1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” 6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” 9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” 14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
–Mark 7.1-23 (NIV)
In today’s lesson we miss the importance of Jesus declaring all foods clean if we don’t understand the historical context in which he made this pronouncement. In first century Israel, the memory of Jewish martyrs who had died at the hands of pagans rather than violate Israel’s food laws was still fresh in Israel’s collective mind. For Jesus to essentially say that they needn’t have died for this would have been highly provocative, to say the least. No wonder Jesus did not fully explain himself until he and his disciples were by themselves.
But Jesus is making a critical point to us. We humans tend to want to base our right standing before God on what we do, on how well we follow the rules. Thus the earlier clash in today’s lesson with the Pharisees. Jesus, of course, knows better. It is not how well we follow the rules that determine our right standing before God because that all pales in comparison to what comes out of us.
For you see, God created humans to be his image bearers and our sin has defiled that image. It makes us selfish and self-centered, proud and arrogant, especially if we are successful in “following the rules.” Notice that the list of vices Jesus recites has the collective effect of dehumanizing us and others. They also serve to ensure that God’s justice is not fulfilled as he intended so that all humans are cared for and have their real and wholesome needs met (greed et al. are not wholesome needs). Neither will his peace reign.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting rules are not important–the are because they help us recognize what is good and bad. But we should never elevate rules to become gods in their own perverse way. Rules are to help us combat that which is in us that defile us, no more, no less. They aren’t our savior. Jesus is. And because what comes out of the heart seems to be sadly part of our fallen DNA, there is no way we can ever hope to fix these things on our own. Certainly rules cannot fix us. We can only do so by the help of the Spirit living in us and by following Jesus. In other words, we must look to Jesus to see how God intends for us to really live life and then rely on his Spirit to help us get there. Given that we are fallen creatures we will never achieve perfection in these mortal bodies, but we are always working toward the completion of our humanity and the more we are able to act like Jesus the more human we will be.
Here then is both bad and good news. The bad news is that we are hopelessly broken and beyond self-repair. If we remain in that state we will also remain alienated from God and hostile toward him (and he us because God cannot countenance evil in any form). But God knows this and has implemented his rescue plan for us, a plan that has culminated in Jesus of Nazareth and the gift of his Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus to the best of our ability and with the Spirit’s help so that we can start to become the fully human creatures God created us to be. As long as our hearts remain perverse, we can never hope to be those fully human creatures.
But we have real and powerful help in the form of the Spirit living in us. He will help transform us into the very image of Christ, not all at once and certainly not painlessly. Yet we have our eyes on the prize when we are Christ’s. We know there is now no condemnation for us because Jesus himself has borne our condemnation and he is working in us to shape us into his own image so that we can be God’s image-bearer to others. This goal makes our struggles worth the effort because we look forward to the day of New Creation in which we will learn fully what it is to be human and to love as completely we are loved.