The real problem: An impure heart. Mark 7:14-23

The literary structure of Mark 7:1-23

Last week we began looking at Mark 7:1-23. In vs. 1-13 Jesus pointed out the problem of following mere human religious rules or the tradition of the elders. This week we’ll focus on the other point of dispute between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees –

The issue of impurity

Now, this isn’t the most exciting topic, but it’s important for understanding this passage. So here we go. In Scripture an object or a person becomes ritually impure in a number of ways, for instance by contact with a corpse, through various bodily discharges (which I will spare you listing them), or by touching someone who has these.

This creates a problem because God is holy and completely pure. So, if you are impure, you can’t come near to God. You can’t come near the temple, you can’t offer sacrifice (a real concern for priests) and also in some cases you had to stay away from other people. But you could be made ritually pure again by undergoing the proper ritual, which often involved water.

Well, the Pharisees (and their scribes) especially emphasized ritual purity. And in their traditions the rules for purity multiplied greatly beyond what Scripture says and they were applied broadly to everyone. The Pharisees’ goal seems to have been for regular people to maintain the highest possible state of ritual purity.

The Pharisees and those who were influenced by them, thought that this is what the people of God need; this is the agenda for moving forward for renewal and for once again receiving God’s blessing. And this is, no doubt, why they have condemned Jesus and his disciples in our story.

This bring us to –

Jesus’ parable on impurity

 14And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.”

He has a message for the crowd. And he begins by saying hear and understand. He’s saying, this is important. But also he’s saying this is going to be difficult to understand! It’s called “a parable” in v. 17, and it’s meant to be a cryptic statement.

So you have to put some effort into understanding it. v. 16 isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, but it emphasizes this point as well, “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Here’s the parable –

15There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

 Notice that there are two parallel halves to this. And each half contains a series of contrasts with the other. There is:

  • a contrast between the outside, and the inside of a person
  • a contrast between things that go in from the outside, and things that come out from the inside
  • a contrast between what cannot defile – what goes in, and what does defile – what comes out

So this much is clear. But what else in the world is Jesus talking about?? Thankfully we have –

Jesus’ explanation

17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding?”

Like in other places in the gospels, Jesus explains his teaching in private to his disciples. First, he deals with the first half of the parable.

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and goes out into the toilet – cleansing all foods?”

We’re reminded of the bigger context here. Jesus has been talking about eating food with defiled hands. But then something happens. When he tells us why the food doesn’t defile, he talks about how “it enters not his heart.” This is odd until you realize that Jesus has shifted the conversation from one on ritual purity, to one exclusively about moral purity – with a focus on the human heart. This is the key to understanding the parable. He’s not saying whether food does or does not defile someone. He just doesn’t address this. Rather, he’s saying no food can make someone morally impure. Hold on to this. We’ll come back to it.

A digression: At the end of v. 19 we have a dangling participial phrase that’s difficult to make sense of, and it shows up differently in different Bibles. In the earliest manuscripts it says literally, “cleansing all foods,” which can be construed in different ways.

The phrase, “thus he declared . . .” is not in the Greek text. It’s simply one way to make sense of this. Just briefly, my view is that using the phrase “thus he declared” is not the best solution. Rather, it’s best to see “cleansing all foods” as the conclusion of Jesus’ point here. He’s saying, the digestive process cleanses all foods, keeping the good and expelling the bad. Neither Jesus nor Mark is saying the biblical food laws or purity laws for Jews are nullified.

[Grammatically “cleansing” doesn’t have a close antecedent. So you can 1) go back to the beginning of v. 18 and find it in “he said to them” (or forward to v. 20) and come up with “Jesus, cleansing all foods” or as I said above, “Thus he declared all foods clean” or 2) you can take it as a grammatical oddity which sometime happens – an anacoluthon. And then the phrase works as I have interpreted it above. The KJV and NKJV are based on later manuscripts which also connect the phrase to the digestive process, but by means of a change to the word “cleansing.”

