Veronica M Lawson RSM
30 August 2012
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
After our lengthy detour into John 6 with its focus on Jesus as the Bread of Life and the Bread of Wisdom, we return to Mark’s gospel and a legal dispute about ritual purity. The parties to the dispute are Jesus, the Pharisees, and some of the scribes or teachers of the law. [It is worth noting that Mark’s non-Jewish readers, at a later time and in another place, need to be given detailed information about certain Jewish traditions].
At issue for the scribes and Pharisees in the story is the failure of Jesus’ disciples to respect their oral tradition, in this instance to perform ritual washings before eating. From their perspective, the disciples are not ‘walking’ according to the tradition of the elders.
For the Markan Jesus, ‘the command of God’ is paramount, not some distorted interpretation of it. He offers a hard-hitting counter-critique of their attitude to law. He calls them ‘hypocrites’ and informs them that the condemnation of the prophet Isaiah was intended for them. They have so distorted God’s law, substituting their own observances for the ‘commandment of God’ that their prayer amounts to nothing more than lip-service, their hearts are far from God, and their worship is worthless!
For Jesus, there are criteria other than such observances for determining who is clean or unclean. He has already declared the leper clean (Mk 1:41-45). For Jesus, the ‘heart’ rather than the body is the locus of purity and impurity.
For him as for all his people, the heart was the seat of the intellect and of morality as well as the emotions. In the kin-dom of God, therefore, one’s thoughts, desires, and intentions render one clean or unclean, not one’s attention to hygiene. The latter is desirable of course, but is peripheral in the grand scheme of things.
It is worth applying the criteria provided at the end of the passage to discover whether our ‘hearts’ are near or distant from our God.
A word of caution – the real-life Pharisees of the first century were the respected teachers of God’s law! It is imperative that stories such as we find in today’s gospel are not used to pit Christianity against Judaism. We have to keep reminding ourselves that time and again we are dealing with in-house debates between Jews.