Things That Defile (Mark 7:1-23)
It's somewhat ironic that this portion of Scripture, which has so little to do with what is and isn’t appropriate for eating, is so often used as a bone of contention between believers who eat a non-Kosher diet and those that keep the kosher instructions of the Torah. Yeshua is more interested in conveying the true source of humanity's impurity and our need for His redemptive work, than He is in inspiring arguments over Kashrut—Kosher dietary Instruction. What makes Mark’s textual note, “(In saying this, Yeshua declared all foods clean),” so contentious is not the statement itself but the common misinterpretation of the specific situation it applies to.
As we unravel the tangled theological mess of Christian misunderstanding, let’s remember that we are dealing with a Jewish context: Jewish authorship, Jewish location, Jewish culture, Jewish diet and Jewish Spirituality. Even if we concede that the gospel of Mark was written to a mixed Jewish and Gentile Church, the premise of a Jewish understanding of events remains the same. If there are explanations in parenthesis added by the author—that is, added to the facts of the account itself—then they must be understood based on the Jewish context that pretexts them, keeping in mind that the author himself is Jewish.
“Some Pharisees and some of the teachers of the Torah, who had come from Jerusalem, gathered around Yeshua and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees, in fact all Jews, do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the rabbis/elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)”
This account takes place on the west side of Galilee in the Gennesaret region. Therefore those of the Pharisees and Torah teachers who challenged the lack of ritual practice of Yeshua’s disciples, had traveled approximately 80km north from Jerusalem—this seems like an awful lot of effort for a group of people who were supposedly already convinced that Yeshua was not the Messiah.
They observed some of Yeshua’s disciples—I suspect Peter, the rough as guts fisherman was one of them—eating without performing the Jewish hand washing and Bracha—blessing—that the rabbis taught was necessary before eating. It reminds me of a time when, after a Christian men’s sports event, one of the guys dug straight into the food without praying, one of the other men, the self-appointed Holy Spirit conduit of the group, quickly rebuked the poor guy in front of the whole community. One of the wiser men among us said, “Bob looks really grateful for the food Bill (not their real names), it’s almost as if his heart has given thanks already.”
Having said that, it is important to understand that it’s not ritual hand washing that is the problem here, it is hypocrisy. In fact it was Jewish ritual hand washing that saved thousands of Jews in London from the Great Plague (1665-66) while those around them with less hygienic habits were dropping like flies.
We might put this hypocritical event into a modern context in the following way:
A bunch of Doctors and nurses at a public picnic rebuke the rugby boys for digging into the food without washing their hands after playing in the microbial infested mud. The Doctors and nurses then go out on the town for a night of sexual exploitation and a microbial mess of a much nastier kind.
This is the type of hypocrisy that is being perpetuated here.
Personally, I practice netilat yadayim—ritual hand washing--but I am not in the habit of accusing others of eating improperly if they choose not to ritually wash their hands. Surely it’s just plain common sense to wash your hands before you eat? It’s also common practice today to wash cups and dishes, perhaps we have Jewish tradition to thank for this life saving hygienic practice?
So we understand that it was the perceived lack of spirituality that was at stake here and not hand washing or the washing of cups and saucers. To this day there are still many helpful teachings that have been passed on by the rabbis which are no more or less helpful than the many benign Christian traditions passed on by the Church fathers.
“So the Pharisees and teachers of the Torah asked Yeshua, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
It’s a fair question. Why weren’t the disciples of Yeshua keeping the traditions of the religious status quo? Perhaps it was partly to do with the fact that many of them were uneducated tradespeople and fishermen? Maybe they had washed their hands but had not done so publically, therefore performing the ritual blessing to show themselves observant? If that is the case then the defilement here is simply considered spiritual rather than physical, this is inferred later by Yeshua’s rebuke. It is interesting to note that the text does not say—as is sometimes the case elsewhere—that the Pharisees and teachers of the Torah were “looking for a reason to accuse the disciples.” This may well simply be a case of them observing an unexpected difference in the religious practice of Yeshua’s disciples and being genuinely—if not judgmentally—interested.