The second option is preferable for a number of reasons: 1) Jesus has just strongly rebuked the Pharisees for letting their traditions nullify the word of God. It is not reasonable to think that Jesus would then immediately turn around and nullify actual Scriptural commands to Jews. Jesus would be a law breaker and a sinner. And why is there no trace of him being rebuked by the Pharisees for this? And why would any Jew listen to him? He would be classified as a false prophet. 2) Jesus explicitly teaches that he does not nullify the Law – Matthew 5:17-19. 3) If the first option is accepted, Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples in v. 18 would overly harsh. How could they be expected to anticipate that Jesus would be nullifying Scriptural commands? 4) Jesus’ saying in v. 15 is a “parable” (v. 17). It’s not a halakic statement defining right observance of the Law. And we are told to be careful to listen to what he’s saying. 5) Jesus’ point in all this is that moral impurity is the key. He’s not trying to make a statement on Scriptural teaching on ritual impurity or clean and unclean foods. 6) Matthew 15:20 provides the right interpretation. At the end of this version of the story, Jesus says, “but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” That is he’s criticizing human traditions, not nullifying Scriptural commands. 7) If the first option is right, why did this saying not show up in the discussions of the early church on Gentiles and the Law of Moses in Acts 15? It’s because this passage was not interpreted as Jesus nullifying Scriptural commands by other Jews or his disciples. 8) The question of Gentiles and the Law was settled by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Jewish Christians continue to observe the Law (as Jesus interprets it), not for salvation, but as Jews. Gentiles do not need to keep the Law of Moses, except for the three things mentioned in the Apostolic decree from Leviticus 17-18. Other than that they simply follow Jesus.]

Next, Jesus explains the second half of the parable.

20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.”

  • Also notice v. 21 – “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ..”
  • And as well v. 23 – “ . . . evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

So food can’t make someone morally impure, but the evil that comes out from the heart does defile.

Again, Jesus isn’t talking about ritual purity. He has shifted to a conversation about moral purity. Why? Because the real issue for Jesus is not ritual impurity but heart impurity.

Having heard his explanation, here’s a paraphrase of his parable: There is no food that you take in that can make you morally impure. But the evil things that come out of your heart do make you morally impure. 

Next, Jesus goes on to talk about –

The evil of the human heart

21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In v. 21 he speaks of “evil thoughts” and in v. 23 of “evil things.” And in-between these there are 12 things that Jesus mentions.

[The first six are all in the plural, and most are from the 10 commandments. The second six are all in the singular.]

Jesus certainly agreed with the words of Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”

Notice that “murder” and “slander” or it can also be translated as “blasphemy” are on the list Jesus gives. These are the things that the Pharisees are directing toward him. In chapter 3 we learn that they are seeking to “destroy” him (v. 6), and also we see them slandering or blaspheming him and the Holy Spirit (vs. 28-29). While Jesus and his disciples may be guilty of not keeping mere human rules of ritual impurity, the Pharisees are guilty of true impurity; moral impurity of the heart.

Let’s step back now and look at the bigger picture and –

Jesus’ central point

The Pharisees’ agenda for renewal is about outward rules of purity. They focus on ever more detailed rules for how to stay ritually pure. And they say that this is how God’s people will be renewed; this is how Israel will find God’s favor.

But yet as Jesus said in Mark 7:6, even with all this “their heart is far from God.” And that’s because the real problem is an impure heart and there’s no way a focus on more and more ritual impurity can solve this.

In contrast, Jesus’ agenda for renewal is the giving of a new heart. This is what was promised in the prophets. For instance in Ezekiel 36:25-27. The Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

This is what God’s people need!! A new, clean heart, given by the Spirit; a heart that has right desires.

Now, he doesn’t talk about the positive part of this here, just what the real problem is. But this is Jesus’ whole mission in coming to us:

  • He died so that our sins might be forgiven; our moral defilement cleansed.
  • And he was raised so that we might receive the Spirit and a new heart that obeys the Lord.

Well, again, it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees, but –

What about us?

