Mark 7:1-23 serves as a powerful hinge between the captivating miracles embedded in Mark 6 and the outreach Jesus puts forward to the Gentiles in Mark 7:24 and following. With the miracles, one finds Jesus offering hope to people who are like sheep without shepherds. With the outreach, one finds Jesus embodying the missionary spirit of Israel for the world. The hinge passage underscores the thinking that disrupts these important and sanctioned values; thinking that is selfish and evil.
The first part of the chapter reveals the reductionistic thinking of the religious establishment. The Pharisees and their ilk are looking for an excuse to trap Jesus. With the apparent violation of Jewish ceremonial law, they think that they have him. The hand-washing of which they speak was not the standard hygienic washing but ritualistic purity as a display of holiness. It was an extrapolation of the ancient commands for the priests to be thoroughly washed before they pursued their priestly service (see Leviticus 8:6). It had become expected that all Jewish people were to abide by these expectations, lest they not be honorable to God. Catching Jesus’ disciples not abiding by this principle gave the Pharisees an opportunity to confront Jesus.
Jesus’ response highlights the Pharisees’ inattention to biblical authority, namely the primary command to love God and love one’s neighbor (see Deuteronomy 6:5-6 and Leviticus 19:18; cp. Matthew 22:34-40). By reducing awe for God down to washing cups and couches (cp. Mark 7:4), the religious elite had lost their moorings. Add to that their hatred for Jesus, and the manner in which they use the Law for their own selfish ends (cp. Mark 7:9 and following), it becomes clear that the Pharisees and their compatriots had supplanted true spirituality with a form that is both empty and external. Note Jesus’ ultimate response to this in Mark 7:14 and following:
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Contrary to the Pharisees’ concern about external washing, Jesus declares that it is what happens on the inside that matters, and the key to ensuring the inside is healthy and holy is summed up in how one chooses to think. Mark 7:21 could be better rendered: For from within, out of the heart of man, evil thoughts come: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery . . . ” Indeed, this truism is critical to understanding the true nature of a holy life: [Tweet “A person becomes what he or she thinks about all day long.”] This is an inward responsibility, not an outward act. Thinking about the greatest commandment to love God and love neighbor will then cause people to not feel like sheep without a shepherd, and will cause followers of God to have a kingdom-mindset that takes them even to the Gentiles, and will have such followers concerned about connecting with others in love and grace and not with a critical and legalistic eye toward silly outward appearances.
When all is said and done, that is the essence of true spirituality.
What are you thinking about today?
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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding material is from the message “Out of the Heart,” part eight of the sermon series entitled, “Piercing the Darkness,” presented on the weekend of November 24, 2013, at Bethel Church.