It is important to note that the question the Pharisees and Torah teachers are asking does not concern food directly, but rather the perceived ritual defilement passed on to objects by ritually unclean hands. The food is merely considered the vehicle of the defilement and not the defilement itself. It is understood that all present kept the dietary instruction of Israel, that is to say, the disciples were eating kosher food. If we understand this from the outset we are less likely to misinterpret Mark’s later statements in parenthesis.
“He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
As is often the case in Yeshua’s ministry, He immediately exposes the heart of the matter. The Pharisees and teachers of the Torah are looking for reasons to honor themselves above others and are depending, not on G-d’s Instruction—the Torah—but on rules they have made up for themselves. The text says that they have let go of G-d’s Instruction and are holding on to, or putting their hope in the rules of humanity. When the rules of humanity are more important to us than G-ds Instruction we are in rebellion against G-d. It is important to note that Yeshua is not opposed to tradition, but rather He is opposed to tradition that turns men away from G-d. One might say that many a modern Evangelical Christian or Messianic congregation have their own rules of decorum that have very little if anything to do with the Torah or the Gospel of Messiah Yeshua. This is perfectly okay, providing those practices do not seek to supersede the Instruction of G-d’s word.
“And He continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) -- then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Again, Messiah’s concern here is not tradition, rather He is opposing tradition that seeks to nullify the G-d given Instruction of the Torah.
“Again Yeshua called the crowd to Him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
Yeshua is obviously not speaking of hygiene here, if He were His statement would be an outright lie because there are physically dangerous microbial forms that can easily make a person unclean in a medical sense and thus result in physical sickness, even unto death. Yeshua is speaking here of spiritual cleanliness as opposed to the traditions of the rabbi’s which dealt with ritual cleansing.
“After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked Him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Yeshua declared all foods clean.)”
Yeshua explains to His disciples—who were entirely confused by the whole event—that it is the sin born in a person’s heart that makes them unclean—spiritually—not the food eaten with ritually unclean or unwashed hands.
Many have misread the final statement in verse 19 and thus concluded that Mark is declaring freedom from Kashrut—kosher dietary laws. We must therefore ask the question, “What is meant by the use of the word clean within the context of this passage?” In all the instances where the word clean is used in the context of this passage it refers specifically to ritual cleanness and even more specifically to cleanness relating to the hands. Nowhere in this passage is the word clean used to describe the nature of the food in question. Therefore if we understand the word clean to refer solely to ritual cleanness, we can rightly interpret the text to read in modern English in the following way:
“In saying this, Yeshua declared all foods ritually clean.”
Meaning that food is ritually clean regardless of whether one has performed netilat yadayim—the ritual hand washing prayer—or not. The food here in question is kosher, therefore Mark—or whoever the author of Mark is? Certainly Jewish!—cannot possibly mean to infer that non-kosher food is now clean in the Torah sense. The cleanness of entities in the Torah relates to separation (Holiness) unto G-d and not to ritual or organic cleansing.
The Greek text is a participle clause that renders literally as, “cleansing all the foods.” There is no, “In saying this,” in the text. Some therefore translate this phrase as a continuation of Yeshua’s words, in this way, “a process which cleanses all food.” If this is the best translation, then Yeshua is referring to the fact that all food is cleansed through the process of digestion, thus using its good parts for bodily function and disposing of its unusable parts through excretion of the waste. This is however unlikely, given that it places emphasis on hygiene, which contradicts the fact that the entire passage up till this point is focused on ritual cleansing and not on hygiene.
The halachic question posed by the Torah teachers and Pharisees is best answered by the former reading of this verse. The author of Mark is making a halachic summation here and not a universal edict.
“He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Yeshua again cuts to the chase. The real issue here is not food or ritual purity, the issue is the state of humanity and that which defiles the soul. Yeshua reminds everyone present that it is from the core of a person’s being that defilement is seeded. We must pay more attention to the eternal condition of our souls rather than to the temporary matters of food and hand washing.
To conclude we must be clear in our understanding of this account. This text does not declare foods clean that the Torah says are unclean. In fact, nowhere in the Bible does any text change the dietary instruction of G-d to the Jewish people. This account is about spiritual purity and our need to soberly access our condition before G-d rather than follow our own made up rules. We are foolish to judge others in light of this fact and so should be introspective rather than judgmental.
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
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Founder of the Beth Melekh International Messiah Following Jewish Community,