Proper 16 · Mark 7:1-13 · August 23, 2009
By Travis J. Scholl
This week and next week (Proper 17) make up a continuous reading of Mark 7. (Technically, Proper 18 brings the reading of Mark 7 to a close, but there is a thematic and geographic shift that separates it from Propers 16 and 17.)
If we were to treat these two readings as two parts of the same whole, we could identify this week’s Gospel as dealing with things external and next week’s with things internal That is oversimplifying a bit, but it at least begins to paint a picture of Jesus’ harsh sayings in Mark 7.
First, the audience: here, Jesus is speaking directly with “the Pharisees and some of the scribes … from Jerusalem” (v. 1). They seem to have been lying in wait for him as he got off the boat, upon his return to Galilee (6:53).
Second, the issue at hand: both this week and next, Jesus is dealing with things clean and unclean, and what makes them so, essentially a controversy over cultic purity.
Characteristically, the issue is forced upon him when there seems to be better things for him to do. Mark 6:53 sets this contrast in striking detail: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” Considering this rush of people—and the compassion it inspires in the One from whose very cloak flows healing—makes the Pharisees’ question seem all the more small-minded: “Why do your disciples … eat with defiled hands?” (v. 5). Matter of fact, considering the amazing healings that culminate this chapter (the Syrophoenician daughter and the man healed by the Savior’s saliva), this two-part interlude is almost an intercalation of sorts. Jesus’ ministry of power and healing to the multitudes is interrupted by the legalistic questioning of a few.
And yet, the question is no small one. What are the hungry to do with their “defiled hands”? Hearkening to Isaiah, Jesus’ answer is tart: the last thing they should do is use them to “hold to human tradition.” It seems a fitting description for hypocrisy anywhere: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (v. 8). The verb kratéw here (“hold”) can connote violence: to seize, to master over. The consequences are dire, since it “make[s] void the word of God” (v. 13). Preaching the ways we ourselves, in our own localities today, abandon the powerful, creative, healing word of God for human tradition preaches a convicting word of law to any human heart.
Today’s Gospel reading, though, breaks off at just that point: “And you do many things like this” (v. 13). Our own hands are still defiled by our hypocrisies. And we’re still hungry. The rest of the Gospel story then is the preacher’s to tell: Jesus treats us—his twenty-first century disciples—in the same way he treated his first-century twelve. He still lets us eat and drink, defiled hands and all. But he does not let us (or even himself) off the hook. His own undefiled hands will be hooked with nails to a beam of wood to suffer and die at the hands of the powerful few. He will endure a horrible human tradition of condemnation and execution, so that “the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (v. 4) will seem like so much small potatoes compared to the washing of rebirth and regeneration that cleanses a defiled heart (more about that heart next week).
Thus, the bread that is his own body and the wine that is his very blood await the eating and drinking of all those who take the now resurrected Christ at his powerful, creative, healing, redemptive word: “This body given for you… This cup shed for you.” Today’s Eucharist celebrates all that Isaiah foresaw in today’s Old Testament reading, a reality that could only be made possible by the raising of God’s own “dead man walking”: “The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel” (Is 29:19).