We don’t have ritual purity rules like in Jesus’ day. We have rules for purity, but they’re more about hygiene than blocking one’s access to God.

But sometimes we try to cover over our moral impurity by cleaning up the outside of our lives, often using human rules as opposed to what God is focused on. Things like how we dress, using the right words, attending extra church services or volunteering in the community. The outside, our lips, may honor God, but our hearts are far from God. Our hearts are still defiled and filthy. We are hypocrites.

Jesus is teaching us to deal with the real issue – our impure, evil heart. And we have to start within (Matthew 23:25-26)! Let Jesus cleanse away the defilement of your heart. Let Jesus give you a new heart by the Spirit. And let him do these things day by day as there is need.

And then as you’re renewed within, the outward can follow. Out of the abundance of your new heart will come right words (Matthew 12:33-37) and right actions (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus takes on mere human traditions. Mark 7:1-13

The literary structure of Mark 7 1-13

We’re launching into an important passage today, Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two significant issues that are talked about in these verses – human religious traditions and how to be pure before God.  The plan is to deal with the first one today, in vs. 1-13. And we’ll look at the second, purity, next week.

Our Scripture begins with Jesus involved in, surprise, surprise –

A conflict

1Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.

So some Pharisees are present and also some experts of the Law from Jerusalem – the theologians of that day. They’re checking Jesus out. They want to see what he’s up to.

The last time we saw some scribes they accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan (3:22), so not a friendly audience. Well, they and the Pharisees take issue again when they see some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they eat.

Now, this isn’t about good hygiene. As v. 2 indicates, it has to do with ritual uncleanness or defilement; that is to say, eating this way makes you ceremonially unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain –

3For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

[“All the Jews” is a bit of a generalization. Certainly the Pharisees, who were influential, held to the need for washing hands, as did the Essences, another prominent group of Jews. 

One word in not translated. It comes at the end of the phrase in v. 3, “they wash their hands . . ..” It says literally “with a fist.” No one knows for sure what this means. It might mean “carefully” or it might refer to how the hands are ritually washed. 

The very last phrase of v. 4, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all the manuscripts. So if your Bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers (us) understand the situation. 1) Washing things was a big deal for many Jews, especially the Pharisees. And 2) The command to wash hands comes from “the tradition of the elders” not from Scripture itself.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It’s sometimes called the oral law. The idea was that Moses wrote down the Law in the Bible, but other instructions were passed on generation to generation by word of mouth. (This tradition was later written out in the Mishna, and other writings.) So, the Pharisees believed there are two sources of commandments, the written Law in Scripture and the oral law or tradition of the elders.

5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

This is really an attack on Jesus. The charge is that his disciples aren’t faithful to God, which means that, since he’s their teacher, he’s not faithful. (Jesus also didn’t follow this practice – Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of 1) keeping the traditions, and 2) what purity means. But as I said, we’ll focus on the first for today.

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response comes in vs. 6-8, where he calls them out as hypocrites.

6And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

A hypocrite looks one way – good, but is actually another – not so good.

Jesus quotes from the prophets, specifically Isaiah 29:3, a passage that deals with honoring God. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and the scribes – and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

The word “worship” should be taken in its broad sense of  a life of service and obedience to God, not just how they participate in a worship service.

They look like they’re honoring God with their lives. But this is only external, with their lips. Their heart remains far away. Why is their heart far away? Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because they are only about teaching and following human rules.

He’s saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys –

8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Notice the contrast here between a life that is based on God and God’s commandments, and a life that is based on tradition and human commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response comes in vs. 9-13, where he illustrates their hypocrisy. He begins with the same point he just made in v. 8 –

 9And he said to them, “Well have you set aside the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

He’s saying again, you prefer your tradition to God’s commands. You leave or set aside what God says, to keep what you say.

