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 – NRSV)
This passage reports one of a number of conflict moments with the religious authorities – more specifically, “the Pharisees”. One commentator writes of this ongoing conflict:
“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, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 87-88.)
Jerusalem: It is about 90 miles by road from Jerusalem to Capernaum. This is some indication of the commitment of the religious establishment to oppose Jesus. Mark has also noted a previous occasion in which “the scribes came down from Jerusalem” – see 3:22.
the Pharisees and some of the scribes …. gathered around him: This same expression is used in Mark 5:21 – “a large crowd gathered round him” – and Mark 6:30 – “the disciples gathered around Jesus”. See Gospel Notes for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (22 July 2018) for a discussion and significance of the Greek word synagō meaning “gather” or “assemble”.
defiled hands: The idea of “uncleanness” reflects more the oral tradition developed by the religious authorities than the actual teachings of Torah. In Torah, only the priests were required to wash before entering the tabernacle – see Exodus 30:19 & 40:13 and Leviticus 22:1-6 – washing one’s hands was only prescribed if one had come in contact with some kind of bodily discharge – see Leviticus 15:11. A development of the clean/unclean divide came with the increased contact with Gentiles. It because a way of maintaining purity over against the surrounding culture.
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me: This seems to be the nub of Jesus objection to the behaviour of the religious authorities. This is reminiscent of Matthew 7:21 – Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom ….”
In today’s Gospel – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15 & 21-23 – we hear the religious authorities ask Jesus: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Their question invites us to examine the meaning of tradition.
Every human society – whether it be secular or religious – needs to deal more or less well with two major questions: The first is, “What do we believe?”. The second is, “How do we incarnate what we believe?” The twofold stream of tradition thus emerges. As we respond to what we believe, a “faith tradition” emerges. As we respond to how we incarnate that in laws, symbols, authority structures, manners etc, a “formation tradition” emerges. The two streams are inseparable. Confidence in what we believe typically will be expressed in confidence in the ways we incarnate that, and that in turn confirms the believing. And of course the opposite is also true. Lack of confidence in beliefs will be reflected in the forms those beliefs take in our daily living. How well we deal with this interplay between faith and formation in our tradition will have a huge bearing on the health and wellbeing of the society.
I think it would be fair to say that, whether we realise it or not, in Australia today we are struggling mightily with this very interplay. The current disarray in federal politics, for example, is as much about the (secular) faith tradition as it is about anything else.
Our English word, “tradition”, comes from the Latin word trader meaning “to pass on”. We pass on beliefs and how they are to be incarnated. This implies a huge paradox: In order to keep the tradition alive, we must change. Change can be traumatic. But nothing will kill a tradition more effectively than a refusal to change and a rigid repetition of custom. Therein lies the nub of Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities. Therein lies the nub also of our own struggle for renewal within the Catholic Church. It is tempting to avoid the struggle – or “sort it out” – by reducing it to black and white issues. It would be disastrous to succumb to that temptation. We are in the wilderness like the people of old. But it was precisely in the wilderness that the Covenant was forged.
The Covenant is beautifully expressed in the prayer they call Shema, after the opening word, “Listen!”. The beginning of that prayer is as follows: “Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Interestingly enough the first word of St Benedict’s Rule is “Listen!” What has been passed on to us is the New Covenant. That New Covenant, wherein we become part of the life of God through Jesus Christ, is the heart of our tradition. Everything else we do serves that. The tradition is about passing that on.