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Politics of Scripture

It’s Not About the Cake—Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Pharisees were not wrong to question Jesus, but as much as we might want to empathize with them, to agree that there are simply certain things good people do not do, Jesus rejects human propriety as an orienting standard. Jesus is talking about the human heart, something Christians today also must consider.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they 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; 4and 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.) 5So 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?” 6He 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;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 

21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In Mark’s gospel account, the Pharisees show up primarily as a foil to Jesus and his disciples. As early as Mark 3:6, they have begun to conspire with the Herodians in order to destroy Jesus. Today’s text is the next encounter that Jesus has with the Pharisees after they have begun to conspire against him. However, both before and after this turning point, the role of the Pharisees in Mark’s account is to question what Jesus’ disciples are doing, and later, to test Jesus himself. Notice the pattern:

  • Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? (Mark 2:16)
  • Why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast? (Mark 2:18)
  • Why aren’t Jesus’ disciples observing the Sabbath? (Mark 2:24)
  • Why do Jesus’ disciples eat with defiled hands? (Mark 7:5)
  • Asking Jesus for a sign from heaven to test him (Mark 8:11)
  • Asking Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce to test him (Mark 10:2)
  • Asking Jesus about the lawfulness of taxes to trap him (Mark 12:13-15)

Rhetorically, Mark shifts the Pharisees’ interrogation from initially seemingly innocent curiosity to a final outright hostile attack. As a result, Pharisees are often portrayed as the “bad guys” in Christian sermons, particularly by the time we get to Matthew’s Passion account.

Absent their role as foils to the disciples’ righteous action, however, Pharisees in the first-century Jewish world were actually a popular and relatively righteous group of their own accord. Counter to Jesus’ critique of Pharisees as hypocrites (Matthew 23:2-29), Josephus describes them as virtuous in conduct, “both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.5, translated William Whiston). In reality, the Pharisees were people who, as people, were likely virtuous in their actions some of the time and failed to live up to the height of their virtues at other times.

 Moreover, the Pharisees were a reforming religious group. Not priests themselves, the Pharisees shared Jesus’ general premise that religion needs to be relatable to people and their daily needs. Many scholars suggest that among the Jewish religious groups of the time, Jesus’ teachings would have been closest to those of the Pharisees. The difference comes in that the Pharisees, in their attempts to make the “traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:5) more relatable, interpreted the law in order to give people clear directions to follow. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to invoke more of an ad hoc ethics: doing what is right in the moment.

For this reason, Jesus critiques the Pharisees of “teaching human precepts as doctrines” (Mark 7:7). A fair critique since, of course, the Pharisees are human. Which leads to the broader point: as humans, and relatively popular and virtuous humans at that, Mark’s original audience would have found the Pharisees highly relatable.

When the Pharisees raise their first question, “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they are likely giving voice to the questions forming among Mark’s audience themselves. Imagine yourself watching a movie where the clear hero of the story suddenly begins to associate with the “bad guys.” You likely begin to wonder, “What’s going on here? Why is s/he doing that?” For those of us listening to Mark’s Gospel telling with fresh ears, the Pharisees, a righteous and trusted group of religious leaders and reformers themselves, ask our question for us. They help us to understand.

To begin, then, the Pharisees enter into the scene of Mark’s story as sympathetic characters. They are a group whom the audience trusts, whom we might even expect to follow with Jesus in the end. But something happens. Jesus goes too far. Jesus doesn’t just attempt to reform or modernize the religious laws; he and his disciples appear to be brazenly breaking them.

In our text, in Mark 7, it isn’t just a matter of Jesus doing something strange and unexpected (like eating with tax collectors) or interpreting the enactment of a particular law differently from the Pharisees (like how to keep the Sabbath). Now some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands, something that all the Jews agreed should not be done (Mark 7:3). Think about that for a moment: All. The. Jews.

In the midst of the rich diversity in contemporary religion, can you imagine a particular action that “All the Christians” agree upon as wrong? Now imagine Jesus or his disciples doing THAT.

To us today, whether or not someone washes their hands may not seem so important. But this is a turning point for the Pharisees. If they were not sure that Jesus needed to be stopped before, it is clear now. And so the lines are drawn for the audience of Mark’s gospel—as much as we may want to empathize with the Pharisees, to agree that there are simply certain things that good people do not do, Jesus rejects human propriety as an orienting standard:

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile” (Mark 7:15, emphasis added).

This isn’t about hand washing. It never was. Just like Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission was never about a cake. Jesus is talking about the human heart. Where is your heart?

As humans, we need the Pharisees—or people like the Pharisees—to give us guidelines, patterns to follow. We want the Pharisees to tell us how to live a virtuous life.

But just as surely as we need and want this assurance, Jesus warns that our human desire to check off a list of virtues, good deeds, and right actions, is already missing the mark.

Do you serve at a soup kitchen because it seems like the “right” thing to do? Or do you serve with the honest desire to connect with and show care for other human beings?

Do you read the Bible because that’s what you’re supposed to do? Or do you read out of an honest and insatiable desire to encounter God?

Do you bake cake (or refuse to bake a cake) to make a political statement? Or do you do so in order to connect with the lives of the people requesting your service?

As humans, we need the Pharisees; Mark assumes that we already know that. But as people of faith, we also need to listen to our hearts. This is the message that Mark’s Jesus is speaking to his first-century Jewish audience. It isn’t about the Pharisees v Jesus or the Jews v Christians or even the hypocritical religious people v the virtuous atheists. Jesus and the Pharisees were both religious Jews, just like Mark’s first audience.

Jesus is quoting Jewish Scripture in order to make a point about how God wants us to be religious. And while it may begin with laws or guidelines about how to interact in this world, those laws, at the end, must always be guided (and altered when needed) by the heart.

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