Jesus then quotes from the Law on honoring parents –

10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’”

 He’s quoting Exodus 20:12, the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17. It was understood by all that honoring parents, for adult children, includes caring for them financially when the’re older. The second reference shows how serious this issue is. Those who don’t honor their parents, but revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

Then Jesus lays out their hypocrisy –

11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother . . .”

Notice the strong contrast between what God has said through Moses, and what they say based on their tradition, which is not God’s word.

The word “corban” is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (that is, the Temple), but apparently the person here could still have access to them and use them until a later time. (This view was most likely held by many Pharisees and scribes at this time. It was rejected in later Judaism m. Ned. 9:1).

So based on their tradition the Pharisees and scribes said that you must keep your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents. That is, you can withhold giving your resources to support your parents.

“. . . 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

They allow people to nullify what God commands, in order to keep a vow that is unrighteous in the first place. Indeed, they allow not only the breaking of the fifth commandment, but an action that is on a par with reviling one’s parents, which deserves the death penalty!

Summing up: Their charge was, ‘Jesus, you’re not faithful to God because you don’t keep the traditions of the elders.’ His response was, ‘Pharisees, you’re not faithful to God because you keep the traditions of the elders.’

They neither honor God (Isaiah 29) nor people, that is, their parents (Exodus 20 and 21). This is why they’re hypocrites. And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law and the Prophets, that is, based on God’s word.

Well, it’s easy to criticize others, like the Pharisees, but –

What about us?

We all have human traditions. We all have opinions and convictions about how Christians should do things – that are not explicitly taught in Scripture.

  • What style of music should we sing in worship?
  • Should the sermon be about evangelism each week, with an altar call, or not?
  • What kind of clothes should we wear to church? Should we dress up or it doesn’t matter as long as they are modest?

Maybe you would see “the tradition of the elders” as equaling doing things the way we’ve always done things. But maybe our religious rule is that we have to be on the cutting edge and always do something new. It can work either way.

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to function as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some traditions. But they can be taken too far.

What about us? Learn to differentiate between your traditions and God’s word. Eight times, in one way or another, our passage talks about human religious traditions. And throughout these are contrasted with “God’s word” or what is written in Scripture. These things are not the same. And so do not put them on the same level as the Pharisees did.

Yes, sometimes we have different views on things based on different interpretations of Scripture. But in the examples I have given you there is no explicit Scriptural teaching to settle the issue. They are matters of personal conviction, or a whole church’s conviction. And faithful Christians can differ.

What about us? Make sure your obedience to God is based on God’s word, and not mere human traditions. If your Christian life is just about making sure you practice your  traditions – I dressed right for church, I only sang the right kind of songs – then your obedience to God is useless, just like the Pharisees. Congratulations, you are a hypocrite! You look religious, but you haven’t built your life on following what God is actually interested in; what God teaches us.

Finally, what about us? Don’t judge others as unfaithful because of your traditions. This is what the Pharisees did to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was faithful in every way, but was rejected as unfaithful because he didn’t conform to their merely human traditions.

And we do this too. Look, they aren’t faithful to God because they don’t dress right or sing the right kind of songs. When we do this we place our traditions over God’s commands. We do just what Jesus says about the Pharisees in v. 8 – we “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

So let’s learn to identify and relegate our traditions to what they actually are – just our own convictions, not God’s commands. And let’s be generous and flexible with each other in the practice of our common Christian faith.

Jesus heals many people. Mark 6:54-56

Our passage this morning is quite short – only 3 verses! But I want us to look at it because its important and it leads us into a focus on Jesus as the anointed one, which I’ll get to later.

Let me say two things about these verses first: 1) They are the end of a large section of material in the Gospel of Mark from chapter 4:35-6:56. You can see how this section of Mark is put together in this handout – The literary structure of Mark 4:35 – 6:56. 2) These verses parallel another section of material just before the feeding of the 5,000, in 6:33-34. See this handout – The literary structure Mark 6:54-56. Notice that each set of verses has three parts – they recognized Jesus, they ran through all the towns/the whole region, Jesus taught/healed. These sets of verses frame the two stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water letting us know that Mark wants us to think of them together.

