Mark 7. Jesus Hits at the Heart of Ethical Religion.
the Problem of Uncleanness and the Assumption of Innocence.

Key Notes: Washing rituals. Moneys devoted to God. The heart of darkness.

The first half of this chapter contains Jesus’ caustic response to the Scribes and Pharisees’ latest criticism. The Religious went home offended again, but the concepts strike at the heart of ethical religion.

7:1–5 Jesus and the disciples were being observed by a delegation of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. As religious police, they had no trouble finding a law broken. The disciples were eating without washing their hands. The word for “unwashed”  is “koine”, meaning common, having common hands.

We do not like people to eat without washing their hands either, especially if several people have their hands in a common dish, as they did, dipping their bread in the sauce. But their reasons are not the same as ours. They did not know the bacterial theory of disease. The Pharisees washed their hands as part of a ritual of purification. They felt contaminated by their every-day contact with people in the market-place—Gentiles, tax-collectors, sinners—all kinds of impure people were out there, defined by the Law:

Anyone who had had recent sexual intercourse, or a bodily discharge, Lev.15
a woman soon after delivery Lev.12
anyone with a new skin disease Lev.13
or one who contacted a dead animal (such as a butcher) Lev.11:39
or  who touched an unclean insect or animal. Lev.11:24

So, coming in from the marketplace the Pharisees purified themselves and demanded that everyone make the assumption of ceremonial uncleanness and do the ritual washings. “Washing their hands” can be translated “washing with the fist”, suggesting that water was poured over the up-turned hands, with one open hand being washed by the other closed hand, dripping water off the elbows.
They also had rules for washing pots and pans and even tables or lounge chairs. The rules and methods of cleansing were elaborated by the Jewish elite and taught as law.

7:6–8 Jesus, as He often did, made a three point response:

• The heart attitude of Israel was far from God.
*They ignored God's laws and made up their own.
•An example of real law-breaking was denying care of parents by diverting money to the temple.

He quoted Isa.29:13,  as relevant to His contemporaries as it was to the generation of 700BC. Their worship (honoring God) ignored God ‘s commandments and replaced them with man-made religious teachings. [We moderns have decided that loving our neighbor permits us to accept deviant sexual practices that God calls “abominations” (Lev.18).]

7:9–13 He said, “You have a fine (Greek  kalos, “beautiful”) way of rejecting the commandment of God” in order to keep your traditions. The fifth commandment reads “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you,” (Ex.20:12). But any money you devote to God (Aramaic, “qorban”, devoted) cannot be given to the parents.

But why would money devoted to God interfere with money given to parents? What would motivate a child to leave his parents destitute? Could not the funds be divided equally? But is not honor to God more important than honor to parents? The First Commandment, to honor God above all comes before the Fifth Commandment to honor one’ parents. We have some clues to resolve these questions.

1. Money vowed to God was in fact donated to the synagogue or temple and to the officials. Num.18:8
2. Jesus warned the disciples against letting gifts be publicized so that they would be rewarded by their society. “…when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. “ (Matt.6:2).
3. Vows must not be broken (Num.30:2; Deut.23:21), but vows were not necessary and Jesus advised the disciples not to swear an oath at all. (Matt.5:33). But simply saying the word “korban”  as a vow took the object vowed out of normal use.

4. He criticized the scribes for greed, devouring widows’ houses. Mk.12:40

Several motives may lie behind the korban (qorban) problem.

“There is much debate about who made money from the korban tradition. Origen, Jerome… and Calvin…were convinced that the Bible teachers made this tradition in order to line their own pockets. But Lagrange…argued that it was the children who wanted to escape their obligation to the parents who were at fault here and that the crime of the Bible teachers…was in giving spiritual approval to the children’s avarice.” (Matthew. F.D.Bruner; Eerdmans,’90; Vol.II, p.87.)

Another issue is that a big gift to the temple would yield rewards for the giver. For example, if one had an inheritance of $200,000 to distribute, tithing $20,000 to the temple and giving $180,000 to the parents would be appropriate. But there would be little public recognition of your small temple gift and no one would know that you had honored your parents. Suppose you decided to give $180,000 to the temple? Think of the praise that you would receive, and the special treatment you would be given. A large gift to “God” would almost certainly result in a reward for the person giving it, even if it left the parents virtually destitute. And if the parents protested, the vow would be enforced by the rulers. “You no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother….”  The Law of God could be broken, legally.

We all know that large philanthropic gifts are praised by the recipient, such as a hospital or college. Full-color pictures are publicized, and special privileges are granted—box seats for football games, access to hunting and fishing clubs, introduction to important people, honorary degrees. Bronze plaques are made and the donor’s name may be attached to a building, a kind of immortality.

