The Sunday lectionary reading for Trinity 13 in Year B is Mark 7.1–8, 14–15, 21–23. We have chewed over the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6, and gathered up every last morsel of the ‘bread of life’ discourse over the last five (five!) weeks—and now our fast from Mark’s gospel is at an end!
Reading from a full Bible, rather than reading the lectionary extract from a sheet or on a screen, tells us two things. First, this whole passage functions as a transition between two sections of Jesus’ northern ministry: on the north coast of Lake Galilee, crossing back and forth between the regions either side of the Jordan, in chapter 4, 5 and 6; and ministry in clearly Gentile territory to the north, followed by a return to Galilee in Mark 7.24–9.29, after which Jesus heads south. The first section is bracketed by two sea miracles, and the second section is bracketed by two child exorcisms. The content of this passage—the implicit debate about food laws, which will have been critical for Mark’s first audience, especially if they are in Rome where these was clearly tension between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus—also represents a transition, from the Jesus movement being a Jewish renewal movement to something broader and more Gentile. Thus Mark represents in narrative form a transition which was becoming a historical and cultural reality.
Secondly, the lectionary has cut out elements of the narrative to make the passage short enough for a normal reading. The structure overall is as follows, with the verses in bold being included in the lectionary reading:
|1–5||Jesus and Pharisees||Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus|
|6–8||Jesus and Pharisees||Jesus’ first response quoting Isaiah|
|9–13||Jesus and Pharisees||Jesus’ second response: the practice of korban|
|14–15||Jesus and the crowd||Declaration about defilement|
|17–20||Jesus and the disciples, privately||Reiteration about defilement, with editorial comment|
|21–23||Jesus and the disciples, privately||Explanation of defilement in moral terms|
This selection firstly omits Jesus’ second response/rebuke to the Pharisees and scribes, and the second omission is possible because of the reiteration of the statement about true defilement in private to the disciples. What this misses is the double transition, from Pharisees (who appear to be speaking to Jesus alone) to the crowd, and then the switch again to the private discussion with the disciples. This makes us think that Jesus’ declaration about true defilement is made to the crowd, when in fact it is made to the disciples (and now made public by Mark in disclosing this secret conversation). This forms a parallel with Jesus’ teaching with and about parables in chapter 4, where he talks to the disciples privately about the meaning of the parable of the sower in Mark 4.10, and some later manuscripts emphasise the parallel by repeating Jesus’ injunction ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’ in the (missing in most versions) Mark 7.16.
The lectionary trim also avoids the rather awkward reference by Jesus to defecation (‘it is expelled’); we might say Jesus was the first person to coin the idea of ‘garbage in, garbage out’! But it also omits the rather important editorial comment by Mark, applying this transitional incident to the key transitional theological issue for his readers (‘Thus he declared all foods clean’). The parallel in Matt 15.17, possibly written to a more consistently Jewish audience, does not include such a comment—and Luke, writing in a more Gentile register, does not include any of the debate about ritual cleanness (What Dick France in his NIGTC on Mark calls ‘The Great Omission’).
The ‘gathering’ of the Pharisees around Jesus has a mildly threatening ring to it, and this is amplified by the inclusion of ‘some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem’. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee had been mostly well received, and Mark emphasises his popularity by the repeated mention of the ‘crowds’. But the investigation from Jerusalem (which has been present from early on, see the mention of scribes in Mark 2.10, and the plotting of Mark 3.6) anticipates the shift from chapter 9 on the journey south and the looming shadow of the cross.
The washing of hands before eating was not part of the Torah instructions, but constituted what later become know as the ‘fence [chumra] around the law‘. Deut 22.8 commands the building of a fence or parapet around the flat roof of a building, so that a person might not accidentally (for example, whilst sleeping) fall off. So the rabbis, reading this allegorically, believed that there should be a protective fence around the law, keeping people away from the danger of transgressing the law by accident. That this washing was ritual rather than hygienic is shown by the terminology; the verb here is baptizo, and its use for repeated ritual cleansing is an interesting contrast with the later use by converts to the Jesus’ movement of the verb for a once-for-all cleansing (as illustrated in Jesus’ rebuke of Simon Peter in John 13.10)—one baptism once to signal that the cleansing by Jesus is wholly effective.
