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Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23 
Proper 17  - Year B

Other texts:

After a six-week intrusion of John, we return where we left off in our reading of Mark. When we last read from this gospel (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56), we heard about Jesus' great successes. Jesus had miraculously fed 5000 people (6:30-44). He walked on water and calmed the sea (6:45-52). When Jesus and the disciples landed at Gennesaret: "people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed" (6:54b-56).

Immediately following this comes our text. In contrast to the crowds who come to Jesus for healing, our text tells of Pharisees and scribes coming to criticize the eating practices (might we say "holiness" practices?) of Jesus and his disciples.


One connection in the larger context is the Greek word artos, translated "bread" or "loaves" or, sometimes "food".

In 6:8, the disciples are sent out two by two and told to take no bread.

"Bread" occurs often in the feeding of the 5000 -- (6:37, 38, 41, 41, 44).

However, after Jesus walks on water and stills the storm, we are told that the disciples "did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened (6:52).

The same word is used twice in our text (7:2, 5), but disappears in NRSV. A literal translation of these verses might be (words in italics will be expounded on later):

and seeing that some of his disciples with common hands --
that is unwashed -- are eating the bread
and the Pharisees and the scribes are questioning him:
"Why are your disciples not walking
according to the tradition of the elders
but with common hands are eating the bread?

The word also appears in the subsequent story (7:24-30 -- part of our text for next week) when Jesus tells the Syrophoenician woman: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Is it going too far to suggest that artos might represent God's grace? Grace that does not depend on human ability? The disciples are to take no bread of their own, but to trust God. God is gracious enough to provide bread for 5000 men plus others in the desert -- (and they probably didn't wash their hands in the proper fashion before eating). The disciples are too dense to understand about God's grace that stilled the storm (and that might have protected them in the storm?). The Pharisees and scribes want to add some ritually purifying conditions as qualifications for receiving God's grace. God's grace is intended for "God's children," but there will be enough left over for others.

Just some possibilities about artos and grace. Other verses in Mark that contain the word are: 2:26; 3:20; 8:4, 5, 6, 14, 16, 17, 19; 14:22.


As I see it, there is a general critique against Jesus and his disciples: They are not keeping or walking according to the tradition of the elders" (vv. 3, 5) and a specific charge: "They are eating with common hands" (vv. 2, 5).

The verbs in these sentences: keeping, walking, and eating are all present tense in Greek, which implies ongoing or continual actions. It probably wasn't the first time that they had been seen eating wrongly and disregarding the tradition of the elders.


The word I translated common above is koinos. It only occurs in 7:2 & 5 in Mark. The verbal form, koinoo, occurs only in this section, too (vv. 15, 15, 18, 20, 23) and is translated with "defile".

According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the secular Greek meanings of these words is common and to make common.

1. of things
    a. common opp. idios = "one's own," e.g., "common ownership"
    b. that which concerns all
c. of little worth

2. of people: participants

The word is used infrequently in the OT, but more often in the apocryphal writings where it takes on a ritual meaning. Pertaining to "something that is for everyone" it corresponds to the Hebrew CHoL which originally referred to things given up to general use. The opposite of "common things" are those which are "sanctified" or "dedicated" for special use = "holy;" and thus removed from ordinary use.

The contrast between sacred and secular comes close to expressing the distinction. However, in Hebrew thought, something that was secular, common, or ordinary, had the power to make ordinary or defile those things or people who were holy. A person or thing that had been so "defiled," could, through ritual washings, restore the "common" or "defiled" thing or person back to its holy status.

James Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) offers this analogy:

One way to convey the power of the Jewish distinction between clean and unclean, perhaps, is to draw a parallel with authoritarian societies and organizations, where people avoid all contact with a person who is under suspicion or who has been fired, for example, so as not to endanger their own position. (p. 206)

There is a power in "uncleanness" or "evil" that can cause "guilt (uncleanness) by association."

Note that the NRSV indicates that the meaning of v. 3a is uncertain. They didn't ask me <g>. Literally, the best Greek manuscripts read: "For the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless with the fist they would wash the hands, they do not eat."

Some early copyist, changed pygme = "with the fist," to pykna = "often, frequently." According to Juel (Mark -- Augsburg Commentaries), "Rabbinic discussion specify that a handful of water is sufficient to cleanse the hands."

