The Pharisees were very keen on making sure they were holy and separated from anything that would ‘contaminate’ them – people, places, occupations etc. They would not want to associate with ‘the unclean’. In this passage, Jesus challenges them on what counts as really clean, pure and holy.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)…
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’ [f]
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
20 He went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’ (Mark 7:1-4; 14-23)
There were different kinds of purity laws arising from the Old Testament and we see here that the Pharisees had shown their keenness by adding rituals about washing. But in this passage, Jesus even goes as far as declaring ‘all foods clean.’ By doing this, he was stacking with dynamite the walls that separated so-called clean from unclean, the Jew from the Gentile, the insider from the outsider. (The explosion came in Acts 10 and blew down one of the main walls of division in the ancient world, so the gospel could reach the ends of the earth).
Holiness matters, but Jesus is challenging us to think about what holiness actually means and where it comes from. Holiness comes from taking care of what is going on inside of us and not by trying to control what is going on outside of us. It is a matter of the heart. If we are not careful, we can become so preoccupied with observing external religious rules that we fail to guard the heart, from which flow all the issues of life (Prov.4:23). When we do that, we can also end up regarding certain kinds of people as unclean. We could end up keeping our distance, as we aim to live ‘disinfected lives’, putting up walls of fear and judgment. By locating the issue of holiness in what is going on in the heart (our roots) Jesus challenges this way of thinking.
Questions for Discussion
- What did you learn from this story?
- What does Jesus actually mean by his teaching that it is what comes from inside of us that makes us unclean?
- How do we take care of the heart?
- What can we do to make sure that we don’t treat anyone as ‘unclean’?
- Keep on reading through the gospel of Mark
- Read Acts 10 when Jesus appears in a vision to Peter to teach him that all foods are clean, and in doing so, enabled the gospel to go to the Gentiles, to the whole world.