In his first explanatory comment, directed to any readers unfamiliar with Jewish practices, Mark makes this clear: this is part of the ‘tradition of the elders’. This isn’t a comment against the idea of ‘tradition’ (paradosis) as such, since Paul uses the cognate verb positively for the gospel message in 1 Cor 15.3. Rather, it is setting up the contrast between ‘the commandments of God’ and ‘merely human traditions’ (note: the Greek term ἄνθρωπος means ‘human beings’ not ‘male men’), which Jesus articulates at the end of his first response (Mark 7.8) and at the beginning and and of his second response (Mark 7.9, 13). This is the key distinction: we need to note, on the one hand, that the gospels never portray Jesus as anything other than Torah observant; and it is clear from later disputes in Acts 10.9–16, Rom 14.20–21, 1 Cor 8.7–9, 10.27, Col 2.16 and 1 Tim 4.1–5 that the early Jesus community did not immediately interpret Jesus’ teaching here in the way Mark now draws his application.
Jesus’ citation of Is 29.13 (with a hint also from Ezek 33.31) appears to reconfigure the distinction between words of God and human traditions as a difference between outer practice (‘honour with their lips’) and inner disposition (‘their hearts are far from me’) and it is this inner/outer distinction that Jesus develops in his discussion of what happens to food. Topologically, we are all tubes; anything that goes into our mouth passes through our alimentary canal, and it not strictly part of our body. Waste materials pass right through (along with a load of intestinal bacteria!) whilst the nutrition alone is absorbed into our bodies. The true ‘inner’ life is that of our hearts, not in terms so much of affections or emotions, as we might think in our modern construal of the anatomy, but our will, our decisions and our disposition in life. For Jesus, the heart of the matter is the matter of the human heart.
But we need to take careful note of what Jesus is doing here. First, he is not dismissing the Old Testament purity laws out of hand; rather, he is drawing on an observation already made by the prophets about how the people of God can go astray by focussing on the merely outward and ritual, without seeing the connection with the inner and personal.
Secondly, in describing the things that do defile a person, he is drawing on the Torah itself. Most English translations have Jesus listing thirteen vices in Mark 7.21–22, but that is not quite correct; the first term ‘evil thoughts’ οἱ διαλογισμοι οἱ κακοι, is separated from the rest by the verb ‘come out of’ and so functions as an introduction to the other 12 that are listed. The fact that many of these are in fact actions, rather than thoughts per se, illustrates Jesus integrated view of thought and action. The list has a quite close, but not exact, correspondence with elements of the Ten Commandments:
|3||You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain||Blasphemy|
|5||Honour your father and mother||(Mark 7.9–13)|
|6||You shall not murder||Murder|
|7||You shall not commit adultery||Porneia, adultery, debauchery|
|8||You shall not steal||Theft|
|9||You shall not bear false witness||Blasphemy (?)|
|10||You shall not covet||The evil eye’ usually translated as ‘envy’|
Such a partial citation of the Ten Commandments, intended to communicate the whole of them, is not uncommon; in response to the rich young man in Mark 10.19, Jesus cites six of the ten. Interestingly, the pattern of six is repeated here; within the list, six commandments are alluded to, and of the 12, the first six are expressed in the plural, and the second six in the singular—surely a rhetorical device rather than a theological point.
But one thing stand out from this list: where the Ten Commandments have only one in relation to sexuality, Jesus amplifies this to three. The first, porneia, is often assumed to refer to sex outside marriage, though most possible examples of that, in a culture where almost everyone would be married, are covered by the second term, moicheia. Rather, the first term must be taken as a reference to all the prohibited sexual activities found in Lev 18.6–23.
[T]he porn- group of words relates to any form of unsanctioned sexual intercourse. Porneia is normally translated as ‘fornication’. But this translation obscures a simple fact. In the Jewish context of Jesus’ day, and in the Christian context that grew out of it, homosexual coitus would have been automatically embraced within the scope of porneia.
