- December 28, 2007
- By John Rutledge
BaptistWay Bible Series for January 6
When cleanliness is not next to godliness
• Mark 7:1-23
Christ Church, Rockwall
If we read through the Gospels, after a while, it is easy to wag our finger or roll our eyes at the attitudes and antics of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes were the Ph.D’s of Mosaic Law while the Pharisees were a religious group within Judaism that sought to preserve and protect God’s will as expressed in the law. They sometimes are caricatured as “nose in the air” moralists who go sniffing around for people actually enjoying their lives in order to make them miserable. In popular parlance, they are the proverbial “party poopers” in the kingdom of God. And in the Gospels, it is usually Jesus’ party they are seeking to spoil.
But, of course, this caricature is not totally fair. After all, they are dealing with the religious tectonic shift happening between the Judaism they have known and the emerging way of Jesus. Questions arose about what practices and ways of thinking would transfer to the people’s trust in Jesus as Messiah.
Practically speaking, if Jesus indeed came to fulfill the law and not to abolish it, then how were they supposed to pick and choose what customs and rituals to keep? These were important matters not easily negotiated among the religious leaders wanting to be faithful to the law and the people wanting to be faithful to the law while following Jesus.
What made these decisions difficult was the sheer volume of Jewish rituals and customs. By some estimates, there were 613 mizvot (commandments) in the Torah (the five books of Moses). Leviticus (chapters 11-26) outlines the purity laws that specify foods considered clean or unclean.
The Leviticus holiness code includes purity rituals for after childbirth or menstruation, regulations for wearing clothing made of two different materials (no cotton/poly blends), sanctions against coming in contact with a dead body or a dead animal, and pronouncements about sexual behaviors, keeping the Sabbath and getting tattoos. The purity laws laid out in Leviticus address almost every conceivable aspect of human life: birth, death, sex, ethnicity, gender, marriage, health and hygiene.
These matters were of utmost importance for at least two reasonsone, Israel needed to maintain its distinct identity from people of other nations in order preserve its faith in God as creator and ruler of the earth; and two, Israel was called by God to be holy, because the God who called Israel was holy (Leviticus 19:2).
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, however, Jesus repeatedly violates laws about ritual purity. In Mark alone, Jesus touches a leper (1:41), his disciples do not fast (2:18), he disregards Sabbath laws (2:23), he touches a woman who had been bleeding 12 years and then handles a dead corpse (5:21-43). In every instance, Jesus is healing and ministering to the people involved. The presence and power of God are being revealed. At the same time, Jesus directly violates Levitical laws about ritual purity.
In this passage, however, Jesus is asked why his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. Curiously, washing hands before a meal is not specifically required by Old Testament law. Ritual washing is mentioned, but specifically, nothing is mentioned about hand washing before meals. Washing one’s hands before a meal is a “tradition of the elders,” an oral tradition of legal teachings that emerged alongside the written law of Moses.
This explains Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees. He beats them at their own game regarding “the tradition of the elders.” He chastises them for being willing to uphold their tradition at the expense of the commandments.
For example, in the ancient world, mothers and fathers (or the aged) often were financially and socially dependent on their children (or younger caretakers). But according to the “tradition of the elders,” a child could decide to make a financial donation to the temple and give nothing to the parent. Making a financial commitment to God (the temple), they would be “off the hook” from having to take care of the parents (thus in violation of the more important commandment of God to honor father and mother).
Jesus thus exposes their spiritual hypocrisy. Jesus explains it is not what goes into a person that defiles the person. Rather, it is what comes out of the person that defiles the person. A man is not morally affected by what he eats, since the body naturally eliminates the waste. However, whatever comes out of a person’s mouth comes from the heart. And when a person’s heart is evil, Jesus says the whole body is defiled.
Whether or not someone washes his hands before a meal is not the point. What is most important is whether a person loves God with his whole heart and loves his neighbor as himself. This is the more noble aim of the law and the prophets, but it is not accomplished by a lifeless set of rituals and practices that doesn’t lead a person to deeper love and compassion.
The laws of ritual purity failed to express the holiness of God. Jesus became the living, breathing embodiment of the real will of God that was at the heart of the law. It was Jesus who revealed the heart of the law teaching his followers to understand that only by being among the so-called unclean that true holiness could be seen.
• What groups or persons do you consider unclean, impure or otherwise outside the circle of God’s holiness and love?
• What are ways we distort the true nature of God’s unconditional love into excuses to exclude people Jesus cares about?
• What boundaries have we wrongly built to keep the so-called “unclean” far away from us; from God? What can we do to tear down such walls?