Five weeks of John- and it's still about bread

Gospel: Mark 7:1-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and 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.) 5So 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?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
7 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ 

It's still about bread... (You can listen to this here.)

In Mark 7, I imagine the Pharisees are gathered around Jesus in the market place; after all, in the previous few lines it says,

56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. (Mark 6:56) (I owe this observation to Elizabeth Webb.)

The word for gathered is  (συνάγονται) which has the same root as the word for synagogue, (συναγωγῇ) but these are people from Jerusalem who look askance at the loose practices of the provinces. So, Jesus is healing in the market place, and it is there that they attack him. They seek to correct and purify his synagogues— his gatherings. We might note that those who gather "do not eat anything from the market.

This story (or pericope) follows on from the feeding earlier in Mark Chapter 6:30-44,  and follows our weeks long diversion by the Lectionary into the Gospel of John,  where we looked at Communion, at fully eating what Jesus gives us— eating him whole and gnawing on the bones, as it were. What is translated in the NRSV of Mark 7:2 as "eating with defiled hands," is actually not simply the word eating. The text says: eating of the bread,  (ἐσθίουσιν ⸃ τοὺς ἄρτους ) which may simply be an idiomatic way of saying eating, but the word bread is there in the text, nonetheless.

How will we eat the Eucharist— the Bread? Will we eat with properly washed hands? Understand: this is not about the minister using hand-wash before breaking the bread of the Eucharist, which is wise hygiene. This is about proper purity, proper piety:  Will we eat Communion the right way? What is the right way? Who will tell us; who will decide for us?

Eating, consumption, is the place and the metaphor where Mark is discussing how it is we relate to God. And how God relates to us. The food laws were not about hygiene, they were about being in correct relationship to God.

What is the relationship that we have with God? Again, we meet the Ioudaioi. (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) The Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem represent the Ioudaioi, those hard-line conservative religious practitioners who insisted on scrupulous observation of the law. Some Jews followed these rules, and some didn't. (cf some of his disciples Mark 7:2)  So it is not correct to say Ioudaioi means Jews, for not "all the Jews" followed those rules. The Ioudaioi have a particular mindset about being right with God.

In fact, the Ioudaioi seem almost to be saying that they control our relationship with God. Certainly, everything comes from God, they would say, but Ioudaioi appoint themselves to discern whether we are keeping the rules which God requires. If we are not keeping the rules as defined by them, then we are defined, by the Ioudaioi, as not in good relationship with God; we are defiled.

It's important to note here that this is not merely a case of 'made up' traditions; for example, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" is not actually in the bible, it's a cultural saying. Mark is dealing with something deeper than that.  Mark Davis says

some of these “received traditions” that Jesus is critiquing in this text are rooted squarely in the Scriptures themselves. Take, for example the ritual cleansing of Exodus 30:17-21. It specifies ritual washing, even mentioning the “brazen vessel” that Mark describes ... in [Chapter 7:4] as part of the ‘received tradition.’

Therefore, this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees and some of the scribes is not simply a matter of a “get back to the Bible’s true word of God and not your added-on traditions.” Because some of the "received traditions" that Jesus critiques are actually rooted in the Old Testament itself, this argument implies that the Scriptures themselves contain both the ‘teachings of God’ and ‘the received traditions of humans.’

Mark is also speaking across pericopes; his lesson is to be seen by looking at the flow of stories. It all begins with feeding of lost, hungry people (6:30-43); a manna / Moses moment which is made much more explicit by John in his telling of the same feeding in John 6. In Mark, Jesus' feeding leads to healing in the marketplaces, and it is here the Ioudaioi oppose him by complaining about how some disciples of Jesus eat their bread.

And in the text, in some manuscripts (eg the Textus Receptus of the KJV), as Jesus speaks to the crowd, saying there is "nothing outside a person that by going in can defile ," he also says, "Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen." (Mark 7:16, see NRSV footnote) Perhaps, then, the sequence of these pericopes has a little summation, in chapter 7:31-37 where the ears of a deaf man are opened. Do you remember how the disciples ask Jesus in John 6, "Who can hear this?" (John 6:60. The NRSV accept this is the Greek ἀκούειν, to hear. ) Perhaps Mark's answer to them— very Johannine really, is:  Those who are healed of their deafness by Jesus can hear this.

And in this little dialogue across pericopes, and gospels, we might even recall that in John 6, betrayal of Jesus meant to cease walking about with him, and going back into the things of the past. In Mark, the charge of those who elevate the things of the past— do you see my pun? — was "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?" Again, I suppose, the translation is idiomatic, but the word from John is there in Mark: Why do your disciples not go about (περιπατοῦσιν Mark 7:5, John 6:66) according to the traditions of the elders? I wonder if Jesus washed his hands?

In any case, between the argument with the Pharisees, and the opening of the ears to hear, there is yet more bread. "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs";  the unclean, the defiled, those Gentiles who are especially separated from God. And the woman says, "Sir, (Lord?) even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." (Mark 7:24-30) Jesus leaves the market place where the Ioudaioi have attempted to impose their synagogue upon him, and gives God's healing grace without regard for purity; he heals the child of a Gentile.

The broad hint of the narrative is that the ears of the Ioudaioi Pharisees and Scribes are not opened. Paul Nuechterlein alerted me that in Matthew's (15:12) treatment of this text, the Pharisees are scandalised by what Jesus says; they stumble over him.

