My Dear People,
At the center of the first part of the Bread Section (6:30-7:37) Mark enters into a lengthy dispute over Jewish legal customs (7:1-23). This discussion returns to a theme that was prominent earlier in the Gospel--the religious authorities’ hostility toward Jesus (2:1-3, 3:6, 21-30). The earlier disputes became an occasion for a deeper revelation of Jesus’ identity and mission, whereas this one becomes an occasion to reveal a transformation in God’s covenant relationship with His people.
As Jesus is going about his ministry of healing, the Pharisees team up with scribes from Jerusalem (see 3:22) to pose an accusatory question. The Pharisees were members of a renewal movement that sought to restore God’s favor to Israel by advocating strict observance of the law and total separation from all Gentile defilement. Scribes were professional copyists and scholars of the law. Some were Pharisees. Those from Jerusalem, the capital, probably carried an extra weight of authority. Together, they were scandalized to observe how some of Jesus’ Disciples ate their meals. The phrase, “eat breads,” links this dispute with the miracle of the five thousand who “ate bread”. (6:35-44). Perhaps it was Jesus’ miraculous provision of bread in the desert (where the crowds had no opportunity to wash their hands) that occasioned the religious leaders’ pious disapproval. The controversy also bears on the post-resurrection Church (which Mark is writing about) where the burning question was: Are Christians obliged to follow the law and traditions of the Jews? (see, Acts: 15). The question is especially urgent in regard to the Church’s mission among the Gentiles, a theme to which the Bread Section often alludes.
The gist of the accusation is that Jesus’ followers eat “with unclean, that is, unwashed hands.” The problem in view is not hygiene, but ritual purity. “Unclean” (koinos) literally means “common” or “prophane,” the opposite of holy or set apart for God. To grasp the point of the accusation it is necessary to understand the background of these Jewish practices, which Mark proceeds to explain for the benefit of his Gentile readers (7:3-4). The law of Moses had prescribed rules for the cultic purity of priests, including the washing of their hands and feet before offering sacrifices (Exodus 30:17-21) and ritual purity (which usually entailed washings) before eating their share of sacrifice (Num 18:11-13). These biblical rules apply only to priests serving at the altar, but the oral tradition developed by the Pharisees had extended them to govern the behavior of all followers of Jesus at all meals—making every meal a religious act and a symbolic expression of Jewish identity. Moreover, any contact with potentially unclean persons or products in the marketplace necessitated a ritual washing, and all items used to prepare or serve food, such as cups and jugs and kettles, also needed purification. Some manuscripts of the Gospel include beds, which could become unclean due to various causes (see Lev. 15:2-5,19-27). Although not all Jewish assemblies kept this oral tradition, by the time of Christ it was expected of all, and those who failed to keep it were despised by the Pharisees as the “accused” ordinary folk who were ignorant of the law.
After this Mark returns to the question of the Pharisees, and scribes: Why do some of Jesus’ disciples “eat bread” with unclean hands? Not only do these disciples apparently flout the requirements of the ritual purity, but they also ignore the tradition of the elders that the Pharisees consider binding.
Jesus’ response must have taken them aback. Rather than citing grounds for an exception for his disciples, he levels a countercharge challenging the entire edifice of the Pharisaic legalism. His accusers are the hypocrites, people whose outward conduct does not correspond with the true state of their heart. To explain what he means Jesus invokes a prophecy of Isaiah (19:13). It is important to understand the context of this prophecy (which Mark quotes in a form close to the Septuagint version).
Isaiah is speaking to Israelites who have lost an intimate contact with God and serve Him with an empty formalism devoid of authentic love. Their worship is mere lip service, consisting of inherited rituals that are not rooted in interior conversion of the heart. In fact, they are promoting their own superficial religiosity as a substitute for true obedience to God’s will (see Isa. 29:10-22). But God’s response, through Isaiah, is not so much a threat as a promise. He will once again intervene in the lives of the people with acts so wondrous that they will be moved to acknowledge him as the God of the covenant and honor Him with authentic worship (Isa. 29: 14-24). Jesus’ invocation of this prophecy is a veiled proclamation that the promise is now being fulfilled in their midst. For that very reason, the warning implied in the prophecy is all the more urgent.
The punch line of Jesus’ countercharge is the last line, which he will repeat in different forms in vv.9 and 13: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” It is a scathing indictment of his questioners’ whole approach to religion, in which the contrast is between “God’s” and “human”. They have neglected what is truly of God in favor of their own human agendas.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente