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  • Michael Minch

Mark 7, Part #1

Good News from Mark

Mark 7.1-23 engages us in a consideration of contending holiness movements.  The text is about tradition, defilement, and holiness/wholeness.   One tradition, that of the Pharisees and the scribes, is filled with purity codes, regulations guiding use of food, and other quantitative measurements, restrictions, and permissions.  Mark has already presented Jesus as rejecting traditional purity codes/laws, but until now, however, he has not moved from particular actions to a general principle or truth.  In this episode he reformulates the very idea of holiness, defilement, and purity.  The conversation begins with what might be seen as a trivial point—the washing of one’s hands.  But hand washing and dietary laws are about more than they seem.  They are about the maintenance of strict boundaries between people.  The Pharisees defended their purity codes as fundamental to ethnic and national identity.  Jesus, on the other hand, repudiates these exclusivist definitions by attacking their ideological foundations.

This passage is about Jesus’ final encounter with his Jewish adversaries in Galilee.  A “fact-finding commission” seems to have been sent from Jerusalem to observe and report on Jesus and his movement.  What does defilement and purity mean?  What is the place and value of tradition?  These questions are at the heart of the inquiry.  To take the law (Torah) seriously, a faith community will build a system (or at least a structure) of regulations to guide members of the community.  In Judaism, this “fence around the law” was Halakah—a body of case law built to allow the Torah to be protected and put into practice.  But from Jesus’ standpoint, Halakah had become a burden and a problem.  Jesus clearly and sharply opposes this “tradition of the elders.”

Yet, on the other hand, Jesus makes positive use of the terms “commandment of God” and “word of God,” referring to law (Torah) in the Hebrew Bible.  Rather than attacking the Torah, he affirms it.  Jesus does not abolish the concept of defilement or purity, the clean/unclean distinction.  Rather, he interprets it differently than do the authorities from Jerusalem and their local representatives.  Jesus sweeps away dietary laws and affirms ethical values (.21-22).  Jesus levels two charges against his opponents.  One, that they major in the minors (.6-8); and two, that their use of tradition masks their avoidance of the actual word of God (.9-13).  He uses Isaiah 29.13 to argue that the word of God specifically repudiates “human precepts” and he uses the practice of korban (“dedicated”/“dedication”) to illustrate his point.

Korban named the practice Jews could use to give their wealth to the Jerusalem Temple and to Jewish authorities in general.  We are familiar with this device insofar as we often pledge our wealth to an organization, specifying the ends of our lives as the point of this wealth transfer.  Jesus noted that some used korban as a way of not taking care of their elderly parents.  Korban was used to fund religious Judaism.  In Jesus’ confrontation of the Temple treasury operation in 12.37-44, he accuses the scribal class of hiding economic exploitation behind public piety—again with the elderly as victims.  For Jesus, Judaism had become built upon a political economy of exploitation and oppression of the poor.  By conflating issues of table fellowship with the political economy of the Temple, Mark demonstrates his consciousness of the central

underpinning of oppression in the symbolic system of legalistic religion.  This story, then, not only serves to legitimize Jesus’ community practice of integration with Gentiles, it also serves to persuade poorer Jews that the system that purports to protect their ethnic and national identity exploits them.  Against the dominant group boundaries, Jesus offers a vision and a horizon of a new, radical, inclusive, morally powerful community and politics—one that upholds the radical moral demands of the scriptural tradition.

Jesus is laying out his contrast with those who give lip service to God and faithfulness, but whose hearts are, in fact, far removed from God.  The tradition he rejects is one in which rituals and external observances have replaced true love for God registered in one’s “heart.”  Thus, Jesus accuses the Pharisee leadership of “annulling” the commandments of God.  Religion and religiousness have become an obstacle to God.  The Levitical law code is now deprived of its authority because only that which “comes from the heart” can truly defile.  (So Mark inserts the editorial comment, “thus, he [Jesus] declared all foods clean.”)  

The legalism attacked by Jesus was not unique to Judaism, to be sure.  Legalism has been part of the Christian story from the very beginning (note, for example, Paul’s anger with the Galatians for this very thing).  I can count dozens if not hundreds of battles with legalism I have experienced in my own Christian journey (and I bet you can too).  The issues under interrogation in this passage remain alive and vexing for us.  Is everything about tradition “bad”?  Of course not.  Are all forms of innovation and newness “good”?  Of course not.  One way of putting the challenge is that when tradition is alienated or separated from the word of God— there’s the problem.  But, of course, we argue about when this is and is not the case.  One might say that traditions should have a secondary, ancillary, and buttressing relationship to the word of God—but again, this doesn’t make the matter simple.  We might also say that whereas religion changes people “from the outside,” God changes people “from the inside.”  But then, this does not simplify the matter either.  We certainly need to humbly remember that “Jerusalem” tendencies lurk within each of us.

In verse 9, Jesus says, “You have a fine (kalos) way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions.”  Given the meaning of this Greek word, kalos, we might interpret this sentence:  “How beautifully you do an ugly thing!”  Religion and religiousness can be beautiful and ugly at the same time.  The New Testament does not call us to be merely religious, and God did not enter human history in Jesus to bring us a new religion.  Bonhoeffer wrote about “religionless Christianity” and he had it right (as does Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Fleming Rutledge, and others).  God forbid we would be reduced to religion!  May this Advent and Christmas be for us, a liberation from religion as a concomitant embrace of God’s “tearing open the heavens and coming down” to us (Isaiah 64.1).

Thank you for reading,


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