Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they 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; 4and 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.) 5So 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?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
Translation: And the pharisees and some of the scribes who came from Jerusalem were gathered together to him, and they were seeing some of his disciples eating the bread with common hands--that is, unwashed--for the pharisees and all the Judeans do not eat unless they wash the hands often, holding to the tradition of the elders. And from the marketplace, unless they wash, they do not eat, and many other things are what they took to hold, washing cups and pots and copper vessels.
And the pharisees and the scribes ask him, "Why do your disciples not walk about according to the tradition of the elders, but (with) common hands they eat the bread?" But he said to them, "Beautifully did Isaiah prophesy concerning you hypocrites, as it has been written, 'This people values me with the lips, but their heart they keep far from me. But idly they worship me, teaching as doctrines commandments of people. They let go the commandment of God to hold the tradition of people."
And he called the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me all, and understand: There is nothing outside the person coming in into that person which is able to defile that one, but the things out of the person, coming out, are the things defiling a person.
For from within, out of the heart of people, come out the evil thoughts, unlawful sex, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetous thoughts, iniquities, deceit, excess, an evil eye, blasphemies, pride, foolishness--all these evil things come out from within, and they defile a person.
Background and situation: The Gospel of Mark has two feeding stories--one among Jews in chapter 6, and one on "the other side" of the Sea of Galilee in chapter 8. We're in chapter 7, just after the feeding of the 5000 on the "Jewish side" of the Sea of Galilee.
Following that epic event, the disciples encounter a great storm as they go over to "the other side"--the gentile side--of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus came to the disciples "walking on the lake" and the storm ceased when he got into the boat. The disciples are "utterly astounded" and then Mark adds this curious statement: "for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (6:52). (This is something to keep in mind.)
On his earlier trip to "the other side," Jesus had performed exorcisms. Now he performs a number of healings. This is the same sequence with which Jesus had begun his public ministry among the Jews of Galilee, first an exorcism in the synagogue (1:21-28), then the healing of Peter's mother-in-law (1:29-31).
Jesus' over-all goal through chapters 6-8 of Mark is the integration of both Jews and gentiles into the New Community. Before rapprochement with gentiles can proceed, however, the issue of gentile "uncleanness" needs to be settled. Gentile impurity is probably the greatest single barrier between Jews and gentiles. Somehow, Jesus must deal with it, which is why Mark moves first to the issue of purity laws and ritual taboos.
Unclean: The atmosphere heats up whenever pharisees are present. Here, we have not only pharisees, but also scribes--lawyers--who came all the way from Jerusalem.
The pharisees and scribes look askance at Jesus' disciples who were eating with "unclean," or "common" (koine) hands. The pharisees practice "the tradition of the elders" which included the washing of hands, the washing of food bought at the marketplace, and the cleansing of eating utensils.
Excursus on pharisees: One reason the pharisees are the central opponents of Jesus in the four gospels is because they were the central opponents of the church late in the first century when the four gospels were written.
With the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the principal opponents of the pharisees, the Temple-based Sadducees, were decimated. At the time of Jesus, two-thirds of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, one-third pharisees. After AD 70, the Sanhedrin was entirely composed of pharisees--(who, incidentally, re-wrote their own history to show that they had really been in charge all along).
Pharisees catch more hell in Christian sermons than almost anybody. They were oppressing the people with their legalistic demands, or so say those whose hammer is justification by faith and for whom everything else is the nail of legal demands.
The truth is some different. Actually, the pharisees were a reformist group. They were mainly lay people, not priests, and they believed that the faith of Israel ought to be something lived in the daily life of every Jew, not merely something observed by the priests in Jerusalem.
Everything belonged to God, and the Torah touched on all matters of life. Keeping Torah was a way of living continually in God's care, and acknowledging God's presence every where and in every thing.
Jesus' deft political move: For the second time (7:5), the phrase "the tradition of the elders" is used, this time by the pharisees themselves: "Why do your disciples not walk about according to the tradition of the elders, but (with) common hands they eat the bread?"
Jesus responds to this question with an attack on the authority of the pharisees and scribes. The pharisees derived their authority from the "oral law." Where the Sadducees recognized the Torah as only the books of Moses, the pharisees also included "oral law" within Torah. "Oral law" was the pharisaic tradition of interpretation which, they claimed, was also given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Jesus calls them "hypocrites." They "let go" the command of God and "hold fast" to human traditions (ten paradosin ton anthropon.) In other words, they subvert true Torah with their "oral law" which he dismisses as mere "human tradition."
Verses 9-13 are not part of this Sunday's lection. It is there, however, that Jesus makes his argument. In 7:10, Jesus draws an unfavorable comparison between the pharisaic tradition, or "oral law," and what "Moses said." In doing so, he seriously deflates and devalues their unique source of authority. Their vaunted "oral law," supposedly given to them (and them alone) by Moses, is really only "human tradition".
