Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 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.)
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?” 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” ….
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “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. ….
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15,21-23 – NRSVCE)
Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees in 7:1–23 over the question of the oral tradition has no obvious connection to the preceding episodes. Placing stories together like bricks in a row with little if any editorial cement is not unusual in Mark. This particular unit shows signs of Mark’s editorial hand throughout. The need to define “unclean hands” in v. 2, along with the parenthetical explanation of the Jewish custom of washing in vv. 3–4, would be quite unnecessary if Mark were writing to Jews. Passages such as these are unmistakable evidence that Mark is writing for non-Jews, and likely for Roman Gentiles. …. The editorial crafting of 7:1–23 has at least two purposes. One is to show the diametrical opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees on the question of the oral tradition. The oral tradition, which was the defining element of Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism, is in the present pericope categorically nullified. The second effect is to underscore for Mark’s readers the radical difference between Christians and Jews on questions of foods, cleansing, and the essential meaning of morality and what is pleasing to God. The difference between inner motives (v. 21) and ceremonial observances (v. 18) is honed to a fine edge in the present passage. This distinction will exert a defining influence in the early church, as is evinced in the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, or in Paul’s teaching “that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (Rom 14:14). (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, W B Eerdmans, 2002, 204)
One the Pharisee one scholar writes: “The exact origins of the Pharisees are not clear, but we know that they arose at the time of the Maccabean Revolt (168 B.C.), which means they had been in existence some two centuries by Jesus’ day. Their name means either “separated one” or “holy ones,” two interpretations that are not incompatible with each other. From their inception the Pharisees were staunchly opposed to Hellenism, that is, the tendency, outright or subtle, to accommodate Jewish life to prevailing Greco-Roman ideals. They stood decidedly on the rock of Torah, “the precious instrument by which the world was created,” the perfect expression of God’s wisdom and will, and the surpassing object of human existence (Pirke Abot 3:19). They were not a political party, and indeed they were rather indifferent to political rulers as long as they were permitted to pursue and establish their life according to Torah. Pharisaism was a lay movement numbering, according to an estimate of Josephus, about six thousand persons in the first century (Ant. 17.42), or approximately one percent of the population. Although small and but one party among several in Palestine, the Pharisees surpassed the Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, and Zealots most probably in number and certainly in influence. Pharisaism was reputed for high ideals and was, in the words of Josephus, “extremely influential among the common people” (Ant. 18.14–15). The Pharisees were regarded as the authorized successors of Torah, who sat on “Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:2). The strength and adaptability of the Pharisees were proven by the fact that of all the Jewish parties mentioned above, they alone survived the war with Rome in A.D. 66–70. All Judaism subsequent to that catastrophe owed its existence to Pharisaic origins. The foundational beliefs of the Pharisees, which were expounded by an illustrious rabbinic dynasty known as the “tradition of the elders” (7:5), included belief in the sovereignty of God coupled with human accountability for virtue and vice; the resurrection of the dead; angels and demons; and scrupulous adherence both to the written Torah and to the oral traditions based on it, coupled with expressed disdain for those who were ignorant, negligent, or violators of Torah.
“Jesus himself stood closer to the foundational beliefs of the Pharisees than to those of any other party of Judaism. The Gospels record only sporadic and coincidental exchanges between Jesus and the Sadducees, Herodians, and Zealots, and none between Jesus and the Essenes; but throughout his ministry Jesus is in a standing debate with Pharisaism, primarily over the issue of tradition. The essential difference is especially evident in Mark 7:1–23, in which Jesus accuses the Pharisees of overvaluing oral tradition and undervaluing the intent of the law itself. By Jesus’ day the original fervor and vitality of Pharisaism had calcified into a formalism at myriad points of practice and observance, in which conformity to legal prescriptions replaced the disposition of the heart, thus distorting the true intent of the law. Believing that Torah was prescriptive for all of life, the Pharisees wove an increasingly intricate web of regulations around it, whose purpose may have been to honor Torah, but whose effect was a confining and even crushing burden on human existence.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 87–88.)
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, only priests were required to wash before entering the tabernacle (see Exodus 30:19; 40:13; Leviticus 22:1–6); otherwise the washing of hands was prescribed only if one had touched a bodily discharge (Leviticus 15:11).
Over time – especially in the context of the pressures from the surrounding Greek culture – these prescriptions of Torah expanded. The Pharisees in the time of Jesus were demanding more than Torah. Jesus challenges this.
Implicit in Jesus’ challenge is a deeper question. It concerns the role of law in our accountability before God. Recall an earlier conflict where the Pharisees challenge Jesus because the disciples are picking corn on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus replies: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Jesus does not reject Torah, he simply situates it within the context of the Covenant. That Covenant-relationship is the primary reality.
This goes to the heart of our being human. What is more primary than our relationships? We are constituted in our humanity – for better and for worse – in and through relationships. To be is to be with. That is more fundamental, more important, than any law.
The spiritual guide, Aelred Squire, writes that “ …. relationship is written into the very nature of human beings. As the Bible sees human beings, you cannot think about them, without recognizing that they are, as it were, made for relationship.” (Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers, SPCK, 1972, 20.) The same author adds: “In the mystery of man, God guards his own mystery”. (Aelred Squire, op cit, 21.)
What a beautiful thing it is to give birth to a human being, to nurture that one, to enable the graced emergence of a manifestation of the very Mystery of God in this person. What a beautiful thing it is to love another and nourish the depths of humanity in that other.