Mk 7: 1-8; 14-15; 21-23
1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Points for Homily Reflection
Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark
It might be interesting to examine the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees in the book of Mark.
The first datum in Mark between Jesus and the Pharisees is recorded in the call of Levi (2:13-17). This narrative ends with Jesus dining in the house of Levi. Together with Jesus and his disciples were “tax-collectors and sinners” (2:16). To this table sharing, the Scribes and the Pharisees reacted saying, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” Then, Jesus responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners” (2:17). To this first instance, nothing is said about the reaction particularly of the Pharisees to the words and comments of Jesus. At the superficial level reading, the commentary of Jesus seems to be a simple justification and reason for Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners. However, one could also second-guess that the same words could be taken as a biting commentary against the Scribes and the Pharisees.
The second encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is on the issue of Sabbath Practices. There are two cases recorded on this issue. The first is the disciples’ plucking heads of grain as they were passing through the cornfields and presumably eating them (2:23). To this the Pharisees complained, “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (2:24); and the second is Jesus himself seeing a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. Jesus asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on a Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3:4) Jesus proceeded to heal the man with the withered hand on a Sabbath. And this time the Pharisees’ reaction is “…went out and immediately conspired with the Herodian against him, how to destroy him [Jesus]” (3:6).
It is interesting to note that Jesus uses his title “Son of Man” (2:27) in the discussion on the theme of the Sabbath. This title “Son of Man” does not refer to Jesus as the ordinary human person son of Joseph or son of a carpenter or an ordinary person from Nazareth. This title refers to Jesus’ who would go through the Passion, Death and Resurrection. In other words, this refers to the divine personhood of Jesus (cf. 8;31, 9:9, 9:30, 10:33, 14:62, 15:39). In the context of the verses above and the divine personhood of Jesus, we understand the response of Jesus “…so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (2:28). As Son of God, therefore, it is always a must to do good even on Sabbaths precisely because of what He did on The Sabbath—rise from death to live for the salvation of all.
This Sunday’s gospel is the fourth encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees (and some scribes) and this encounter concerns “observing the tradition of the elders” (7:3). In particular, it is about Jesus’ disciples who were eating with defiled or unclean hands. Thus the objection is “Why do your disciples not live or walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hand?” (7:5).
The Pharisees and the Torah Practices
One can neither find fault in the Pharisees’ almost absolute knowledge of the Torah and the “practices of the elders’, nor in their resoluteness to practice the same. Knowledge of the Torah and living them out in daily life are the Pharisees’ vocation. To convince people to do and practice the demands of the Torah is their God given mission. In this context the objection of the Pharisees against Jesus’ disciples are objectively valid and true.
In the book of Mark, however, the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees have already gone from bad to worse early on in 3:6, when the latter had started to find ways to destroy the former. The best way to destroy another claimer to be a teacher of the Law is to demonstrate his seeming ignorance of the law itself. In this instance, because of anger and hatred against Jesus, the Torah or the “practices of the elders” have become the fitting venue to be used against Jesus. By all means even the sacred and the sublime can be sacrificed if only the desire to destroy another can be achieved. This is an instance where what is sacred and good can be used for selfish and ego-centered purposes. It is not that the law or the “practices of the elders” are bad by themselves; it is the heart and the conscience behind that makes these appear to be rotten.
The Torah and the practices of the elders were not the issue of Jesus. He too was a Jew and as a Jew he had so much respect to both. The quotation from Isa 29:13 makes the case in point. Honoring God with pure lip service is different from honoring God with the heart. The former is a vain worship. In the guise of service and worship one can use even the sacred, the hallowed and the sacrosanct bereft of their real meaning and purpose but for vainglorious and personal agenda. The agenda of the divine is substituted with something that is belligerent, aggressive and insulting. From a heartless soul, even what is divine can be used to advance vindictive and vicious motives. And a calloused conscience has no fear even for what is disdainfully bad.
Jesus sees beyond the practices and action, he sees the heart and conscience that underlie them. To what he sees Jesus comments, “it is from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder…. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (7:23).