He goes on to comment:

Apparently the term in Mark relates both to the required amount of water and to the proper manner of washing. The hand was cupped, fist-like, to make the most efficient use of available water. The practice is not derived directly from the Torah but from the "oral law" -- the tradition of the elders, which Pharisees regarded as having equal authority with the written law. This tradition, eventually recorded in the Mishnah and developed in the two Talmuds, sought to spell out as clearly as possible what obedience to the commandments entailed. [p. 102]

He also gives us this important reminder:

Those who dismiss such questions as trivial betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole Pharisaic enterprise, which is to sanctify all of life. The tradition of the elders was not an attempt to bury the commands of God in trivia, but to apply the torah to every facet of life.... The suspicion, here as earlier, is that Jesus' behavior conveys -- at least to others -- disrespect for the law, threatening the whole Pharisaic construction and (in their view) the Jewish way of life. [pp. 102-3]

This is also noted by Witherington, (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary): "In order to understand the Pharisees, one must recognize that they attempted to apply the Levitical laws for the cleanness of priests to everyone (see Exod. 30:19; 40:13). They in a sense believed in a real priesthood of all believers, and therefore all Jews were called to priestly cleanness" (p. 224).

Understanding this verse as a ceremonial washing rather than a scrubbing the dirt off one's hands will make mothers happy. I can imagine the following conversation:

Mother: "Go and wash your hands before eating."
Child: "No! Jesus says that we don't have to."
Mother: "I don't care what Jesus' says. Go and wash your hands if you expect to eat -- and use soap!"

I also hope that I never see these verses hanging in a restaurant. I know what Jesus says, but I want those food-handlers to wash their hands before touching the food that I might eat.

The washing of hands in these verses is not a washing to clean the dirt off the hands, but a religious or ritual washing. Not only were hands dirty that had weeded the garden or shoveled out the stable or cut and sanded wood; they had also become common through these common chores. They not only needed to be cleaned, they also needed to be purified -- made holy again. It's the purifying washing that is commented on in vv. 3-4.

Note also that the words translated "wash" and "washing" in v. 4 are baptizo and baptismos, which, as you might guess, are the words usually translated "to baptize" and "baptism." (The word for "wash" in v. 3 is nipto related to aniptos = "unwashed" in v. 2.) The reason for "baptizing" the things from the marketplace and the utensils is not because they are necessarily dirty, but in order to fulfill the tradition of the elders -- a way of making them and the people using them holy.

While the issue in this text centers on the tradition of the elders; they grow out of a serious command given in Exodus 30:17-21 [nipto is the word used throughout for "wash" in the LXX]:

The LORD spoke to Moses: You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations.

The repeated threat of death indicates that this washing was a very important ritual.


Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) write about purity:

Purity practices are a form of group boundary. They define who is in and who is out. They draw lines between those who are loyal to a group and those who are not. Failure to follow customary Israelite purity laws thus raised questions about the loyalty of native followers of Jesus to the God of israel, no small matter in the face of Roman presence and the range of loyalties among conflicting Israelite groups. [p. 222]

They go one to talk about purity/pollution in some contemporary images:

All enduring human societies offer their members ways of making sense out of living by providing systems of meaning.... When something is out of place as determined by the prevailing system of meaning, that something is considered wrong, deviant, senseless. Dirt is matter out of place. When people clean their houses or cars, they simply rearrange matter, returning it to its proper place. The point is, the perception of dirt and the behavior called cleaning both point to the existence of some system according to which there is a proper place for everything. This system of place is one indication of the existence of a larger system for making sense out of human living.

One traditional way of talking about such an overall system of meaning is called the purity system, the system of pure (in place) and impure (out of place) or the system of clean (in place) and unclean (out of place). Pure and impure, clean and unclean, can be predicted of persons, groups, things, times, and places. Such purity distinctions embody the core values of a society and thereby provide clarity of meaning, direction of activity, and consistency for social behavior. [p. 222]

The issue the Pharisees raise is about what does it mean to be Jewish. It is a question of identity -- of determining who is in and who is out.

Do not our congregations have written regulations about what behaviors are required for continued active membership in the group, e.g., attend worship, receive communion, contribute as biblical stewards? Congregations and groups also have "tacit rules" -- expectations that are almost never stated -- until someone breaks them. I doubt that any congregation has a written or even spoken rule stating that bikinis and swimming suits will not be worn at worship services. It is assumed that everyone knows that and will obey it. When they don't, then people hear about the rules. In many smaller congregations, everyone knows where everyone sits at worship, but when a visitor who doesn't know this unspoken rule sits in someone pew, there can be looks of anger and resentment by the person who's "supposed" to sit there.


