Yr B ~ Pentecost 15 ~ Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I hope you can picture the scene this reading paints. It doesn’t say precisely, but this early part of Mark’s gospel has Jesus travelling in the Judean countryside teaching, healing, and gathering crowds. He’s just fed thousands, and healed many, and when he gets out of a boat at a new town people recognize him and come running. In other words, he’s causing a stir and getting noticed.
What happens when an upstart itinerant preacher starts gathering followers?
Well, obviously, the powers that be need to go and check him out.
Here’s where we start:
Mark 7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him…
They’ve come all the way from Jerusalem to investigate. What do they do?
They gather around him and the disciples. It’s almost like they’re encircling them, surrounding them.
I read that as being pretty intimidating!
So they’ve come to judge but they don’t even bother to wait to hear what Jesus might have to say, because as soon as they arrive they see a clear violation.
v.2 …[They gathered around him and] they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
And then the narrator conveniently fills us in on the reason why this is such a bad thing. Mark 7:3-4 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews [even, presumably, Jesus and the disciples!], 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.)
Unclean hands! Oh the horror!
Ok, it’s easy for me to mock, and it sounds ridiculous to our ears, but in their time and place this was a ceremonial no-no. I’m sure we can imagine all sorts of things that if someone came in here and did a certain thing that we’d be shocked and dismayed and cluck about how wrong it was. We’ve all got our stuff!
The religious powers-that-be are bent out of shape because some disciples didn’t wash their hands. They use the word defile. It’s used 4 times in this reading!
The Greek word is koinos (koy-nos) and it means to be stripped of sacredness – reducing what God calls special to something mundane. It happens when a person treats what is sacred (set apart to God) as ordinary (“not special”).
Think about that for a minute.
The underlying message here is that our hands, our bodies, are actually sacred things until we treat them otherwise.
Sure, it was a basic hygiene thing too. Humans ought to eat with clean hands so as not to thoughtlessly risk sickness.
But that’s not what the Pharisees are concerned with. Theirs is actually a very high religious concept.
Pharisees get the short end a lot in Christian circles when they probably shouldn’t – and they’re going to come out on the wrong side of Jesus’ teaching here too – but it isn’t because they’re thoughtless and don’t care – it’s because they’re so worried about the tiny little trees that they’re missing the forest. They are portrayed as thinking that if they take care of all the outward little ceremonial things that they’ve done enough.
Jesus, insightfully, cuts right through that and gets to the heart of it – all those little rules and regulations don’t matter a bit if your heart isn’t changed.
Mark 7:5 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?”
I bet you’ve heard yourself say, on more than one occasion, “Why can’t the younger generations live according to the traditions of their elders? Why does it seem like all the rules have gone out the window?”
Maybe we all have some Pharisee in us! read on