Jesus and Purity
The next time in Mark that Jesus quotes his Testament is in Chapter 7. In the intervening story, Jesus has done the following:
- Told more parables about the Kingdom of God—the seed growing, the mustard seed growing;
- Stilled the storm on the sea;
- Freed the Gerasene (Gentile) madman from his demons;
- Brought Jairus’s daughter back from death;
- Healed (inadvertently) the woman who had bled for 12 years;
- Met unbelief in his home town;
- Sent the 12 disciples out in pairs to preach;
- Fed the 5000 men plus women and children with 12 baskets left over
- Walked on the water to his disciples’ boat.
The level of activity is breath-taking to read. In these encounters and events, we see the growing awareness among his followers that he is not a run-of-the-mill itinerant preacher or prophet. They add to their undoubted affection and admiration a streak of fear when he stills the storm and walks on the water. We also see that his home town is blind to his worth and that the Gentiles want him to go away. Mark’s Jesus inspires awe, and yet desperate people continue to beseech him for help.
Jesus quoted his Testament in the context of a dispute with Pharisees over ritual purification. In Mark 7, Pharisees noticed that the disciples ate with unwashed hands. Pharisees asked Jesus why the disciples did not keep the traditions. This reflected on Jesus as a trustworthy teacher, so they were really asking about his relationship to the Law and ritual.
Jesus said, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mark 7: 6-7).
This is a reference to Isaiah 29:13:-14: "Then the Lord said, ‘Because this people draw near with their words and honor me with their lips, but they remove their hearts from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote, therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people…and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be concealed.’”
The context in Isaiah is a prophesy against Jerusalem, specifically that the city will undergo a military siege, defeat, and a return to dust, accompanied by thunder, earthquake, tempest, and the flame of a consuming fire. Strikingly, God tells Isaiah that this vision will be like a sealed scroll to his audience, a scroll the literate will reject because it is sealed, and the illiterate because they cannot read. It is followed by the pronounced woe to those who act secretively, who consider themselves wiser and more understanding than God, who are like pots thinking themselves equal to their potter.
This chapter in Isaiah ends with a prophecy concerning bringing hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind, gladness to the afflicted, causing the needy to rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. But also ending the ruthless, finishing the scornful, cutting off those intending evil, those who pervert justice with lies and bribes. Christians will see Jesus in these words, which express the hopes of humankind for a better future.
It is clear where Jesus included those who were preoccupied with ritual purity—they were among the ruthless, the scornful, those willing to bully, lie and cheat for their own ends.
Jesus went further with his indictment of Pharisees. Jesus said they put traditions ahead of the commandment of God, quoting Moses: “‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘he who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death’ but you say ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban—given to God’—thus invalidating the word of God by your traditions which you have handed down, and you do many such things like that” (Mark 7:9-11).
This commandment to care for parents deals directly with human relationships, calling the young to care for the old. The familiar context is the 10 commandments given to Moses by God on the stone tablets: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Ex. 20:12, see also Deut. 5:15). It is worth noticing that Jesus quoted only the command. When God says to do something positive, do it regardless of outcome, may be the message. [Robert Alter notes that “it is hard to square the causal link between honoring parents and longevity with empirical observation, and one probably has to regard this as part of the traditional wisdom of the ancient Near East, the sort of hopeful moral calculus reflected in the book of Proverbs” (Moses, 297, n.).]
Jesus also invoked the flip side of caring for parents. In a list of capital offenses is included the following: “And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death”) (Ex. 21:17, see also Lev. 20:9). Robert Alter translates “curses” as “vilifies,” and notes that it connects with treating parents with contempt. (Moses, 303, n.). Jesus condemns the tradition that makes it a good deed to give away “to God” money or goods that one’s parents need. He makes clear that human need is more important than looking good.
Jesus followed this by an address to the multitude: “Listen to me and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Jesus directly confronted Jewish dietary laws about what could and could not be eaten. He explained to the disciples that, literally, what a person eats goes into the stomach and is eliminated, causing no impurity. Mark asserts that this means “he declared all foods clean,” an interpretation confirmed by Peter’s vision on the rooftop detailed in Acts 10. This vision expanded the acceptability of all foods to include the acceptability of all persons, whether Jewish or not. Those of us who yearn for rules and guidelines that will make us acceptable to God are out of luck.
What is defiling before God are the ways we harm each other that derive from evil thoughts, pride, and foolishness. Again Jesus sets to the side the interpretations of the Law and the religious traditions that hinder us from caring for the human needs we encounter.