Jesus doesn't answer the question raised in v. 5, but calls them "hypocrites" and quotes from Isaiah 29:13 (LXX). He seems to be responding a question that was never asked.

The word "hypocrite" began with the meaning "responder and interpreter". It was then applied to the stage: "one who plays (interprets) a part, an actor." It then took on a more general meaning referring to anyone who is a "pretender" or "acts differently than one really is."

The problem Jesus addresses is that their actions -- proper washing rituals, lips honoring God, participating in worship -- are pretend actions.

The proper actions from the quote are "Having hearts close to God" and "teaching the commandments of God." If can also assume that in a synonymous parallel construction, these two lines have virtually the same meaning.

This quote also suggests that since "honoring God with the lips" and "worshipping" are actions that we would expect from people whose hearts are close to God and who teach God's commandments; then "keeping the traditions of the elders" is not necessarily bad if one's heart and teachings about the traditions are centered in God.

This verse from Isaiah is quoted in our Lutheran Confessions in an article about adiaphora. These are (often worship practices) that are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God, but were introduced for the sake of good order and decorum. We Lutherans kept many traditional practices that are not contained in scriptures, but, are also not forbidden by scriptures.

I think that Jesus is teaching us that traditional practices are not necessarily good or bad -- they do not make one Christian. To use a traditional practice that is finding its way back into the Lutheran church -- crossing one's self -- such actions do not make one a Christian and if one thinks that way, I believe Jesus would criticize that person for doing it. However, if one's faith is strengthened and renewed by this symbolic remembrance of God's actions in baptism -- then, by all means, follow this traditional ritual.

The actions that flow out of a "heart close to God," whether traditional or novel, are good. The actions that flow out of a heart far away from God, whether traditional or novel, are bad.

A number of contrasts are presented in v. 8

The problem is not "tradition" per se, as I've indicated above -- in addition, Paul uses the word in a positive sense (2C 11:2; 2Th 2:15, 3:6) -- the problem that I see presented in this verse is the relationship one has to the tradition or commandment -- either abandoning or keeping it; and the source of the tradition or commandment -- either from God or from humans.

In a number of previous notes, I have presented my interpretation of krateo as possibly referring to "holding dear" rather than simply "obeying" or "keeping" of commandments, e.g., something that is a "keepsake". In v. 8 it is presented as a contrast to aphiemi -- "letting go" or "separating oneself from". I believe that both these terms can be understood relationally: holding close or dear to oneself vs. separating oneself from.

Verse 9 repeats verse 8, but with stronger language directed at "you":

Is Jesus suggesting that the proper way of putting our hearts close to God is to keep (or hold dear) the commandments of God? I have two opposing answers to that question.

Mark 10 gives us two examples of keeping the commandments and that isn't enough to put one's heart close to God. 10:5 refers to the commandment about divorce. Presumably one could keep that commandment and yet still have a heart far from God. 10:19 is about the commandments that the rich man has kept, but that isn't enough. His heart is closer to his possessions than to God. Keeping the commandments is not enough.

However, Mark 12:28 & 31 refer to the two great commandments: loving God and loving one's neighbor as one's self. I think that it is Jesus' intention that we hold those two commandments dear. If we do that, it is likely that all the other commandments and traditions would fall into their proper place.


I've shared the following story before, but it is a good illustration of one of the truths of our text. It comes from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People

Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York

A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi.

It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.

The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."

And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.

"Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse!" [p. 109]

VERSES 14-17, 21-23 -- "INSIDES" & "OUTSIDES"

Jesus does not have much success getting people "to understand" in Mark. The word (syniemi) occurs five times and every other time it is used to indicate the peoples' -- primarily the disciples' -- lack of understanding: 4:12; 6:52; 8:17, 21. Even in vv. 17-20 they indicate that they are "without understanding" (asynetos -- v. 18) and "don't know" ("don't see" in NRSV -- noeo -- v. 18).

I mentioned earlier about the meaning of koinoo, the verb used twice in v. 15 and translated "defile."

I find that the truths contained in these verses are quite difficult for people to understand.

First of all, it can be difficult to understand sin as our common (koinos), human, natural state. It comes from within. It is part of our nature. Sin is not just "doing bad things."

I used the following analogies in a sermon that I think illustrates the difficulty of considering our "insides" as that which "defile" us.

"Just let your conscience be your guide," say some people. Some psychologists presume that there is an inner goodness within the human being. Some religious preachers proclaim: "Use your own free will." I think that this text speaks against all that. Within every human being is a cesspool of sin.

