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.”
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
The conflict arises over dirty hands, but its important to remember that the Pharisees have already been critical of Jesus’ table fellowship. Those gathered around the table and the way Jesus shares food is an issue to the Pharisees who have an invested interest in table fellow.
“The issue at hand is maintenance of strict groups boundaries, represented here by practices of ritual purity and dietary restriction. The Pharisees defend the purity code as fundamental to the ethic and national identity of the people; Jesus repudiates these exclusivist definitions by attacking their ideological foundations (Myers, 218).”
I have stated before that access to food equals power. The sharing of food is political in nature. Those with access to food have power. Their ability to share food, and the action of doing so, builds honor and status in the community. These arguments over ritual purity flow from the same vein. The Pharisees try to draw Jesus into debate where he would deny traditions and communal practices, both issues of a political nature.
Ritual purity is a way of demonstrating status and power with in the community, it falls into the intersection of the religious and political arenas. Rituals of washing and cleansing - be it food, dishes, cups, hands, etc., - are in a way, actions of privileged people. The Pharisees have the resources, and time, to enact ritual purity. Those living in a state of poverty, who lack both resources and time, would have trouble following the rules and would be labeled as outcasts. The Pharisees were in charge of this label. The political nature of this pattern is event. Those without resources cannot play by the rules of the Pharisees and are deemed unfit for society.
Myers states: “Impurity could have been contracted in one of two ways: the farmer could have sown or harvested in violation of Sabbath or other regulations; or the fruits may have not undergone proper separation for tithes. We have already seen (2:23-28) that Pharisaic control over production and distribution were touchy issues for Galilean peasants (Myers, 219).”
Jesus dismissed their argument and in turns critiques the Pharisees for holding on the human traditions and ignoring the commands of God. Jesus argues that they are putting their time and energy into human constructs that divide and diminish human life, instead of building the community and restoring relationships.
Jesus responds by declaring that it is not what goes into the body that makes it unclean, but what comes out.
“In the place of external ritual is the far more rigorous scrutiny of internal disposition (the heart being the moral seat of the person in Jewish anthropology). The boundaries of collective identity, which the kosher diet and other aspects of the purity code were originally instituted to maintain, are now redrawn in essential moral terms, as indicated by the vice list (Myers, 220).”
Jesus lists what defiles people in verses 21-23 - “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
This is a typical vice list from antiquity, “but in Mark the list takes on a political dimension as well. Three of the ‘vices’ appear in Hosea’s condemnation of Israel (theft, murder, adultery; Hosea 4:2 LXX). Moreover, the list targets the key crimes of power, which Mark elsewhere imputes to Jesus’ antagonist:
a. murder = the crime of the terrorist Barabbas in 15:7;
b. stealth, deceit = the description of the planned covert action by the high priests and scribes in 14:1;
c. blasphemy = Jesus’ charge against the scribes in 3:28, and the high priest’s accusation against Jesus in 14:64 (Myers, 222).”
To sum this episode up: “Against the dominant group boundaries Mark offers a counter vision in which a new, morally defined community upholds the radical demands of scriptural tradition, which condemns profiteering and defends the welfare of the weakest members of society (Myers, 223).”
Jesus recognizes the break down in community, the act of diminishing the life of the most vulnerable, and calls the leaders to task for failing to aid those in need. It is not the political rules of the society and the hoops of the privileged that will lead to wholeness. It is the recognition of those in need and their inclusion at the table that will lead to healing and wholeness for all.
Ultimately this episode is not about dirty hands, but about access to the table (resources) and who gets to receive the benefits of society. Jesus will not allow the Pharisees, who model the dominant culture, to continue to separate and divide the community. He reminds that that the commands of God trump human traditions. The commands of God give life. The Pharisees are failing their call to do the same.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- What traditions or social constructs get in our way of giving life to those in need?
- What traditions have we created that get in the way of the Gospel?
- How do we provide constructive critique when traditions get in the way of discipleship?