Unmasked: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Fifteenth Week after Pentecost
Fifteenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
1) After five weeks walking through John 6, we now return to the Gospel of Mark. For the next twelve weeks, we’ll move chronologically through Mark, step by step, nearly all the way to Advent - the beginning of the new church year.
2) The Hebrew prophets are frequently critical of hollow or hypocritical religion, and in particular of religious veneers covering up deeper desecrations. You sing pretty songs of praise - but neglect the widow and the orphan! You follow the minor laws - but ignore the major ones! In this passage in Mark, Jesus picks up this prophetic mantle and makes it his own. Like the ancient prophets, he speaks as a Jew from within Jewish tradition, critiquing some religious leaders of the day - in this case some Pharisees (literally, "pure ones"), who sought to extend purity practices to all people, not just the priestly class. As we’ll see, Jesus doesn’t oppose this larger goal, or their zeal for the law, or their reliance on tradition, or their purity practices themselves. On the contrary, he contends that these leaders are not lawful, traditional, or pure enough! They try to catch others in small infractions, Jesus insists, even as they themselves commit much larger ones. To borrow the famous image from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, they point out the speck in their neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in their own (Matthew 7:3-5). Thus Jesus’ counter-critique isn’t directed against “legalism,” traditionalism, or purity practices per se, but rather against a profane blend - all too familiar in religious circles! - of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and distorted priorities.
3) This becomes most clear when reading the story as a whole (Mark 7:1-23), not just the excerpts recommended by the lectionary. The lectionary editors likely omitted verses they judged either too obscure or too open to Christian anti-Jewish interpretations - but after all, historical obscurity and anti-Judaism are issues that should be tackled head-on in any case. To get the gist of what Jesus has in mind, read the entire, unabridged story.
4) Finally, in the ancient world, many understood the human heart to be the seat of the will, the center of a person’s being and identity as a decision-maker and “doer.” In another of this week’s readings, when James says we should avoid being “hearers of the word and not doers,” the idea is that the Gospel should engage both mind and heart, intellect and will (James 1:23). Likewise, think of Jeremiah’s declaration that God’s new covenant will be “written on their hearts,” such that doing God’s will becomes second nature (Jeremiah 31:33-34). With his repeated references to "the heart” in this week's passage, Jesus trades on this ancient line of thought.
1) As a healer, Jesus has become widely known and admired among the common people in “villages or cities or farms” (Mark 6:56). The religious authorities, however, view things rather differently. The fact that this story follows directly on the heels of an account of Jesus’ notoriety suggests that the authorities may be seeking to take him down a peg - but in the background here, too, is their earlier opposition to Jesus’ healing work: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).
2) Since Jesus is a Jew being critiqued by Jewish religious authorities, the criticism is coming from "inside the camp" - and so the most faithful way to translate this story into Christian contexts today is to conceive the critics as Christian religious leaders, thus distilling Jesus’ argument down to its essence and applying it to our own struggles with hollow and hypocritical religion in the church. Indeed, the permanent temptation here is to fall into the same trap that ensnares Jesus’ opponents in this story, that is, to point accusingly at the hypocrisy of others (say, non-Christians or Christians we disagree with) rather than examining, addressing, and finally repenting of our own.
3) Mark reports that these Pharisees and scribes “had come from Jerusalem” - at once underscoring their position as representatives of the religious power structure and foreshadowing the ultimate rejection in Jerusalem to come (Mark 7:1).
4) The critics' line of attack is that “some” of Jesus’ disciples are eating without thoroughly washing their hands, a widespread (if not completely universal) Jewish ritual purity practice in Jesus’ day. The very fact that only “some” disciples are singled out implies that other disciples still wash in the traditional way, a diversity that brings to mind the continuing controversy over food practices among Jesus’ followers after his death (Acts 15). Mark presents the story here as if Jesus settles the question (“Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19)) - but as the Book of Acts and other texts make clear, the matter remained sensitive and controversial for some time.