Alright, let’s look at our verses –

Mark 6:54-56

54And when they got out of the boat . . .

Remember with me, Jesus has just walked on water and calmed the wind, and he and the 12 have now landed at Gennesaret.

. . . the people immediately recognized him 55and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was.

Once again, we see here Jesus as the celebrity of the day. He was truly famous and sought out by the common person. Not always for the best reasons, we could say – to believe in him, to be his disciple – but to have their needs met. Nevertheless Jesus does care about them and by and large he accommodates their requests for help.

56And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces . . .

These would usually be the largest open area of a given village or town. And so these people, not the sick themselves and not the disciples, are running ahead of Jesus to bring the sick to these marketplaces wherever he went.

. . . and (they) implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment.

The fringe of his garment refers to the four blue tassels that all Jewish men were to wear according to the Law of Moses (Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12). This shows us again that Jesus was an observant and devout Jew (see also Mark 1:44.)

And as many as touched it were made well.

What an amazing display of God’s power. God’s Spirit was so upon Jesus that such a simple act of faith, touching the fringe of his garment, brought healing.

Notice the expansive language in these verses – people ran through the “whole region” to bring the sick to “wherever” Jesus was going. Mark is emphasizing the extent of Jesus’ healing ministry in this region. And then notice what little they had to do, just touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as did this were healed. All of this is to remind us of who Jesus is and his great healing power. Which brings me to my point today –

Jesus really is the anointed one

Remember “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. No. It’s a title. It’s the same word as “Messiah.” Christ comes into English from Greek and Messiah from Hebrew, but they’re the same word. Christ or Messiah is a title that describes who Jesus is – it literally means “the anointed one.”

What does it mean to be “the anointed one”? In the Old Testament people were anointed to carry out specific tasks for God: kings (2 Samuel 5:3), priests (Exodus 29:7) and prophets (1 Kings 19:16). Oil was used representing the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

To say that Jesus is “the anointed one” is to say that he’s the one, promised in the Old Testament, who brings God’s salvation.

When did his anointing happen? At his baptism. Mark 1:10 says, “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”

How do we know for sure that Jesus was anointed? Mark narrates it for us. These are the works of Spirit power that Jesus has done so far in our story: (Red is an exorcism, green a healing and purple a miracle.)

1. Cast out a demon (chapter 1)

2. Healed Peter’s mother in law (1)

3. Healed many and cast out many demons in Capernaum (1)

4. Healed a leper (1)

5. Healed a paralyzed man (2)

6. Healed a man with a withered hand (3)

7. Healed many and cast out many demons from a crowd from all Israel and beyond (3)

8. Calmed the storm (4)

9. Cast out a legion of demons (5)

10. Healed a woman (5)

11. Raised a girl from the dead (5)

12. Healed some in Nazareth (6)

13. Fed 5,000 people (6)

14. Walked on water and calmed the wind (6)

15. Healed many from Gennesaret (6) which is our passage.

Here are the works of Spirit power that we haven’t looked at yet:

16. Cast out a demon from a girl (7)

17. Healed a deaf man who also couldn’t talk – (7)

18. Fed 4,000 people (8)

19. Healed a blind man (8)

20. Cast out a demon from a boy (9)

21. Healed a blind man (10)

22. Killed a fig tree with his words to make a point (11)

And the other gospels record many more works of power by Jesus. And so I highlight all this for you to make the simple point that – No one has ever done such things! Jesus is indeed the anointed one; the one promised now come.

How should we respond?

  • We should believe that he’s the one, as Jesus calls us to in Mark 1:15, “believe the good news” that he’s bringing God’s kingdom salvation.
  • And we should turn away from our sins, as he calls us to in the same verse, “repent.” We are to become his disciples and put into practice his teaching and example.
  • And we should receive the salvation he gives to us, through his death and resurrection – forgiveness and new life by the Spirit.
  • And as his people we should trust and know that we can rely on him, the anointed one, to take care of any need we have.