There are groups that want to outlaw all pornographic movies and magazines. There are groups who want to outlaw all assault weapons -- guns designed for killing other human beings. The argument is that these things make people bad. However, pornographic magazines don't make a man a rapist -- no more than reading "Christianity Today" or "The Christian Century" makes one a Christian or reading "The Lutheran" makes one a Lutheran. As Jesus speaks in our text, it's not these things outside of people that make them bad, it's all the garbage within us -- our inner cesspools of sin -- what we will do with such things.

When I worked at an alcoholic hospital, our approach was that the alcohol or drug abuse wasn't the whole problem. Yes, we needed to get the patients to stop using and abusing drugs and alcohol; but we also attempted to discover what it was inside the person that caused them to take that first drink or puff or injection. Why, when they knew that these substances were ruining their lives, did they continue to use them? What was within them that caused them to deal with their lives through these numbing means? Inner guilt, shame, anger, self-hatred -- these were some of the inner things that had to be dealt with, besides the outer symptoms of addictions.

Secondly, until people are convinced that their "insides" are the problem, they will not seek the proper cure.

If sin is seen as only "doing bad things." The cure is "stop doing bad things" and/or "start doing good things." This mindset leads to misusing tradition as a means of curing sin.

If one's "insides" (conscience, heart, free will, etc.) are seen as good; people then look there for their salvation. That's a problem because they are looking for a cure against their sin from the source of their sin -- and that is no cure.

When one realizes that one's "insides" are at the heart of the problem and that no cure can be found within, then one needs to be cured by a power outside of one's self -- a power that can change the insides.

It is clear in our text that


Whether or not this simple logic stands up, I think that it is true theologically. Our salvation has to come from outside of us, because our insides are cesspools of sin. It is God, who is outside of our defiled and defiling insides, who comes into us from outside of us in Word and Sacrament. It is God, who comes into our insides through our ears and mouths, to purify us.

Therapeutically, an approach that we took at the alcoholic hospital was "to act one's way to a new way of thinking." Patients would be assigned a new way of acting, e.g., a perfectionist might be asked to wear two different colored socks -- to purposely be imperfect and realize that s/he can still be accepted by others. A similar saying is attributed to Jesse Jackson: "It is easier to walk your way into a new way of thinking - - than to think your way into a new way of walking."

More simply stated: I've heard it suggested that intentionally smiling helps make one's inner disposition "happier."

Or to quote a biblical passage: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt 6:21). Jesus indicates that hearts follow treasures.

I realize that I've gone around in a circle: From saying that actions without the proper heart are wrong to saying that actions can change one's heart. Or, in other words, keeping traditions without the proper godly motivations are wrong, but keeping traditions can help one develop the proper godly motivations. This is another one of those paradoxical tensions that are part of our lives. Does making children go to church and Sunday school give them the proper faith or does living with such strict rules turn them away from a proper understanding of God's grace? The answer is "yes". Both statements are true and we could probably point to people who have been so affected by required church attendance.

However, to return to theological realm: There is no paradox about our salvation. It is God, who is outside of us, who comes into our insides to purify us. I can't understand why anyone with this understanding about salvation would not want to receive Holy Communion as frequently as possible. It is, in a very tangible way, God coming inside of our lives. God can purify our consciences, hearts, and wills; so that we might be able to trust them and have good coming out from within. But we also live with the knowledge that our natural, defiled state is always present within. To quote from Martin Luther: "We are simultaneously saints and sinners."

A final quote, this time from one of my favorite twentieth century authors, Robert Farrar Capon:

...Whatever the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is, it is not a religion. It is, in fact, the announcement of the end of religion. And what is religion? It is the human race's age-long preoccupation with the notion that there is something we can or should do to set ourselves right with God, or to get God to be nice, or to make the universe go more smoothly....

Religion, in short, is an attempt at control -- a kind of conjuring which, while it aims at desirable results, resorts to devices which, in fact, do not, and never have, produced such results. All of which is neatly summed up in the Epistle to the Hebrews: It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats -- or orthodox opinions, or long prayers, or proper behavior [and I might add, washing hands in the right way] -- can take away sins.

Only Jesus does that. And he does it by one simple device. He announces, in his death and resurrection, that whatever it was that religion ever tried to do or ever would do, he has accomplished once and for all. ["In Us We Trust" an article in The Door, March/April 1989 #104]

Simply stated, the cure for inner sin is Jesus. Jesus announces the forgiveness and destruction of sin through Word and Sacrament. We are to believe the announcement -- to trust the verbal and tangible Word, rather than trusting our insides.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901