Ritual and Reality

Three groups of people are presented in this passage. First, there are the

Critics from Jerusalem
‘Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem, and when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled … unwashen hands, they found fault’, v. 1, 2.

Pollution of the Hands, 7. 1-13
The Jewish and Galilean Pharisees had consulted together at Passover time and now the Pharisees and scribes had come from Jerusalem to spy on Him. Unwashed hands were not criticized on grounds of hygiene but as breaking the traditional ritual of the elders, v. 3. The criticism was not of the direct transgression of the law but of the explanatory traditions which had grown up around it. This was later to form the Mishna or repetition of the Law, and Gemara, the supplement to it – the modern Jewish Talmud. To remove ceremonial impurity, the hands were plunged into water up to the elbows as the literal meaning ‘oft’ implies, that is ‘with the first’. In matters of cleanliness water was poured upon the hands. Drinking and cooking vessels, and ‘tables’, that is the low wide benches on which the guests reclined for meals were treated likewise. The Pharisees did not shrink from dirt but from defilement. A cup or bench which had been used by a Gentile or ‘tax gatherer’ needed purification, as did contact with such people in the market-place. The indifference of the Lord’s disciples in these matters shocked them.

The Lord referred them to Isaiah’s words, ‘this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me’, Isa. 29. 13. In all their external rituals they denied to God the humble worship which the Law demanded, v. 7-9.

‘Ye say’, If a man say to his father or mother, It is Corban … a gift… he shall be free’, v. 11.

Here the Lord exposed the subtlety by which the ‘teachers’ avoided the practice of true religion. ‘Corban’, peculiar to Mark, meant that which was dedicated to God. By declaring some money or property ‘Corban’, they could avoid their duty to parents in need and yet reserve it for themselves. Filial piety and responsibility is an essential part of true religion, though it may be overruled by direct obedience to Christ’s command.

People from the Market Place
‘When he had called all the people unto him, he said … there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him’, v. 14-15.

Poisons of the Heart, 7. 14-23
The fundamental source of all impurity is from within. This was contrary to all rabbinic teaching which regarded defilement as coming from outside. In order to justify their own righteousness they would substitute human legalism for divine law, see Rom. 10. 1-3. The ceremonial law with its distinctions of foods, washings, sacrifices and external observances was soon to be abolished, though Peter much later found this lesson difficult to understand, Acts 10. 14, but finally accepted it, Acts 10. 28.

Disciples in the House
‘And when he was entered into the house … his disciples asked him concerning the parable’, 7. 17.

The word ‘parable’, here indicates a riddle or epigram, which the disciples found difficult to unravel. In the catalogue of poisons, vv. 21-23, the ‘heart’ is declared to be the source, see Prov. 23. 7; Jer. 17. 9, 10. The first seven are predominant actions, the latter six, dispositions. Covetousness is more than the love of money, it is the active working of evil; lasciviousness or wantonness describes shameless behaviour, to be ‘flung away’, Rom. 13. 13; an ‘evil eye’ implies envy and jealousy and concealed enmity. The ‘evil eye’ of the witch is a superstition not entirely extinct today. Blasphemy is that which defames deity, and pride is the sin of self-righteousness. Foolishness is the absence of all fear of God, for ‘the fool hath said in bis heart, No God for me’! Ps. 14. 1 (paraphrase). ‘Foolishness appears last because it is that which renders all the rest incurable’, Bengel.

When these ‘poisons’ are everywhere apparent it is well to heed Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians, ‘Put off … the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and … put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness’, Eph. 4. 22-24.


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