Large donations to Christian organizations also net rewards to the giver. Although Scripture only briefly mentions the publicity of giving (Matt.6:2), and that the people “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (Jn.12:43) we can surmise that their situation then was similar to our own. Ananias and Sapphira watched Barnabas giving real estate proceeds to the church and were motivated to win the apostles’ approval with their gift. (Acts 5:1–11). They wanted to gain the apostles’ blessing by saying they too had sacrificed by giving the whole property, yet would protect themselves by holding some back. They tried to “game” the philanthropy process in the early Church and lost.

7:14–23 Then Jesus gathered the crowd around him and shifted the focus. It is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out. The disciples heard the parable but did not understand it. They thought He was talking about the gastrointestinal system—food in and excrement out—but He explained that the heart was intended. He made a catalog of evils that erupt from the human heart. The heart, rather than the mind (or brain) was their center of emotion, will and purpose. The first item, “evil thoughts” is the title of the list of twelve. “Evil thoughts” in Greek (dia-logismoi kakoi) could be translated “evil internal dialogues”.

Some of the words in Greek are interesting in translation. The first six words are plural; the last six singular. The first six are mostly physical acts, the last six are mental states.


*Fornications. (Gr. porneiai). Doing various illicit sex acts. We get our word for pornography ( stories of prostitutes) from it.
*Thefts. (Gr. klopai). Kleptomania—uncontrolled stealing-- comes for this Greek word.
*Murders. (Gr. phonoi).
*Adulteries. (Gr. moicheiai).
*Covetings. (Gr. pleonaxiai). The Greek idea is having more and more, over-reaching, grasping.
*Wickednesses. (Gr. ponereiai). Our word for penury (lacking everything) is derived from it.
*Deceit. (Gr.dolos). A device for trapping is behind this Greek word.
*Licentiousness. (Gr. aselgeia). Lack of control.
*Envy. (Gr. ophthalmos poneros). An eye that is deficient, lacking.
*Slander. (Gr. blasphemia). Our word blasphemy is a transliteration.
*Pride. (Gr. hyperephania). Appearing to be above others is the idea in Greek.
*Foolishness. (Gr. aphronsyne). Having no midsection, the center of the person. We get our word frenetic, having too large a center of self-concern, from it.

Jesus said thoughts like these foul us. They are not triggered by bad education, the behavior of our parents, the culture or institutions. They do not come from God, and Jesus does not implicate the Devil. They come from our thought-life. The Pharisees concentrated on external purity and performed it beautifully, but Jesus said it was useless to God and was self-deceptive. Jesus denies that we are good people who can be saved by effort. He says we are defiled by our thought-life.

We are tempted to organize the list into classes of sin—sexual, acquisitive, aggressive and self-deceptive—but the list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. We cannot try to do away with them in groups, to say for example, sexual sin is not my problem, so I can concentrate on the acquisitive sins by not looking at catalogs and the aggressive sins by remembering to be kind. Jesus gave us just twelve examples of  “evil thoughts”. Evil thoughts cannot be done away by personal effort on a single sin or groups of sins either. It is one disease (sin) with dozens of symptoms (sins). Only a sample of sins is given here.

Curiously, several of these words (theft, wickedness, envy, and foolishness) suggest the lack of something, an emptiness, a hungering, rather than a positive force. The core or source of sin, as we will see in the next lesson, is not believing God. The soul that turns from God refuses His infilling Spirit. The hungering soul then turns to poor substitutes--alcohol, drugs, gambling, to sex and violence, lying and stealing to fill the aching void, and displays the foul and self-destructive products.

If the subject of religion comes up, one of the most common expressions we hear is “I am a good person.” Jesus said that is not true; we are defiled. The assumption of innocence is a falsehood.

“This is the way of an adulteress: she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says ‘I have done no wrong.” (Prov.30:20).
I remember a lawyer with AIDS telling a large group that she didn't know how it happened.

Sin is a part of conscious thought, and therefore objectivity about sin is impossible. Sin is also in the subconscious and the unconscious aspects of our minds. That is part of the deception. Thinking about thinking is thinking about sin. Coveting, deceit, envy, foolishness and pride are sins of the heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” (Jer.17:9 KJV). It is called  “total depravity”—that is to say that no part of our being is unspoiled.

We say we have free will. Jesus says we are slaves of sin. (Jn.8:34). We say we can control our smoking and drinking. We do not. We think our good deeds outweigh our bad. It is self-deception. We live with deception.

One of the heresies of Christianity is called Pelagianism, after the early Church teacher, Pelagius. He taught that each person starts life with a clean slate. Adam’s sin did not contaminate the race of human beings—that would be unfair. With honest effort some can make themselves acceptable to God; Socrates may be an example. That is a deception. It is the common religious faith of today. It is indeed the working formula of all non-Christian religions. Do your best and God will approve of you.

Don’t believe it. Our situation is truly desperate. Will Jesus get us out of this mess?
  He must. We have no other hope.