cognizant of my teaching over time so that I can open up new ideas, reinforce older ones, and not repeat myself in a staid way too often.