Rather than read this text through a lens which easily assumes our superiority over the Pharisees,  I'm inclined to see it as a challenge to our own stumbling over Jesus. There seems to be a strong streak in our tradition— and in me— that just can't get over Jesus, and would rather do things our own way. Why?

I seek to answer this question by considering what forms me. I hunger. Overeating has been a 'soft drug' to dull the hunger inside me; hunger for healing from fear, from rejection; hunger for meaning and purpose; that is, hunger for life— capital L— which Jesus called life eternal.

My first reading of the text led me to think Jesus is saying that what we eat, or consume, does not form the heart. The heart is the seat of us; it's our basic emotional orientation to God, and the world. So Jesus says, on this first reading, that the heart is not formed by what we eat; that is, the right food, or the correct discipline, does not make us holy. Rather, the heart— who we basically are—  informs or forms what we do: "for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come..." Indeed, as Elizabeth Webb says,

Each of these particular vices [listed by Jesus] springs from a desire to take, to grasp, to own, to devour... the corruption of the human heart is rooted in desire baring its fangs.

But I felt, as she makes clear below, that this is not the whole story. For we are formed by what we do. "Each thing we do is practice for the next time," says the proverb. So, I concluded, what we do, the way we 'wash and eat,' exposes the heart which is being formed within us. What we do, how we eat— especially of the bread— shows who we are becoming, and how we are relating to God. Webb says,

Each of these particular vices is, in some way, a sin of consumption. Adultery, theft, avarice, envy, pride -- each of these springs from a desire to take, to grasp, to own, to devour....  the corruption of the human heart is rooted in desire baring its fangs. And this is why Jesus does not reject purity laws here. It turns out that our consumption (or lack thereof) does affect our hearts. If our desire for self-satisfaction is allowed to run rampant, we become insatiable consumers: of things, of course, but also of pleasure, of people, even of our own energy. (How good do you actually feel after spending a day binge-watching something on Netflix?) Practices like purity laws, therefore, are central to forming our hearts to desire in the right way: to desire as God desires. How do the practices in which we engage (or not) form our hearts to desire rightly, we who are living in the already/not yet of God's kingdom? (Ibid)

So my question is: What will form us? How will we relate to God?

It strikes me that I exist in three characteristic modes.

In one, I am consumed by my hunger. I have lost self-awareness— self-consciousness. I'm in that place where Paul says "God abandoned them to the appetites of their hearts..." (Romans 1:24) Not that God does abandon us— we are so consumed by worry, fear, or desire, that we lose consciousness. We... shut God out. And then, the spiritual disciplines of our past, the ways we have eaten, our habits, are all that protect us, for we have ceased to listen.

In another mode, I think I am overwhelmed by penitence. And I think this is where much that is 'ioudaioi' about the church comes from. Nuechterlein quotes a fascinating insight from Raymond Schwager. Quoting Schwager he said,

"In his basileia (kingdom) message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places."  It angered the Pharisees that Jesus so easily forgave sins without any apparent repentance as a precondition for God's granting of forgiveness. Jesus appears to have reversed the order; free granting of forgiveness creates the possibility of true repentance.

And at it's gentlest, rule keeping Christianity, the Christianity which repudiates so much of the social change which in many other eyes seems to be a healing and an improvement of society— this Christianity always seems to me to be overwhelmed with a sense of its own evil. Self-interest and privilege cloud the issues, to be sure, but at my best, in this mode, I mourn how much I fail God. I long to do better, and to be what God desires of me. The disciplines— the rules— are a kind of assurance, a guarantee, and, sadly, a work, that reassure me I am right with God, and that  I am not defiled, or lost.

The problem is that God "step[s] across [my] sacred boundary toward sinners [— and me.] Jesus [did not] demand any spiritual practice of the law before he extended God's mercy to sinners. In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places." (Schwager)  Jesus steps all over my holy things, and simply offers me food for my hunger; food that will heal my heart and give rise to the fruits of the Spirit. How do I see this, how do I grasp it— eat it— instead of stumbling over it?

And here I recognise that my need to be penitent, my mourning over my failure, is actually an idolatry. Because, as I said, Jesus steps all over my holy things, breaks all my rules, and ignores the neat way I have worked out for my own salvation. I make my penance, or my need for penance, greater than God's willingness to give freely. I desire to be me, mine, like God, rather than to be God's. The fangs of my desire are bared when I must earn my way into God's affections, and when I desire the same for others: how dare they undermine my grand discipleship?

It's not the purity laws, my rules, that are the problem. It's my insistence upon them over the humanity of others, my attempt to control others, that is the problem— and the test. If I must have you keep my rules in order for you to be holy; that is, in right relationship with God, then I am wrong. I am erecting my sacred between you and God. I am making your conform to my idolatry. I am Ioudaioi.

So how do I find healthy practice, rather than right practice? If I will walk about with him, if I eat and drink with him, then I will do what he does— accept all people without repentance— just love them, respect them, feed them...

But what will it do to me if I associate with them? Well, in my best mode, when I am graced with what James Alison somewhere calls "a certain indifference" to my sinfulness, I understand: It's not what goes into me, it's not what I touch, or what touches me, it's not who I associate with, that defines me... or forms me. It is what flows out of me. And if I am giving and loving and feeding, I have nothing to fear, for these are the gifts of God.

Andrew Prior (2018)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web

Mark 7:1-23 -The Traditions of the Elders (2015)
Mark 7:1-24 - Spiritual Diahorrea (2012)
Mark 7, James 1 - Wholly Holy, or Deceived? (Sermon 2012)




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