Today’s reading is Mark 7:1-23:
The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And he said to them, “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.’
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”
After he called the crowd to him again, he began saying to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. [If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.]” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples questioned him about the parable. 1And he said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
“Yuck! You’ve got the cooties!” said the boys and girls to each other in 1st grade as we tried not to touch each other. If you got touched by “the other,” you got “the cooties.” Of course, we were too childish to ask how you could get “cooties” if you already had them. But it just goes to show how we often think “contamination” comes from outside ourselves, and from “the other.”
The question about not washing hands before eating bread (7:1-5), which sounds rather trivial from our cultural standpoint, was obviously not trivial to Jesus and the Jewish leaders. While not directly commanded in the Mosaic Law itself, the tradition reflected deeper principles at stake in the life of the Jewish community and their interaction with the Hebrew Scriptures. For the Pharisees, washing hands was important because it was a reapplication of the holiness code intended for Jews at the Temple. Most Pharisees regarded Jerusalem and the Temple, along with its leaders, to be unclean because of their affiliation and compromises with the Roman Empire. In response, they extended into their daily lives some of the guidelines for ceremonial cleanliness that Scripture expected of them at the Temple sanctuary. The Pharisees wanted to revitalize Jewish holiness in response to a general feeling that Israel was being contaminated from the Gentile world outside them. This was as much a cultural and ethnic statement as it was “religious.” In their world, such things were all bound up together and inseparable.
Ethnic minority groups have asked similar questions. When has a person deviated too far from their own group? Opinions may vary about when a person goes too far in this or that direction, especially under circumstances of oppression. Throw religion into the mix with culture and ethnicity, and you have a very emotional flash point.
Jesus, by contrast, taught that contamination does not actually spread across human beings, but within the human being. My contamination is already rooted in my own heart, is evidenced through my actions and through my mouth by what I say (7:14-23). Those actions contaminate me further.
In the context of this particular conversation, Jesus stresses the mouth. Just look at all the manifestations of speech: “their lips” (7:6), “teaching as doctrines” (7:7); “Moses said, ‘Honor…’” and “He who speaks evil…” (7:10); “but you say” (7:11); “the word of God” (7:13); “what proceeds out of the man” (7:15, 20); “deceit…slander” (7:22). Why did Jesus think the mouth was so important? It’s with our mouths that we take the commandments of God and excuse ourselves from them or rationalize them away. Anyone who sins can seek God’s forgiveness and cleansing, so long as they understand it to be sin. Those who change the definition of sin itself, however, have contaminated themselves in a much more serious way. We build defenses to interpret away criticism. We develop a resistance to God’s voice in Scripture. That posture then contaminates us, and we become further defiled.
The Pharisees showed their contamination by what they said about what other Jews could say about God’s Law. The practice of withholding financial or physical resources from one’s parents in order to devote those resources to the Temple sanctuary violated God’s earlier commandment to honor one’s parents. In Jesus’ view, it broke a concrete command of God to honor one’s parents. But because of the political and cultural context, Jesus’ original hearers would have heard far more in Jesus’ reply. It was as if Jesus critiqued a modern policy of extending tax benefits to people who made a donation to refurbish the nation’s capital and its greatest symbol. Was Jesus being unpatriotic? Was he committed to the Temple or not? To God’s renewal of it and the nation? Jews would have felt these challenges in Jesus’ response. To Jesus, this was not only another bad example of pious innovation that created a big loophole somewhere else, it reflected the same spirit of elevating the Jerusalem Temple higher than it should have been elevated. The Temple was simply not as important as the Pharisees thought, and on this point Jesus disagreed with them vehemently. For Jesus was also critiquing the Pharisees’ spirit of extending the ceremonial cleanliness required at the Temple. In other words, in response to the cultural, ethnic, and theological questions, Jesus gives a reply with cultural, ethnic, and theological implications.
