Mark 7:1–8 (NRSV)
The Tradition of the Elders
7 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they 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; 4 and 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.) 5 So 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?” 6 He 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;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Mark 7:14–15 (NRSV)
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Mark 7:21–23 (NRSV)
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Sometimes we as humans have trouble with different. Have you ever noticed this? It is something that seems to plague every culture and pretty much every age group within. The kid in the school yard just received new glasses which they are so excited about because they make them look smart older is ridiculed because of them. Why? For the simple fact that they are different. It does not even matter if the day before they were one of the more popular people in the classroom, once something sets them apart people notice and it is not always nice to be noticed.
The disciples of Christ were noticed as well. Jesus was attracting a great deal of attention in today’s passage. To set the seen in the previous chapter, Jesus went home to Nazareth and was rejected because everyone knew him and his family, they knew he was not trained in the rabbinical schools and they did not like the fact that he was teaching them. Jesus then sent his twelve closest friends out into the towns and villages to minister in his name. While the disciples were out and about in the countryside, they were able to cast out many demons, and when they anointed people with oil many were cured of their illnesses. The twelve were amazed at the power they were wielding they could hardly contain themselves. And the notoriety of Jesus increased.
It was getting to such a fervor that the king Herod had heard of him. This king who was essentially a governor granted his position by the grace of Rome but was given this position because of his personal heritage as relative of Herod the Great, who could be the last king of the Hasmonean Dynasty which was the royal family of Israel that fought and gained their independence from the over lordship of Greece. Herod could be the last of this dynasty, not because of his linage but because he married someone within the family, but not of the children of that wife survived to continue line. But this king Herod was a descendant of Herod the Great, but Herod the Great was too powerful for Rome so they broke the kingdom up into four parts and placed one of the relatives over each. And then somehow, they convinced one of those relatives to make Caesar an heir, and another was deemed unfit to rule so Rome had to send troops in as peacekeepers. The King of which Mark speaks is Herod Antipas, the man who married his brother’s wife and under the direction of this wife was seduced by his step daughter who was also his niece into killing John the Baptist. Herod heard of this traveling preacher and was convinced that it was John coming back to haunt him.
The disciples were excited about everything that was going on, they were so active in their ministries that they were to rest, unable to rest even to have a proper meal, and Jesus wisely said come with me to an isolated place to rest. Jesus knew the limits of the human body, not only was he divine and created the body, but he lived within a human body for the past thirty years. He knew that to maintain a healthy spiritual life you needed a holy rhythm of worship, prayer, and ministry. And of those the most important component was prayer. It is in prayer that we have the intimacy with God, where we can be lead, encouraged, and strengthened by the Spirit. So, they went across the sea to an isolated place, but the people saw where they were heading and gathered there as well. A multitude gathered, and Jesus had compassion on them and began to teach them. As time became later, and the crowd was hungry he fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish. This was a meal for one person, a small meal at that feed over five thousand people.
Jesus was gaining a great deal of attention. Even the attention of the religious scholars and Mosaic lawyers. From the central holy see in Jerusalem a contingency of Pharisees and scribes came to speak to Jesus. Jesus had met with a few of these people on previous occasions but now they came with a purpose, they came to distract attention. They came to derail the movement and the influence of this uneducated traveling teacher who was turning the people’s attention away from Jerusalem and moving it to the countryside.
They ask, “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Everything that Jesus was doing, all the things that could not be explained by science of today or of ancient times, all the people who had witnessed these feats and they ask about hygiene. Think about this for a moment. People were being healed of illnesses, some of which had would be considered chronic illnesses today. People possessed with evil and unclean spirits were being freed from the chains of bondage. All of this and all they had to say is why do your disciples eat without washing according to our traditions.
As I read through these things I thought deeply about where these traditions came from and what they entailed. There is no law of Moses that requires Israel to wash prior to eating, the only people that must wash before eating are priest who must be ritually clean to eat of the consecrated meats in the temple. But this is a requirement for them to be in the temple, so it really does not apply. Why these teachings came about is from a desire to avoid uncleanliness of others. These teachings have their roots in great wisdom from honored people within Israel like Solomon, but they are not part of the law. So, these rules people live by although not wrong in and of themselves and are in fact beneficial in most applications do not indicate any legal requirement. Yet these lawyers and religious scholars are questioning Jesus about these traditions.
