Jesus is now rising to the height of his popularity. People from the Galilean hills, around the lake, and from the Decapolis are flocking to him. The ministry of the apostles in the hills resulted in 5000 men, not counting women and children, following him into a deserted region. Jewish Galilee is electric with enthusiasm for Jesus.
Opposition had arisen in Galilee, particularly from the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 3:6). Some noticed that Jesus ate with sinners (2:13-17), did not fast (2:18-22) and crossed traditional boundaries in Sabbath-keeping (2:23-3:6). However, a new presence appears in Mark’s narrative. “Pharisees and teachers of the law” came “from Jerusalem” to investigate Jesus. They immediately saw a problem and questioned Jesus about his adherence to the traditions of ritual purity.
“Unclean” (koinos) is a key word in this section of Mark. It refers to ritual defilement. The tradition established boundary markers to ensure ritual purity—everything about which one is uncertain must be “washed.” This “washing” functioned as a line of purity—a boundary between the clean and the unclean. Practicing this boundary ensured purity.
Many within Second Temple Judaism (“all the Jews” is hyperbole since “sinners” did not practice such) went to great extremes to maintain this boundary. Not only would they wash their hands before eating anything, but they would “baptize”(baptisontai) themselves [perhaps an idiom for baptizing food bought in the marketplace] when they came home from the marketplace and “baptize” (baptismous) any utensils or articles associated with eating. Ritual baptisms (immersions) of the body as well as household objects was not uncommon. In fact, archaeological digs in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem have uncovered “baptistries” (mikva’ot) in the basements of several wealthy homes. Going to such lengths, this ritual purity was part of the essential fabric of a devout life, according to “tradition of the elders.”
Jesus, of course, violated this tradition in many ways. He did not wash his hands before eating and consequently we might surmise that he did not follow the other “ritual purity” traditions of the elders either. His association with “sinners” (see Mark 2:13-17) and how the crowds “touched” him (see Mark 3:10; 6:56) meant that he was thoroughly defiled. Categorically, then, he was an unacceptable teacher and role model for piety, according to the tradition of the elders.
Why did Jesus flagrantly violate this “tradition”? Because the tradition subverted the heart of God. Those who practiced it were like the people in the time of Isaiah (29:13) who outwardly voiced piety but in their hearts they did not share God’s values. They were more interested in looking pious than being godly. The tradition of the elders separated humanity into two categories—clean and unclean—and demanded the pious withdraw from the unclean. Jesus refused to practice a tradition that abused others in such a way.
But it was a long cherished tradition, wasn’t it? Did it not provide boundaries for purity and keep the faithful from falling into sin? It was sort of like the tradition of the “Corban” (a gift to God). The function of the “Corban” was to provide a boundary. Anything over which one said “Corban” could only be used for God. One could still use it for one’s own life but ultimately it would be left to God and to no one else. (Some Jewish ossuaries have been discovered where Corban items were buried with the individual.)
While this may have originally functioned as a boundary such that a person would be obligated to give Corban items to God rather than changing their minds, Jesus suggests that the practice was subject to abuse. For example, one could say “Corban” over their wealth and excuse themselves from supporting their parents in their old age. Given Jesus’ illustration, this may have been a rather common practice. In effect, Jesus says, the “Corban” tradition subverts the command of God to “honor father and mother.” This is but one example as Jesus accuses the Pharisees of doing “many things like” this. “Many things” reminds us Jesus is pointing to a pattern of life within Second Temple Judaism subversive of God’s heart.
But Jesus wants to return to the point at issue. It is not simply about traditions. Traditions have value; they can give stability to a way of life. But they are subversive only if they “nullify the word of God.” This is the problem with the ceremonial “washing” of one’s hands in water before eating. It is not about hygenics but about arrogant, perhaps even hypocritical, piety.
Jesus summarizes the point in a parable: nothing external renders a person “unclean;” rather, what comes outs out of people defiles them. Whether one washes their hands or not has nothing to do with defilement or purity. On the contrary, purity or impurity is something that arises from within a person.
The parable seems fairly clear on the face of it but the disciples, steeped in the traditions of the elders, don’t understand it. “Are you so dull?” Jesus asks. It didn’t fit their mental box. For them it was natural to think about external defilements, whether people, diseases, things, etc. Entrenched in traditions humans have a tendency to define everything by the box in which they live. We, like the disciples, are often slow to see people how God sees them.
Clean and unclean, purity and impurity, are not external realities but internal ones. Nothing external can render a person “unclean,” particularly food since it goes into the stomach and, eventually, out of the body. However, internal motives and desires—a person’s heart—can render a person unclean. Indeed, impure actions arise out of an impure heart, including not only adultery, theft, murder, and sexual immorality (what we might most often association with impurity) but also “greed, malice, deceit, lewdness [sensuality], envy [evil eye], slander, arrogance and folly.” These are all “evils” that arise out of an impure heart and thus make a person “unclean.”
Ultimately, Jesus defends his ministry. He walks among the common folk; he eats with sinners. He does not “purify” himself with ceremonial dippings. He does not withdraw with disgust from the “unclean,” but instead sits with them, eats with them, and has daily contact with them.
Mark editorially notes that the parable and Jesus’ explanation “declared all foods ‘clean’.” More than that, however, he declared all people ritually “clean.” People are not defiled by social, political, or ethnic boundaries. They are only defiled by their hearts.
As the church follows Jesus into his ministry so that we eat at the tables where he ate and walk among the people with whom he shared life, we should remember that “all people are (ritually) clean.” That is, no one should be treated with disgust. No one deserves isolation. No one is to be kept at “arms length.” Jesus, nor we, “wash our hands” in disgust after sitting with people. Instead of avoiding “unclean people” we, if we would follow Jesus, seek them, affirm their human dignity, and share life with them.