Then, Jesus went a step further. He traced a different route through Israel’s Scripture of what it means to be Jewish and faithful to God even in a world dominated by the Romans and the pagans. Jesus insisted that Israel’s Scriptures pointed the Jews towards the necessity of heart transformation. Throughout Israel’s long relationship with God, those with prophetic insight pinpointed the reason for Israel’s repeated failures: the human heart. Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel said: “The Lord will circumcise your heart” (Dt.30:6). “Create for me a clean heart” (Ps.51:10). “[The Lord] will write [His] law upon their hearts” (Jer.31:31 – 34). “[The Lord] will give you a new heart” (Ezk.36:26 – 36). The reason for Israel’s subordination to Gentile powers in the first place was Israel’s sinfulness. Yet if Israel needed the same heart level transformation as the rest of the Gentile world, and if Israel’s prophets had also foreseen the Gentile world benefiting from the transformation of Israel when Israel’s God finally acted in such a way as to bring that heart level transformation about, then the Jews would have to look hard at their past attitudes towards the Gentiles and completely reevaluate what it meant to be “separate” from them. It’s not that such a distinction would no longer exist, but that the way it was defined would be reoriented fundamentally. With Jesus, it would be reoriented around himself and redefined by him. For Jesus was the one bringing about the radical heart transformation that the Scriptures longed for. He was transforming the human heart he had, perfecting that process through his death and resurrection, in order to share his new heart with his followers by his Spirit. This was a very different trajectory Jesus argued for; he and the Pharisees were at loggerheads about it.
William Golding’s 1954 classic, The Lord of the Flies, tells a story about evil rising out of the human heart. A group of young British schoolboys survive a shipwreck and get stranded on a jungle island. At first, the boys build a fire as a signal to anyone searching for them. They try to keep the fire going, but some of them want to just hunt on the island, as if they could settle there forever. The majority of the boys become savage; they start hunting the boys who hold out hope for rescue. But British sailors from a battle cruiser appear just in time to rescue all the boys from the island, and themselves. That story raises some puzzling questions. What went wrong with the boys in the book? Why did they become violent and deliberately evil? And what about the evil in the real world, the world beyond the island? What does this story tell us about ourselves? In the middle of his book, Golding shares his view with us. A rotting pig’s head, impaled on a spear, buzzing with flies, speaks to Simon in a hallucination. The “lord of the flies” says: “There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast…Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!…You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go. Why things are what they are?” (p.130-131, emphasis mine) In other words, Golding, writing after the revelations of human evil in World War II, suggests that we return to a posture of looking to be rescued from ourselves.
It’s not that at every moment, human beings are as resistant to the Triune God of love as we could be. But at every moment, human beings are not as faithful to Him as we could be. We are not thoroughly evil, since there remains in us the image of God, however tarnished. Yet human beings are certainly infected by the corruption of sin; the problem is ontological, concerning our very being. It’s not simply educational, as if we just needed to educate people in the correct way. It’s not simply moral, ethical, or legal, as if we just needed to deduce and communicate what to do. Jesus said the problem is ontological and relational. It is in our hearts, at the very center of our will.
What was at stake for Jesus and the Pharisees, as well as for us in the present, is the question: What does it mean to be faithful to God in the midst of a world that is not? Do we give into the temptation to diminish our own evil and project more evil onto others, so that the dividing line between good and evil runs between people rather than within them? Do we then assign cultural and perhaps ethnic superiority to our own group for being “closer to God” than other people? Do we then think of ourselves as “the righteous, beleaguered minority” in a world set against God? All the while, Jesus is trying to love and transform the whole world. And if we give into the temptation to oversimplify the world at other people’s expense, are we not distorting the Scriptures, obstructing God’s love, and confounding His mission?
Imagine catching a slow-acting but lethal disease that makes you sicker and sicker, yet deludes you into thinking that other people are the ones getting worse and worse. Sin is like that. You start thinking that other people are sicker than you are, and you blame them for making you guarded. If you’re more self-indulgent, you call them more “narrow” or “conservative” or “traditional,” etc. Or if you’re more self-denying, you call them “liberal” or “self-indulgent” or “irresponsible.” They have “the cooties.” You create a false world in which you live. But be careful. Other people do not pass along contamination to us. We contaminate ourselves. And we do so every time our mouths give us an excuse for us to not live out the command of Jesus.
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.