Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Mark 7:1-23

Clean and Unclean

     1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

     5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

     6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

        “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
            7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

     8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

     9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

     14 Again 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 makes them unclean.” 

     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 make them ‘unclean’? 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 makes them ‘unclean.’ 21 For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, 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.”

In the minds of the Hebrew people, the ideas of ‘righteousness’ and ‘purity’ sort of got merged. That basic idea isn’t really a problem – being righteous can be understood as doing things that are ethically pure.

The problem was that the Hebrews had lost sight of the fact that purity was really just a metaphor for righteousness. The rituals they practiced were supposed to symbolize spiritual and moral ‘cleanness,’ but the Jews had come to see them as actually making a person spiritually and morally clean. And once you get to that point, it’s a pretty short step to thinking of impurity as something that came upon a person from the outside.

That meant that if you nursed an injured person and got blood on you, you were spiritually compromised until you could wait a specified period and then go through a cleansing ritual. The same went for a woman who gave birth to a child. These ancient purity practices had probably helped the ancient Hebrews keep in mind the importance of living spiritually pure lives, but by Jesus’ day, people had lost perspective and were thinking that the practices themselves had the power to make a person righteous.

So some of the Jews – even some of the religious leaders – were living scandalously sinful lives, but thinking they were spiritually superior to others just because they were regular about these purity rituals.

In some cases, Jesus says, the religious leaders were actually teaching people to do things that violated the heart of God’s law. He gives an example. People were basically making a sort of will that said the temple would get their money when they died. And then once they made out that ‘will,’ those people would stop supporting their elderly parents. They’d said, “Sorry, Mom and Dad, all my money belongs to the temple now.”

This system was obviously good for the religious leadership, but anyone who thought about it for a moment would see that it’s not in keeping with God’s commandment to honor our father and mother. It was a policy of human invention, but one that was being presented as God’s idea.

And in the context of this conversation about ritual purity, it suggests that Jesus viewed all these rules and regulations about ritual hand-washing and stuff as being of human origin, not God’s idea, either.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with religious rituals, even ones we might make up ourselves, as long as they meet a couple of conditions. First of all, they ought to remind us of something that God has established as a part of the life of authentic faith. For example, some churches have a ritual on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, where they fill the baptismal font with smooth stones, and invite people to come up and take one of the stones as a reminder of the baptism they share with Jesus. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But the second condition should be that people don’t make the mistake of thinking keeping a ritual is all it takes to be a good and righteous person. That’s kind of what was happening in this passage – people were confusing religious practices with authentic righteousness.

A modern example of this confusion: A few years ago there was a slaughterhouse in the Midwest that had a rabbi on-site so their products could be certified as kosher. But the rabbi discovered that the slaughterhouse was employing illegal immigrants and underpaying them. And if the workers complained, the company would call Immigration and have them deported. So the rabbi withdrew the company’s kosher certification. He said that there’s more to being kosher than just washing your knives correctly. Being kosher means being committed to doing things as God would have them done. So you can’t abuse your workers and claim to be kosher.

I think Jesus is getting at exactly the same point in this passage. It’s our actions, our words and even our thoughts that can make us impure in ways that really matter to God – in ways that ritual hand-washings can’t wash away. And then he goes on to list a number of sins that make us impure. This obviously isn’t a complete list of all the sins that can make us impure, but it’s complete enough to give us the picture. And as I read this list of sins, I have the distinct impression that this list is intended to cover just about everyone.

Of course, that confronts us with the fact that, since we’re always going to be unclean in God’s eyes because of our sins, we are going to have to rely for our salvation on God’s grace – on the undeserved favor we get as followers of Jesus. It’s only that grace that allows God to overlook our impurity and embrace us as adopted children and to invite us to call him Abba – ‘Papa’ – just as Jesus does.

Let’s pray. Lord, protect us from thinking that because we take part in ‘religious activities,’ we are somehow more acceptable in your eyes than others. Remind us that although you call us to strive for greater faithfulness to your law, we will never succeed in making ourselves clean in your eyes. So let us cling to the grace that comes to us through Jesus, and extend that grace to others in his name. Amen.

Have a great weekend,


(The listed readings for today are Psalms 6 and 88; Isaiah 50:1-11; Galatians 3:15-22; and Mark 6:47-56.)