5) And precisely here, on this sensitive topic, Jesus’ opponents zero in. Thoroughly washing hands before eating, they contend, is a purity practice “according to the tradition of the elders” - and so to disregard it is to slap those elders in the face (Mark 7:5). But Jesus will have none of it. Your concern for our elders is touching, he responds, especially considering how you regularly flout God’s commandment ('Honor your father and mother') by way of a duplicitous religious loophole: you declare your resources earmarked for a future offering to God (i.e., “Corban” (Mark 7:11)), and therefore unavailable to support your elders - but nevertheless available in the meantime to support yourself!
6) These machinations and distorted priorities, coupled with the audacity of criticizing others, kindles Jesus’ indignation. “You hypocrites!” he says (in Greek, hypokrites were actors who masked their faces), and then paraphrases Isaiah’s ancient attack on phony religiosity. You develop traditions that effectively "make void the word of God," excusing disobedience by camouflaging it in religious trappings (Mark 7:13). This is what really gets under Jesus’ skin: using the sacred in the service of desecration. In the name of God - disobeying God’s commands.
7) And so we arrive at the aphorism with which Jesus sums up the moral of the story. He calls the crowd together again and says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14-15). These so-called religious specialists focus too much on externals, as if purity comes from keeping things out. But in fact, purity comes from within; it’s what you do (or don't do!) that can defile or dishonor you; and by the same token, it’s what you do (or don't do!) that can dignify and honor you. What finally matters is purity of heart, not purity of regimen or routine. There’s nothing wrong with washing your hands - but if you really want to “wash your hands” in a higher sense, if you really want to honor your elders, then follow the major commandments first of all. Support your father and mother. You hypocrites, don’t waste your time pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, lest your judgmental words defile you; instead, work on removing the log in your own eye. Put first things first. And for God’s sake, don’t use religion to express your contempt, or to mask your unkindness, or to put yourself up on a pedestal, wagging your finger at those supposedly beneath you. True religion, true faith has the opposite effect: fostering compassion and humility, and unmasking our judgmental ways.
1) In the end, this isn’t a story about food, or purity practices, or tradition, or being too “legalistic.” At bottom this is a story about a contemptuous, manipulative form of hypocrisy. It’s a phenomenon all too common in human community, including but not limited to religious community - and it's all too appealing. How easy it is to look down our noses at each other, to misuse religion, to fashion clever ways to serve ourselves in the name of serving others! How surrounded we are today, particularly in this hyper-polarized era, with brazen examples of such things! And how tempting it is to point out those examples as if from afar, all the while ignoring the logs in our own eyes!
2) Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century Spanish theologian and community-builder, promoted a way of engaging scripture according to which the reader or hearer imagines herself into each of the roles in the story as it unfolds. How does it feel? How would I react if I were in his or her shoes? In this spirit, we might approach this week’s passage with the question: Toward which role in the story do we find ourselves gravitating? Are we quick to take up a position beside Jesus, nodding our heads and clucking our tongues at the manipulative hypocrisy of others? Or can we open our minds to the ways Jesus’ prophetic words challenge us personally and directly today, pointing out the ways we, too, focus on minor things while neglecting - or actively circumventing - major ones? As in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the prophet speaks a demanding word - to us!
3) Jesus calls us to beware the traps our own sacred practices can set for our hearts, as well as the ways judgmentalism can defile from within. But the fundamental problem here isn’t with sacred practices, or with tradition, or with careful attention to the law. If anything, Jesus’ argument is that his opponents aren’t pure enough (rather, they are hypocritical); not traditional enough (rather, they violate one of the Ten Commandments); and not careful enough in their attention to God’s law (rather, they overlook and distort). No, for Jesus, the heart of the problem is the heart (Mark 7:21). That’s where the emphasis belongs, where our focus belongs - and that’s where the good news of the Gospel this week is, too. For the prophets don’t only condemn, and neither does Jesus. They also declare the consoling, encouraging promises of God, including the promise that God will soften our hearts, transform our hearts, unmask our hearts, and in the end write a new covenant on our hearts. And little by little, by the merciful grace of God, our life together is this pilgrimage of transformation, this journey on which we are invited - again and again - to embark. For God loves us fiercely and deeply, and has promised to give us new hearts for a new day, so that we might increasingly become not only hearers but also doers of the Word!