Mark 7:1–8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You 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: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
From the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the Pharisees and Scribes were in opposition to him. On the other hand, the multitudes of ordinary Jews who followed Jesus grew larger daily. The Pharisees and Scribes saw the growth in Jesus’ followers as a threat. They kept a close watch on Jesus and his disciples and took every opportunity to point out in public that Jesus or his disciples being blasphemy because they had not observed the laws.
In today’s reading according to St. Mark, we have the same Pharisees and Scribes accusing Jesus of collusion in sin for he lets some of his disciples eat without first washing their hands. We should note that this is not about breaking the laws but a violation of the tradition of the elders. In other words, it was a non-compliance of customs.
Although this was a minor issue, the opinion of the Pharisees and Scribes did carry great weight because they were from Jerusalem, the centre of religious authority. And the question here is of “ritual” cleanliness. It is not one of hygiene. According to the Talmud, the Jewish authority for traditional ritual observances, only priests were bound by this law of washing their hands before eating. Thus, the law of washing before eating was not obligatory on all Jews.
The Pharisees now accused Jesus of encouraging his disciples to violate the Pharisees’ traditions. However, Jesus first answered that it was of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy that Isaiah had prophesied seven centuries previously: “In vain do they worship me teaching as doctrine the precepts of men” (Isaiah 29:13).
Next Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees and Scribes, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Jesus drew their attention to the fact that his disciples did not deliberately violate the Law of God. He also emphasized the Pharisees and Scribes had their priorities wrong. Human precepts may and must sometimes be broken, but the divine law never.
Turning to the multitudes of his ordinary followers, Jesus explained the real meaning of cleanliness before God that a man is not made unclean, sinful, before God because of some unclean thing he may swallow by eating with unwashed hands. It is rather, Jesus said, the evil designs that come from within, from a man’s heart and mind, that defile a man and make him a sinner.
Jesus then added a list of the many sins that men commit because of the evil designs they form within themselves. The evil begins within. This is the uncleanliness which men must avoid rather than the cultic impurity about which the Pharisees and Scribes are so concerned.
For us today, we should know that that every serious sin against God and neighbour has its beginning within us, in our intellect and will; the evil design is the forerunner and instigator of the veil deed. Amen.
Mark 7:1–8, 14-15, 21-23