by Daniel Harrell
If I appear a bit chunkier than when you last saw me, it’s because I spent the New Year down home in North Carolina where my mother fed me nonstop. She’s one of those prototypical Southern mothers for whom food equals love. She starts talking dinner before you’ve finished eating breakfast (dinner being Southern for lunch), and once you are finished with breakfast, it’s not ten minutes before she’s asking whether you need something to tide you over. This overemphasis on food is part of what makes Southerners southern, as well as the kind of food we eat. Country ham and Johnny cakes, barbecue and hushpuppies, creasies and collards, grits and Cheerwine, pole beans and chow chow, sweet tea and persimmon pudding—all of it fried―it’s enough to cause anybody raised south of the Mason-Dixon line to start licking his lips. Of course if such a delectable litany only causes your lips to curl, then you’re getting at the dilemma Jesus faces here in Mark 7, our next stop in an ongoing series on the red-letters of Mark’s gospel (red-letters denoting the sayings of Jesus).
Actually, this passage begins with less concern over menu than manners as a group of Jewish religious experts go all Emily Postal over the failure of Jesus’ disciples to wash their hands before dinner. Their concern, however, was hardly hygienic. It wasn’t even about etiquette. For them, to fail to wash your hands denoted a severe breach of piety. Sort of like some people treat the failure to say grace before eating. In Exodus 30, God instructed Moses to make a wash basin so that “whenever Aaron and his sons approach the altar to present an offering to the LORD by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die.” Exactly how having priests wash their hands before offering sacrifices in the Tabernacle got to mean everybody had to wash their hands before coming to the dinner table is a long story. Suffice to say, in Exodus, washing your hands was about ritual purity. As the Psalmist would later sing, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? Whoever has clean hands and a pure heart.” “Clean hands” had to do with a clear conscience, though clearly, washing the dirt off your fingers did little to purge your soul. However, the ritual did remind you of the need to get your heart right before God. Just like the habit of saying grace reminds you to be grateful to God even if you don’t always feel it when you say it. It may feel perfunctory at times (and even embarrassing if you’re with somebody who prays in restaurants), but remembering to be thankful may sometimes be worth a little public humiliation. The problem was that by the time we get to Jesus’ day, the ritual became the reality itself. As long as your hands were clean, the condition of your heart no longer mattered.
This danger is labeled hypocrisy, a word that derives from the Greek word for actor or pretender. It’s a label often leveled at liturgical traditions, claiming that scripted prayers and other practices allow you to fake it in church. The same could be said of charismatic traditions too. Freeform prayer and raised hands are just as easily used as a façade for what’s really going on inside. Hypocrisy is nothing new, whatever your worship tradition. Not only does Jesus accuse the Pharisees of it here in Mark, but he cites Isaiah who’d accused their forebears of the same thing so many centuries prior. “These people honor me with their lips,” the Lord said in Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” Although God commanded hand-washing in the first place, the priests, elders and religious leaders manipulated the practice to serve their own purposes.
Take the whole corban thing in verses 11 and following. Corban is a borrowed Hebrew word meaning offering which by this time had come to mean something more like a pledge. The difference between a pledge and an offering is obvious. An offering is money actually given whereas a pledge is money promised, and as we all know, promises are meant to be broken. Toss in a couple of aged parents in need of help, and what you have is some Pharisee refusing to help his parents by saying his money is all tied up for God (thereby maintaining his righteousness) but then that spending the money on a new TV for himself. Now having just come from a week of living with my parents I understand the temptation. Not only does mom force-feed me like a pig due for slaughter, she treats any polite refusal as complete rejection, pouring on the guilt like gravy. But as much as this may drive me crazy, is it any reason to deny her financial aid if she needed it (which surely she one day will). Worse, what if I denied to help my parents on account of Jesus saying in Luke 14:26 that anyone who follows him has to hate his father and mother. And even worse than that, if Jesus meant what he said (which he did but not like it sounds), what if I denied helping my parents because of Jesus but then didn’t really follow Jesus either, effectively blaming Jesus for my own selfishness?
It’s this using God to abuse others that gets Jesus so angry. And then washing your hands of your guilt as if a little soap and water will do the trick. The Pharisees had made it so that cleanliness was not next to godliness, but godliness itself. Wash your hands and you don’t have to honor your parents. Wash your hands and you don’t have to make amends. Wash your hands and there’s no need to confess your sins because as long as you wash your hands, you don’t have any sins to confess. Again, it’s like saying grace. You don’t have to actually be grateful to God, just go through the motions. It’s the motions that make you a good person; and in some cases, a person better than everyone else. I knew one guy who loved saying grace in restaurants because he believed it shamed all the pagans. More than ever feeling embarrassed, he saw public prayer as a means of embarrassing others.
I thought this ridiculous until Dawn and I had over a neighbor for dinner a few years ago. We sat on the patio for a feast of grilled chicken, bowing our heads before eating to thank God for the bird. Our neighbor looked down, but right after sheepishly described herself as a “heathen,” and we’ve never gotten her to come to dinner since. Which brings us to the second issue in this passage. That Mark has to parenthetically explain about corban in verse 11, as well as about ceremonial washing in verses 3 and 4, sends a signal that his audience is not up on Jewish culture. He’s talking to Gentiles. Which means that the issue here is not merely one of ritual cleanliness, but ritual exclusion too. It’s why Jesus makes the shift from manners back to menu, from hand-washing to kosher eating, both signs of Jewish identity. In the minds of many Pharisees, they were favored by God because they washed their hands and stayed away from bacon. But Jesus challenged that understanding. Verse 15: “Nothing outside a person can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean.’”