His critique accused the pharisees of disobeying the fourth commandment--"honor your father and mother"--on the issue of korban. Korban was money or assets willed to the Temple. These assets could no longer be used by the family and one could not be released from a vow of korban even if one's parents were indigent.
Thus, the human tradition of korban involved breaking the commandment of God to honor one's parents. Their human tradition, korban, opposes Moses' law. They do not stand for Moses. They are opposed by Moses. (Not only that, korban was yet another example of the Temple's economic exploitation of the poor.)
Raising the issue of korban was also a way of tying the scribes to the pharisees. The scribes were Temple-based but the pharisees were not. The pharisees had their own critique of Temple practices, and they were not natural allies of the scribes.
The scribes, whose salary was paid by the Temple, had an economic interest in korban, but the pharisees did not. By lumping the two together on the issue of korban, Jesus associates the pharisees with the Temple establishment in the public mind and uses that connection to undermine their credibility. This is a nice example of Jesus' political jiu jitsu.
Ritual cleansing: Having deflated the authority of the pharisees and scribes, Jesus returns to the issue of ritual cleansing. He calls the crowd to him and exhorts them to "hear me all and understand." It is not what goes into the body that defiles, he says, but what comes out that defiles.
Then, he changes the focus of the discussion from the metaphor of "body" to one of "heart." (For Jews of that time, "heart" was the center of one's personality and being.) "For from within, out of the heart of people, come evil thoughts," he says (7:21). Then follows a list of vices which, generally, follow the vices forbidden by the Ten Commandments.
Purity practices, such as ritual cleansings, were important cultural markers. Every culture has them. They are how we know who belongs and who doesn't, who is in and who is out.
For first century Jews, following the dietary laws and observing the proper ritual cleansings, signalled not only a religious practice, but also one's loyalty and place in the tribe. By attacking these ritual practices, Jesus subverts the justification for the exclusion of gentiles, which opens the door for their inclusion in chapter 8.
There's more about bread: Our lection ends here. The story, however, continues.
In chapter 6, Jesus had fed the 5000 with artos, which is usually rendered as "loaves" in NRSV, but which really means "bread." The word artos appears five times in seven verses (6:37-44). Following the feeding of 5000 Jews, there was enough bread left over to fill twelve baskets. (The number "twelve" is a Jewish symbol associated with the twelve tribes of Israel.)
Following the feeding, the disciples were compelled to get into a boat and go to "the other side." On the way, they are beset by storms. Jesus walks on the water to come to them, then calms the sea. They were "utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened." (Did the reader keep this in mind?)
The disciples, in other words, do not get what Jesus was doing with the bread. Moreover, they are charged with "hardness of heart," a very serious charge indeed. Their ancient enemy, Pharoah, had "hardness of heart," as well as Jesus' opponents in 3:5: "...he was grieved at their hardness of heart..."
The reference to "bread" occurs twice in our lection for Sunday (7:2,5). (For some strange reason, the NRSV leaves this out.) The verse should read: "...and seeing that some of his disciples with common hands--that is, unwashed--are eating the bread..." Following our lection, the word artos also appears in the story of the Syrophoenician woman: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" (7:27).
Then follows the inclusion of the gentiles into the New Community of Jesus with the feeding of the 4000 on the gentile side of the Sea (8:1-10). The disciples ask: "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" Jesus replies: "How much bread do you have?" They said, "Seven."
Seven is the number of completeness and totality. Eugene Peterson calls it "God's number." Jesus took the "seven breads," and distributed them to his disciples, which they then gave to the people. There were seven baskets leftover.
On their subsequent trip back to the Jewish side of the Sea, Mark notes that the disciples forgot to bring any bread, even though they did have one loaf. (They were clueless even about their own loaf!) Jesus told them to beware of the "yeast of the pharisees and the yeast of Herod." The disciples respond by saying, "It is because we have no bread."
Jesus chews them out, again accusing them of "hardness of heart," because they were unable to discern the meaning of the two feeding events. When he "broke the bread" for the 5000, he asks how many baskets were left over. There were twelve, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. When he "broke the bread" for the 4000, how many baskets were left? Seven, indicating the universality of God's care for all people. "Do you not yet understand?" asks Jesus (8:21).
Put some exclamation points after that question. One imagines Jesus to be rather worked up at his clueless disciples. Werner Kelber explains:
Theirs (the disciples) is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. They ask for loaves, but they are in possession of one loaf, and still they cannot perceive the truth. The truth is what they have but cannot see. They have one loaf which embodies the oneness of Jews and Gentiles...The loaf they have is symbolic of the unity of all.
Image: Journey to the Beloved Community, Beth Mount