February 15-16 sermon resource

What Defiles?

  • Main text: Mark 7:1-23
  • Psalm 51:1-3, 6-7

What this passage means to us

This is a fascinating area of study and it informs us of more things than meets the eye initially. Matthew 15 is a parallel account and it supplements Mark’s record. It’s of interest that Mark chose to explain the context for his non-Jewish readers whereas Matthew, whose gospel account was written mainly for a Jewish readership, omits the references in Mark 7:3-4. Both writers are well aware of their intended readership, and this is a lesson for us in both writing and public speaking — it is good practice to know something about those to whom we write or preach.

Jesus addresses three audiences in this passage. The first is a group of Pharisees accompanied by some scribes who had come from Jerusalem, perhaps among them were some of those whom Jesus confronted in John 5:18, 6:41; the second was a crowd of people that Jesus gathered together in order to teach them a parable that related to the challenge set to him by the religious leaders: the third consisted of his disciples who asked him to explain the meaning of what they had just heard and witnessed. Jesus’ approach to each is different and this illustrates to us how he knew his audiences and how to relate to them. In reality, of course, there are two additional audiences/readerships — the early Christian community that would have heard Mark’s words being read aloud, and also those who would read his gospel account in the ages to come.

In his response to the scribes and Pharisees Jesus not only defends his disciples against the accusation that their hands were ceremonially defiled, but he also defines his position towards the rabbinical traditions that surrounded the Mosaic Law. Jesus, of course, had no objection to the simple washing of hands before eating, and he refused to sanction “the authority the rabbis claimed to have in telling the people the exact and detailed manner in which it must be done” [1]. Jesus was regarded as a Rabbi, as noted by Nicodemus when he came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2), and it was expected that Jesus and his followers would observe the purity traditions, especially after having circulated among the bustling crowds that clustered around Jesus. The Jewish leaders made a careful distinction between washing hands and dipping (baptizing) them. Youngs Literal Translation (YLT) makes it clearer for us to understand the reference in Mark 7:3, “for the Pharisees, and all the Jews, if they do not wash the hands to the wrist, do not eat, holding the tradition of the elders”. The custom was to make sure that the hands were cleansed for all to see, and, for those who were more diligent, “Up to the elbow” (AMPC). Mark 7:4 is a slightly different idea for when they would come from the public market where they would have had more contact with the unclean masses ­— “Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water” (NLT). This is the idea of dipping or baptising, not just washing by using a cup or so of water, but a complete immersion to make sure they were uncontaminated by people who might be ceremonially unclean. None of this was to do with hygiene, it was all to do with religious purity as dictated by the religious élite. To be certain that all was spotless, there were even rules about how pots and pans should be scrubbed to ensure total sanctification. In fact, so superstitious were Pharisees and scribes about these things that they thought a demon called Shibta would “hurt them that wash not their hands before meat”[2]. These customs were among Judaism’s “traditions” of the fathers for which the apostle Paul was “extremely zealous” prior to his epiphany on the Damascene road (Galatians 1:14, Acts 9:1-7). Jesus’ declaration that these were just “merely human rules” (Mark 7:7) would have shocked everyone, including his own disciples and the watching crowds of people. When Jesus took the example of Corban, this also flew in the face of the traditions. The word “Corban”, meaning sacrifice or gift, was a way of making an oath or a vow that would exclude someone from doing something for a set period of time, in one way like a resolution not to do something. For example, “Corban to me is wine for the month of May” would mean abstinence from wine for that period. A practice at Jesus’ time was to get around the principle of supporting one’s parents by saying something like “Corban to me is anyone who might profit by me during a specified time”, or using the phrase to say that if anything was to be given, it would be only to the Temple. Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of such avoidance techniques, and, in any event, he had already explained to his disciples “do not swear an oath at all” (Matthew 5:34), which was in stark contrast to the Mosaic law.

Jesus’ parable to the people of Mark 7:14 and his subsequent explanation of it to the disciples are part of the body of teaching mentioned in Matthew 28:20, where Jesus instructs his disciples to teach future believers “to obey everything I have commanded you”. Instead of being concerned about ritual purification and the traditions of men, believers should look to Jesus and what he has to say. Christ said that what really defiles us is what we let into our hearts, not our stomachs. For those listening, this would have been a whole new way of thinking. They knew that the body could be defiled by sickness and even by touch, but Jesus was discussing something far more important, which was that our thoughts, actions and behaviour can be adversely and sinfully affected by the thoughts we let into our mind and on which our emotions dwell. The list in Mark 7:21-23 that details how evil comes “from within, out of a person’s heart” is reminiscent of Paul’s list of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21. “But”, says Paul, “if you are led by the Spirit (of Jesus), you are not under the law…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:18, 22-23).

Storyline and Context

In both Matthew’s and Mark’s account what happens next involves a Gentile woman whose faith is accepted by Jesus. This is significant when we think of how the Gentiles were regarded as unclean by the Jews. This in particular links in with later events in the life of the apostle Peter, when he realized ‘how true it is that God does not show favouritismbut accepts from every nation” (Acts 10:34-35).

It is only Mark who records, in response to what Matthew notes is Peter’s question (Matthew 15:15), that, “in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). It is debatable whether the disciples understood this fully at the time. It is a reference to the Mosaic dietary laws. To the Jews observing Leviticus 11 kept them holy and made them distinct from the unclean Gentiles. There is a general agreement among biblical scholars that Mark was connected to Peter and received most of his information for his gospel account from him. “As a result of his close connection with Peter, the Gospel of Mark has also been known as the ‘Gospel of Peter’”[3]. This connection to Peter becomes relevant here. It is Peter to whom God reveals this vision involving unclean meats: “He (Peter) saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat’. ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times” (Acts 10:11-16). Following this revelation from God, Peter declared that “God has shown me I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Later in his ministry Peter is chastised by Paul for Peter’s hypocrisy in how and what he would eat when some Jews came from Jerusalem to meet him. “For before certain men came from James, he (Peter) used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I (Paul) saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas (another name for Peter) in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ’” (Galatians 2:12-16). The customs would have included the rabbinical traditions, and the works of the law would have included the dietary laws of Leviticus 11. If Peter was living like a Gentile in regard to eating, it would have been without the Jewish requirements. Did Peter recall the events of Mark 7, the vision of Acts 10, and his mistake in Antioch of Galatians 2, and, consequently, did he ask Mark to make sure that he included the statement, “in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19)?

Going back to Mark’s gospel, who was this Jesus who had the audacity to overturn the traditions of the fathers and even dare to question aspects of the law of Moses? Peter, along with James and John, was about to find out and this involved another vision from God…


Scripture resources

  • Matthew 15:1-29
  • Acts 10:1-32
  • Galatians 2:11-16
  • Galatians 5:16-26

Other GCI resources:

Other GCI resources

Footnotes and references

  1. Fred H Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (Chicago, USA: Moody Press, 1953). 56.
  2. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/lightfoot-new-testament/matthew/15.html
  3. David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible (London, UK: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015). 787.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close