Last week we looked at Mark 6 and the rejection Jesus and John the Baptist experienced by the authorities, and that which the disciples would experience. It ends on a high notes with Jesus as a miracle worker, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and healing the sick.
7:1-13, Prophesied Hypocrites
Ritual purity, scribal traditions, and the breaking down of the Jewish-Gentile walls are a major theme in the following verses. We haven’t seen the Pharisees since they left to plot the death of Jesus (3.6) along with the scribes since they accused Jesus of working with Satan (3.22). Jesus has been accused of blasphemy (2.7), keeping bad company (2.16), breaking the Sabbath (2.24; 3.2), and working under Satan’s power (3.22). What now?
Oh, they have seen that Jesus’ disciples eat bread without washing their hands.
The Old Testament prescribed cleansing rituals, particularly for priests and their households before eating consecrated food (Num. 18.11-13). The Pharisees, wanting to seem extra pious, expanded this command to cover hands, food, and eating utensils (7.4). The real issue is the tradition of the elders (7.3) over the will of God. The traditions were a guardrail around the law ensuring nobody stepped over the line. In being asked why His disciples disobey the traditions (7.5), Jesus responds not by explaining the disciples ‘disobedience’, but what is wrong with the scribes and Pharisees’ ‘obedience’.
They are hypocrites (7.6-8). Only those whose soil/hearts are hard (4.5) and far from God (7.6) could continue to reject His good news. This hypocrisy by the Jewish leadership points to the transfer of the vineyard (12.1-9) and the destruction of the temple (13).
There is a word play in 7.6 and 7.9, with Jesus saying ironically, “Isaiah did a beautiful job of describing you, and you do a beautiful job of living up to the description.” Jesus’ accusations also get progressively stronger in the following verses: they lay aside the commandment of God (7.8), they reject the commandment of God (7.9), and they make the word of God of no effect (7.13).
Though there are many examples (7.13), Jesus cracks down on their theory of ‘Corban’ (7.9-11). One could declare an object ‘Corban’ and still retain the use of it. It becomes unavailable to others as if it had been given to God. So a son may have been expected to support his parents in their old age, yet gives that support up as ‘Corban’ to the Lord. The son could keep it and the parents couldn’t touch. As dumb as this sounds, the religious establishment stood on the side of the son!
The Pharisees not only abandoned God’s commandments to honor one’s parents, but they also forbade it (7.12)! Yet Jesus said by breaking this commandment one was deserving of death (quoting Moses) (7.10).
7:14-16, Jesus Speaks to the Crowds
Defilement is something that is born in the heart and manifests itself outwardly. Only people, not things, can be unclean, and they are unclean not by things, but their actions devised in their hearts (7.15; 3.5-6).
7:17-23, Jesus Speaks to the Disciples
Food doesn’t touch the heart. It doesn’t make you any more or less moral (7.18-19a). Jesus’ opponents are trying to make up ceremonies to make the profane become sacred again. Jesus simply affirms the goodness of God’s creation.
The shift of food being unclean to clean points Peter and the apostles to preaching the gospel to the now-clean Gentiles. This is the same sort of point Jesus is making here.
A person is not defiled by food, but schemings, reasonings, and actions from a defiled heart (3.6). “Jesus doesn’t not alleviate the demand for purity but sharpens it” (pg. 258, Lane). “Washing hands is relatively easy compared to overcoming greed, pride, and other evil desires” (pg. 168; Geddert).
7:24-30, A Persistent Gentile
Speaking of things that are defiled, let’s go to the Gentiles! Jesus goes to Tyre wanting to seek refuge in a house. But this popular Messiah can find no rest for very long. Jesus is found by a “born loser”. She is a woman (social status), a Greek (religious status), and a Syrophoenician (identifies her race as being connected to the OT Canaanites).
Having just talked about breaking down barriers, and that defilement comes from within, this Gentile woman’s daughter is demon-possessed. She asks for help, and Jesus refuses. He’s not wrong in doing so. The right time has not yet come for the children (Israel) are to be fed first (7.27). It is not fair to take what is first and throw it to the dogs (or puppies?) under the table (seems like it could be ‘puppies’ with reference to food under a household table).
Yet she understands! She accepts that Israel is first (‘Yes’). She calls Him ‘Lord’, and becomes the only person in Mark (and a Gentile at that) to call Jesus ‘Lord’ (similarly, the only person to confess that Jesus is God’s Son is a Gentile [15.39]). But she is not asking for a seat at the table. She simply wants one of the crumbs that falls on the floor.
The Pharisees and scribes could not convince Jesus to change His mind. But lo and behold this Gentile woman does the trick, has faith, and succeeds. God’s grace is for those who are open to receive it, not to those who hold to every tradition.
In the next section Mark deals with eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear and how only Jesus can overcome that.