Red Letter Year: 1/29

Mark 7:1-23

One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips,

    but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition. You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. 10 For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ 12 In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. 13 And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”

14 Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “All of you listen,” he said, “and try to understand. 15 It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.”

17 Then Jesus went into a house to get away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him what he meant by the parable he had just used. 18 “Don’t you understand either?” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? 19 Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)

20 And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. 21 For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”


Things ratchet up a notch in this passage. Jesus is more direct than he has been to this point, both with the Pharisees and religious leaders and also with his disciples. The core issue here is how the Jewish law (Torah) should be interpreted and lived out. The Jewish religious leaders had a certain way of doing this (later codified in the Talmud – the religious leaders call them “age-old” in v.5, but that claim is rather suspect at the time it was made), instructing people how to apply the commands and wisdom for their own lives. This still goes on today (a friend the other day was amused that his refrigerator had a “Sabbath mode” – that feature helps orthodox Jews live out their interpretation of Torah in the modern world). My point here is not to discuss the merits of various interpretations, but simply to point out that interpretation is always involved.

Both Jesus and the religious leaders are interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures (later called the Old Testament in the Christian Bible). There are two differences between them here that bear noticing. First, Jesus (or at the very least Mark) is open and direct about his teaching being an interpretation of Torah. His point about how the body processes food owes as much to the observation of nature as it does a study of Scripture. For Jesus, an interpretation of Scripture that does not make sense with what we know of how the world works is faulty. The Pharisees and religious leaders don’t approach this as a discussion of different interpretations. They think theirs is the only way to read Torah, they deem their interpretation to be no interpretation at all, but a literal keeping of God’s law. It’s hard to tell who they are working harder to convince of their certainty, others or themselves. In the same way, our own readings always involve interpretation. To think otherwise is foolish and dangerous.

Second, the interpretation that Jesus offers is one that focuses on what is more essential, what will make the biggest difference in changing a person’s life from one characterized by vice to one of virtue, from sickness to healing, from death to life. His opponents regularly ignore or dismiss all the good Jesus does to focus on the small ways he is breaking their customs. (You may remember, we noticed before that Jesus seemed to go out of his way to do this on occasion.) Their interpretation places further restrictions on people, but are not capable of growing people into spiritual maturity, only suppressing them. Both Jesus and the religious leaders are out to create certain habits in their followers. Jesus argues that his are life-giving. They are, so long as we don’t misinterpret Jesus and make his way just another ritual of suppression.

New Living Translation (NLT)

Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.