Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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” (Mark 7:1-8 – NRSV).
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” (Mark 7:14-15 – NRSV).
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 7:21-23 – NRSV).
We find a similar passage in Matthew 15:1-20.
The text from Mark has evoked a wonderfully fruitful series of reflections amongst scholars. Those reflections take us to the heart of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity at the very beginning:
“The narrative combines three distinct disputes: the question of how one is to maintain purity when eating (7:1–8), a criticism of the misuse of the laws and commands of God by overemphasizing human traditions (7:9–13), and further instructions to a different audience (the crowd and the disciples) on what causes ritual impurity (7:14–23). The narrative is more dense with explanatory comments than any other section of Mark (see Notes), and is quite repetitious, especially in the second half. This is clearly a narrative that has gone through a complex development, though the exact stages may not be recoverable. ….
“Certain cautions and opportunities for contemporary actualization emerge from this narrative. The cautions arise around a tendency to characterize first-century ‘Judaism’ as legalistic and external in contrast to the more spiritual and compassionate moral code presented by Jesus. The controversy in Mark 7 unfolds within first-century Judaism. The Markan Jesus contrasts his interpretation of the Law and the Prophets to interpretations by specific Jewish groups—a widespread process within the different ‘Judaisms’ of the first century. Also, the spiritualization of the food laws manifest in vv. 17–23, which is presented to the disciples in the house, may well represent a later Christian development handed on in meetings of the ‘house churches’. But this is not simply a ‘hellenization’ of Jesus’ message, since such stress on interior morality was also strong in Judaism itself, especially in the Diaspora Judaism represented by someone like Philo.
“Nonetheless, the narrative does offer an opportunity for contemporary Christians to reflect on how and why strong religious commitment and devotion to tradition can result in a certain moral rigidity, and it sounds the warning that certain laws and customs must be continually reassessed in light of revelation, just as the Markan Jesus invokes the Torah against ‘human tradition’. The Second Vatican Council called Scripture the ‘soul of theology’ and in its ‘Decree on the Training of Priests’ (Optatam totius 16) said that special attention needs to be given to the development of moral theology, and that its scientific exposition should be more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teachings. In the intervening years since the Council there have been many attempts to ground moral theology in Scripture. At the same time there is currently a strong counter-tendency to ‘build a fence around the law’ with a renewed stress on codified moral directives, which seems to owe more to traditional teachings than to the biblical vision. There must be a constant interplay between Scripture and tradition lest Christians today end up ‘nullifying the word of God’ (7:13)” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 227 & 230-231).
Today’s Gospel text raises the specific issue of table fellowship. This text is found in the middle of an extended account of Jesus’ mission to both Jews and Gentiles – see Mark 6:7-8:21. Jesus has done many wonderful things, such as feeding the 5000 – see Mark 6:30-44; it is evident that the disciples do not understand the meaning of that event – see Mark 6:52; then we have an encounter with the Pharisees that quickly escalates into a disagreement over rituals relating to food, among other things. Immediately following today’s Gospel, we have Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman over who is allowed to sit at the table and share the meal – see Mark 7:24-30. This is soon followed by a second miracle of the loaves – see Mark 8:1-10 – which is in turn followed by further disputes with the Pharisees – see Mark 8:11-21. Food – ie who gets to share the table – becomes a profoundly important metaphor of Jesus’ life and teaching. We have already met this issue in Mark: “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (2:16). It is similarly reported in Matthew 9:10-13 and Luke 5:29-32.
Pharisees and some of the scribes: Mark has already reported conflicts with the Pharisees – see 2:16 & 24 and 3:6. But the scribes are much stronger opponents of Jesus than the Pharisees in Mark. In 3:22 they arrive from Jerusalem and accuse Jesus of being possessed of a devil. The reference to Jerusalem – both in today’s Gospel and in 3:22 – signals the ultimate destination of Jesus’ mission.some of his disciples: It is the behaviour of the disciples, not Jesus himself, that brings on the complaint. This may suggest an experience of the post-resurrection community – see for example, Galatians 2:1-11. This incident – in Antioch – reported in the Letter to the Galatians, clearly points to a serious conflict between Paul and Peter: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction” (2:11-12).
eating: There is a Greek word – artos, meaning “bread” – is strangely omitted from both the NRSV and the NJB. “The plural ‘loaves’ (artous) links this dispute with the previous sequence of ‘bread narratives’ (6:8, 37, 38, 41, 44, 52)” (Donoghue and Harrington, op cit., 219).
wash/the washing: The verb used is baptizō and the noun is baptismos.
You abandon the commandment of God: “At stake in the dispute is what really constitutes fidelity to God’s revelation versus human tradition. Such citations on the lips of Jesus show that the dispute between Jesus and those who challenge him is not about the authority of the Torah, but precisely over applications and interpretations of the Law by specific Jewish groups” (Donoghue and Harrington, op cit, 222).
In an introductory reflection on the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (November 1964)), Fr Avery Dulles SJ notes: “Instead of beginning with a discussion of the structures and government of the Church – as was the tendency at Vatican I – the Constitution starts with the notion of the Church as a people to whom God communicates Himself in love” (Walter M Abbott SJ, editor, The Documents of Vatican II, Geoffrey Chapman, 1966, 12). “A people to whom God communicates Himself in love”! This represents the formal beginnings of a recovery of a very old way of thinking about the Church. It is implicit in today’s Gospel – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15 & 21-23.
Before examining the Gospel text, however, we should be clear of what it is not saying. Scholars point out that, in the time of Jesus, it is more appropriate to talk about “Judaisms” rather than “Judaism”. There were various groups and they debated amongst themselves about rituals of purity and so forth. Furthermore, there is evidence here that post-resurrection concerns are also being dealt with by Mark. So, the Gospel is not to be taken as a condemnation of all the scribes and the Pharisees. We should rather focus on the underlying intent of Jesus’ teachings.
Mark’s statement at the beginning of his Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ primary message: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God … ” (Mark 1:14). Jesus offers a new way of being – “the kingdom of God”. In this “kingdom” love triumphs over hate, truth over lie, peace over violence, life over death. Through him, with him and in him, it is ours if we want it! It is ours, not by wilful achievement but by grace. It is offered as pure gift. The “kingdom of God” is not a moral program but a Person. There never was nor will be a kingdom like this.
“The kingdom” – the Person – slowly emerges as a reality for us individually and communally in the context of human society. We must have rules and rituals for society to function. But those rules and rituals are not to be regarded as the instruments of our moral triumphs, but enablers of grace – the graced emergence of the kingdom.
It is critical that we live attentive and listening lives therefore. That is the only way we can cooperate effectively with grace at work in our daily lives. We must individually give ourselves to attentive listening. This is hard work. We can then give ourselves to attentive listening together. This is even harder work.
A special word has come into common parlance in the Church over the past few years to describe this work: synodality. It means literally “journeying together”. Pope Francis writes: “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 171). It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn” (Address to the Synod of Bishops, 17 October 2017). Thus God is allowed to be God in our midst. In this way we become more and more “a people to whom God communicates Himself in love”.