The third term, aselgeia, has a more general meaning of ‘lack of self-restraint’, but appears to have sexual overtones to it. As John Nolland highlights in his study of such vice-lists, Jesus appears to be just as concerned about sexual morality as he is about justice and care for the poor.
So how does this passage help us in our decision about how to read the Torah for ourselves? One option is to reinterpret Mark’s claim, and decide that all the food laws still apply to contemporary followers of Jesus, even Gentiles? Although this sounds like an unusual approach, it is the one taken by the Worldwide Church of God (rebranded as Grace Communion International) following the teachings of Herbert W Armstrong. Unfortunately, their literalistic reading of the whole Bible leads them to reject orthodox belief about the Trinity and therefore, in effect, reject Jesus’ claims about himself in the gospels. This reading struggles to take the key texts relating to food laws at face value, and instead removes them to the level of exemplary metaphors. (Update: it turns out that WWCG/GCI have actually revised their doctrine to be orthodox, so I wonder if the Church of the Great God split from them for this reason.)
An alternative, more common, approach is to believe that the Torah does not apply to us, interpreting Paul’s statement that ‘Christ is the end of the law‘ (Romans 10.4) in the sense of a termination of the demands of Torah. Therefore, just as we don’t obey all the food laws, we can also set aside the sexual ethics of the Old Testament in some important regards.
The problem with such an approach is evident in this passage: despite what Mark says about the food laws, he is very careful to have Jesus distinguish between the ‘commandments of God’ and human tradition, and continues to appeal to the Torah and the prophets in his teaching—as indeed does Paul. And if the foods laws are set aside, both Jesus and Paul are clear that the core of OT sexual ethics is not.
Three observations might help us here. First, as Sarah Whittle helpfully points out in her chapter on defilement in Reading Mark in Context:
[This passage] reflects both the concern with the universal threat of the danger of impurity and the Pharisees as Jesus’s opponents. All the incidents of Jesus teaching on purity are set in relation to Pharisaic traditions concern eating… As such, it has been claimed that “the synoptics educate their readers on the Jewish purity practices of their main characters”. In contrast, Jesus is portrayed as “the Holy One” (Mark 1.24). Even when confronting sources of defilement, he does not contract impurity, so he has no need for purification rituals. When he engages unclean people, he restores them to cleanness. This aspect of purity is crucial for Mark’s Christology (p 112).
Secondly, we need to read Torah, like any other part of Scripture, in its canonical, cultural and historical context. The Pharisees’ approach involves a literalism which fails to attend to the effect of theological principles in their cultural context; to this extent, Jesus is (as often) challenging them at the level of interpretation. (For a great study on how to read the Law in its context and well, see Philip Jenson’s Grove booklet. Philip points out that within the Torah itself there are different ‘levels’ of law, and some laws are clearly specific, detailed application of other laws which are more general principles.) The food laws were not part of the original creation intention of God, but were given to Israel in its specific context in its life in the land, and so are not continued in the new covenant in Jesus, where there is ‘new creation’. By contrast, the vision of sexuality and sexual relations, in both Testaments, are rooted in the creation by God of humanity ‘male and female’, to be fruitful and multiply. In the first creation, this happens through marriage and childbirth; in the new covenant, it also happens through single celibacy and the generation of ‘spiritual’ offspring through repentance and faith in response to the proclamation of good news—as Jesus and Paul themselves exemplify.
Thirdly, both Jesus and Mark are in this passage pointing to the true goals of both Torah and all spiritual disciples. The slightly secondary goal is the redemption of the human life to live in holiness, not merely to regulate action (note that the Ten Commandments flow out of God’s prior redemption action in calling Israel out of slavery to freedom in the Promised Land). But the primary goal is to direct us towards God.
The law, rightly understood, is the gracious gift of God to allow his people to live in holy fellowship with him, and so it must be received with understanding of that to be its purpose. If the fault of the Pharisees, as depicted in this narrative, is to focus on the outer rather than the inner, then it arises from seeing obedience to Torah as the goal of life, rather then obedience being a means to the greater goal of knowing, living in, and expressing the love of God.