This is the nineteenth installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 5, chapter 7: 1-15, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the eighteenth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 5: 7:1-15:
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" 6 He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." 9 Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, "Honor your father and your mother'; and, "Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, "Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this." 14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (NRSV)
Scene 5 is the beginning of the massive B in the A-B-A sandwich between the two feeding miracles, no matter how many scenes are found in A1 or A2 or B itself. What draws all of chapter 7 together, though we are examining only the first 15 verses, is food, eating of food, purity of food, and the need for food, and the sort of food on offer. But then again, that is what, ultimately, will draw chapters 6 and 8 together as well. Remember, even in Act 3, Scene 4, though Jesus approaches on water and frightens the apostles in the boat into thinking they have seen a ghost, Jesus himself connects their fear to the loaves of bread in the previous scene.
So, when the Pharisees and Scribes appear in this scene, the Pharisees for the first time since conspiring to kill Jesus in Act 1, Scene 9, it is not surprising that they do not behave like adoring crowds or confounded apostles but enemies of Jesus. The Pharisees have come from Jerusalem, and the last time any authorities came from Jerusalem, the aforementioned Scribes, they accused Jesus in Act 2, Scene 2 of being possessed by the devil. In this immediate context, though, it is also not surprising that the issue is food. What the Pharisees and Scribes want to know is why Jesus’ disciples do not eat their food in purity. For more detail on the notions of pure/impure or clean/unclean, please see the essay in Act 1, Scene 5, but I will repeat one paragraph here for it is important to understand that the Pharisees were not unique in maintaining these views of purity in general:
The idea behind purity is to maintain proper order and this is related to the Israelite call to be sacred, to be set apart (Exodus 19:3-6), so that one can approach God, who is Holy, in purity. Any number of passages in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible speak of this sense of separation between the sacred and the profane: Lev. 11:44-47 (to be holy as God is holy is to make a distinction between what is clean and unclean); 15:31 (Israel must be holy/pure so as not to defile God's tabernacle/dwelling); 18:1-5 (to keep God's ordinances is to have life); 20:22-26 (ordinances have been given to Israel by God to separate them as God's people); 26:11-12 (God will make his abode among the Israelites if they do his commands).
The Pharisees are not odd at all in this respect, but it is important to acknowledge that at this time in the history of Judaism by no means were the Pharisees the dominant religious group, that is, their notions of how to live out God’s instructions of purity/impurity were different from other groups. Interpretation as to what this meant in practice divided more than just Jesus and the Pharisees. On this score, I would highly recommend E.P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (London: SCM, Press, 1990). The accusation that the Pharisees make, though, is that the disciples were eating with “defiled” hands, that they were not washing them. This is not an issue of hygiene, but an issue of preparing to eat one’s food in purity. Mark notes in 7:3, as an aside to his audience, that “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders,” but the mention of “all the Jews” is hyperbole at this point in history. While Pharisaic practice came to influence Rabbinic practice, and hence Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, at this point in Jesus’ ministry it is an anachronism; that is, perhaps at the time Mark writes this had become the predominant practice, but it is not clear it was at the time of Jesus himself. The question of the Pharisees, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (7:5), on surface is about food and the eating of food, but for Jesus it is about “the tradition of the elders” (7:3, 5) as opposed to God’s law. But then, in this whole section, when is food just about food?
Mark has used the very real issue of food to reveal a dramatic conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over what counts as God’s law and, perhaps more significantly, who has the right to properly interpret God’s law, for all law must be interpreted. Jesus claims that their interpretation of purity with respect to food (and utensils) reveals hypocrisy as they teach “’human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (7:7-9). What we see here is another manifestation of the question of authority, which we encountered already in Act 1, Scene 2: Jesus does not reject the Law of Moses, he claims a higher authority to interpret the law of Moses.
Mark ratchets up the tension when Jesus accuses the Pharisees of disobeying the commandment to "Honor your father and your mother.” Jesus claims that the way in which they interpret the commandment actually leads to a dishonoring of their parents. It was accepted that children would care for their parents in old age, but Jesus cites a practice in which someone might dedicate his goods and wealth to the Temple in order to maintain it and not claim it as personal wealth. Later, a person might go and have it remitted from the Temple. Jesus claims that this is what the Pharisees do in order to avoid supporting their parents: “but you say that if anyone tells father or mother, "Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God )— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this" (7:11-13). Corban, sometimes spelled Korban, is a technical practice which did exist at the time of Jesus and the discussion in Jacob Neusner’s From Politics to Piety is still helpful. The point is straightforward though from Jesus’ point of view: you do not follow God’s law, you bend it to your own ways and means. It is a stark and blunt accusation, even if the practice is ancient and technical.
Still, this is not where Mark ends the scene, with Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees and their interpretation of the Law of Moses. He calls back the crowd who had gathered and speaks directly to them, challenging the purity interpretation of the Pharisees. Jesus says, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile"(7:14-15). It is a stimulating saying, but what does it mean? Does Jesus mean only to denounce Pharisaic interpretations of the purity laws? Is he spiritualizing the whole of the discussion, noting that it is the human heart and mind, twisted by sin, that create true defilement not how one carries out certain rituals? Surely Jesus cannot mean to reject the kosher laws themselves, in which certain foods did indeed defile, for his Church would argue over this for decades after his death, indicating no clear teaching regarding the kosher laws or, rather, no clear rejection of the purity and kosher laws. One thing is clear, though, as the crowd and the readers know: sometimes food is more than just something you eat. The spiritual dimension of food runs deep, as we saw in the feeding miracle, and in the discussion of true purity and defilement, but how deep does it run?
John W. Martens
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