For the Pharisees, to be a Gentile was the epitome of uncleanliness, a person so out of reach of grace as to be outcast by God. Part of the ritual prayers Jews prayed was to thank God for not making them Gentiles. Gentiles were uncircumcised, not kosher and most notably, not chosen. Touch one and you risked social contamination. Share a meal with a Gentile and you risked religious damnation. Eating with sinners made you dirty by association. Eating with sinners meant you weren’t chosen. But God never chose anybody on account of what they ate, how they ate or with whom they ate. Salvation has always been a move of pure grace, accessible by faith. God-fearing Gentiles were always free to join the covenant. By the time we get to the New Testament, it’s clear that the whole thrust of the Abrahamic covenant had always been total Gentile inclusion. It’s why the church celebrated Epiphany long before Christmas ever made it onto the calendar. Among the first to meet the newborn King of the Jews were Gentiles from the east who honored him as their king too. Jesus came for everybody.
But what good is it to chosen, what good is it to be God’s elect, his favorites if anybody can get included? There’s an amusing article in the New York Times Magazine entitled Who Would Jesus Smack Down? It’s about Mark Driscoll, a popular Seattle pastor known for having “the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher around.” You’ll have to check out You Tube if you want to hear it. Driscoll is at the forefront of a so-called Neo-Calvinist movement, a hardcore, seeker-insensitive take on the gospel that eschews “weepy worship which sings prom songs to a Jesus presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair; a neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture who… would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.” A distinctive of Calvinism (if not Calvin himself) is that God chooses some sinners to save and some sinners to send to hell before they ever sin themselves. Human beings are so totally depraved from the start that for God to save anybody is a move of immense mercy. If this is true, then if anything you’d think that those God does save would be incredibly and visibly humbled by it. Yet as the article’s author, Molly Worthen, observes, “the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.” She writes how Driscoll brooks no dissent in his church, excommunicating leaders who challenge him and directing the rest of the congregation to shun them. He preaches at seven sites most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens. At one suburban campus she attended, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view.
Human nature being what it is, with grace it’s always been easy to slip from pardon to privilege, from being forgiven to being entitled, from favor to favoritism. Worse, for the Pharisees in Mark, they twisted the emblems of God’s grace into barriers against that grace, building upon prior prejudices to keep out those they considered unclean regardless of God. Even Peter himself was guilty. In Galatians 2, Paul writes of Peter coming to Anitoch where a group of legalist Christians talked him into excluding Gentile Christians from his dinner table because they hadn’t been circumcised (sort of like Baptists refusing to eat with Presbyterians because they hadn’t been baptized as adults). Paul jumps all over Peter, who should have known better, especially since back in Acts 10 he’d had that vision of a picnic blanket coming down out of heaven loaded with all kinds of forbidden foods to eat: pork chops, lobster and the like. A voice said to Peter, “Get up and chow down.” But Peter replied, “Surely not. Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” And the voice said, “Hey, do not call anything impure that God has made clean!” This happened three times (which is usually the case with Peter). As Peter woke up and wondered what the vision meant, a knock came at his door from a Gentile named Cornelius who wanted to hear about Jesus. Peter said, “It is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”
Of course Jesus had already told him that himself. Unfortunately, Jesus used a riddle to do it and Peter was slow to get it. As were the rest of the disciples. Which is why they pulled Jesus aside to ask what he was talking about when he said “Nothing outside a person can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean.’” Jesus replied, “Are you so dull? Did you miss high school health and anatomy class? Don’t you understand that nothing entering a person’s mouth enters his heart but rather his stomach. And then from there it moves out of the body and into the toilet” (you NIV pew Bible leaves out that part, not wanting Jesus to sound like a potty mouth too). Mark concludes that Jesus thereby declares all food clean, which is why Christians don’t keep kosher. The point being that no amount of kosher food, or Southern food for that matter, can ever make you kosher (or Southern). It never could. Keeping kosher was always a reminder of grace, as well as a way for you to remember to never take grace for granted. The law never saved anybody, but it did show saved people how to live a saved life, and part of living that saved life meant honoring the God who saved you by keeping yourself away from those thoughts and behaviors that dishonor the grace that’s in you.
God’s the one who cleans. Washing your hands reminded you to keep clean. God’s the one who makes holy. Staying away from the bacon you love reminded you to stay away from the evil you love. Clean hands don’t make you pure any more than bacon makes you evil. What makes you evil is what comes out of you. Remove Mark’s parentheses in verse 19, and you can see Jesus uses a clever, if not disgusting, double entendre. “Nothing entering your mouth enters your heart but rather your stomach from whence it moves on out of your body and into the toilet. It’s what comes out of you that makes you unclean.” In other words, the evil that comes out of your heart is like the feces that comes out of your butt. Sin is that disgusting: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, foolishness, these evils come from out of your heart and stink up everything.
“These people honor me with their lips,” the Lord said in Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me.” They ate right, washed their hands and said their prayers, treating their rituals like a huge can of Lysol. Of course, do that enough and eventually you’ll no longer need Lysol. As my mom always told me, spend your life in the toilet and you’ll get used to the smell. Not only that, stay there long enough and you’ll start to think all your crap smells good. Total depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, those who hold on to it.