There are six hundred and thirteen laws in the Old Testament, that is right six hundred and thirteen of which these lawyers could find some fault in the disciples over. But they did not indicate any of these laws only the traditions of the elders. This is quite interesting if you think about it. Of the six hundred and thirteen four hundred and sixty-four apply to everyone in Israel. Of those two hundred twenty-three are based on reverence to God and of those one hundred and forty-four are based in the temple. Leaving a total of three hundred and twenty laws that the people of Israel need to follow in their daily lives. Of those sixty-three are based on civil codes of basic governance which most people do not interact with on a regular basis, leaving two hundred and fifty-seven. Thirty-eight deal with financial dealing and interest, twenty-eight deal with marriage, nineteen deal with cultivation of land, five deal with the family, fifteen deal with how we treat other individuals around us. Twenty-six deal with food, and of all the laws given in scripture only five deal with uncleanness and purification. There are a lot of laws that they could investigate, but they focus in on the five on purity. Of those five laws that deal with purity two of those were based on purification of the entire congregation of the nation, which is a law that falls on the priest, and three deal with people. One dealing with childbirth, one dealing with bodily discharges for both men and women, and one dealing with pests getting into the food, seed, and water supply.
I tell you this because of everything that a legal and religious scholar could point out in any assembly of people dedicated to a religious practice, they focus on something that God does not give much attention too. Cleanliness is important but what those laws basically boil down to is take a bath after certain activities and don’t drink water that animals have died in. These laws are not that profound, I grew up on a farm, we had well water and I can tell you that it does not take a priest to tell you that you should not drink water that animals have died in. Your nose can pretty much tell you right away that you should stay away from that water. But it is the traditions around washing that the legal advisors focus on.
Which brings us to the elders, who are these people and why are their teachings important. There really was not an office of the elder’s official until Israel returned from captivity, and even then, it really did not become a major institution until after the temple was destroyed. But these teachings of the elders are just that, teachings. They are the teachings of people of whom people respected. This respect was a result of life experience, or because of age. Today in our tradition of faith we would call these individuals weighty friends. Their words carry weight for some reason. These teachings are not all inclusive. They are at best situational discussions. Regarding the washing of hands before eating, the teaching is that if it is good for a priest it should be good for us. If God was requiring one to be that clean why would he allow everyone else to remain unclean, because our uncleanliness could defile that of the priest we contact. The teaching makes great sense, but it is not required, and the legal advisors know this. They were wanting to present to the people that Jesus was leading them away from righteousness instead of leading them to greater holiness. The problem is they are talking to Jesus.
He does not let them off the hook either, quoting Isaiah, “You abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition.” This statement struck me as I reflected on the past few weeks. How often do we teach tradition as law? I reflected on many of our traditions and statements among Friends and even among other Holiness groups. I look at dancing, enjoying a game of cards with friends, an occasional drink, or even attending a theatrical performance. These were all things that holiness traditions looked down upon to varying degrees. They have very good reasons to hold to these teachings, but they are not things that if used in moderation will lead to the destruction of the soul. I consider the sacraments that we among the church hold in high regard, the things like baptism, the Eucharist, confession, marriage, confirmation, anointing the sick, and ordination. We teach of these things as if they are God’s law, but they are not. They are traditions. Yes, some of the traditions are good and have grounding in scripture but you cannot prove that scripture requires them as means of God’s grace. The traditions we teach are there to encourage a deeper relationship and heighten our devotion. When we teach traditions as law it fills in the relationship with silty sediment that keeps it shallow and it causes our devotion to become obligatory instead of heart felt.
Jesus tells us this very thing, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things coming out are what defile.” And he continues by saying, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” What does this mean? It is not always the what that matters but the why. Why is a person having an occasional drink? Why is a person playing cards? Why is a person participating in a certain form of worship? Why is a person married or not? It is not always the what that is the problem, but the why. It is not always the what that is the solution but the why. Why are these people so worried about the lack of washing hands out in the countryside where people are eating on the ground on a side of a hill? They are concerned because if people can do this, if they cannot hold their greater devotion over them as a sign of power they have lost influence. The tradition of washing, which by the way is a very good and sometimes important tradition, was being wielded tool of price and envy. It was not out of true devotion but exploitation. This is spiritual abuse and Jesus hates it.
This is the very reason why Jesus went into the temple and became angry, therefore he ripped hair out of a horse’s tail and viciously swung it at the vendors while they conducted their business. They did not care about the truth, they wanted to twist the truth, causing the guilt of others to be translated int personal profit. This causes me to pause. It causes me to consider many things that I do and teach. I may not agree with someone else’s conduct but is that conduct a transgression against my own understanding of the truth or is it an actual transgression. It is what is within us that cause evil, the why not always the what.