WE have had the stories of the calming of the storm and the walking on water. Both followed by stories about the contrast between cleanliness and purity.
Pharisees and scribes were criticising the disciples for eating with unclean hands. The issue was not hygiene. They did not know about norovirus in those days. This was about purity. The purity laws included the ritual washing of hands before eating and were asking why they did not live according to the traditions of the elders.
Jesus then counter accuses them of hypocrisy. They forget God’s commandments and hold on to the traditions dreamed up by men. The word Jesus uses is about people who pretend to be righteous but don’t practise what they preach. A bit unfair, perhaps, as I’m sure many Pharisees were deeply devout men. Jesus was accusing them on three counts. They honoured God with their lips but not with their hearts. Their worship was vanity because they taught human interpretations as doctrine. They abandoned the commandment of God by holding onto human tradition. This is interesting. Commandment is singular in the original but plural in this version of the Bible. Jesus was referring to the commandment, ‘Honour your father and your mother.’ The Pharisees found a way round this by saying people could dedicate their wealth as an offering to God to avoid supporting their parents in old age. That is the meaning of Corban. Jesus went on to say’ that is not the only thing you have done.
Jesus then spoke to the crowd, “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.” This is, probably, one of the most radical teachings of Jesus. It completely re-defined purity. Purity is not about the observance of laws that makes a person unclean or impure. What really matters is the inside or the heart. As Matthew wrote in one of the beatitudes, Blessed are the pure in heart.
Let’s not play this down. In Jesus’ time this was revolutionary. Purity laws were part of the convention and they were stressed by the Pharisees and Essenes, who were a religious group dedicated to simple living and abstinence of worldly pleasures. No pubs and clubs for them.
Mark emphasised this re-definition of purity by Jesus’ expansion of the idea to his disciples as they were asking what it all meant. “Don’t you understand? Whatever goes into a person cannot make them unclean since it doesn’t enter the heart but goes into the stomach and then goes out into the sewer.” Therefore, Mark wrote, Jesus declared all foods clean. Whether Jesus abolished the idea of Kosher at this time is open to debate. This bit might have been added later. But it requires all the peculiar laws that we can read in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to be thought through very carefully. Considering that this passage is a parable we have to see a meaning for us today and I don’t think it is really about food and hand washing. It surely is broader than that. Purity is about the within, the heart, the inside. Our motives, our care for others, our love for each other. It is not, nor has it ever been, about how we carry out our religious rituals. That’s why it doesn’t matter whether you worship at 8.45, 10.30 or 6.30. Whether you are Anglican, Roman Catholic of Pentecostal. None of them are perfect, by the way. What does matter is a desire to follow Jesus and his example and teaching. That is all important.