5 February 2016

Mark 7:1-13

“So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” (v. 5)

Psalm: Psalm 31:1-8


So far in Mark's Gospel the presence of crowds everywhere has suggested Jesus' ministry was being met with universal acclaim. This passage, which shows him being challenged by the Pharisees and some "scribes who had come from Jerusalem" (v. 1), reveals that Jesus also has his critics.

The issue is that some of Jesus' disciples were eating with "defiled hands", that is unwashed hands. This was a particular concern for the Pharisees who, as Mark's Gospel explains (a fact which suggests that this Gospel was originally written for an audience unfamiliar with Jewish customs), insist on thoroughly washing their hands and all other utensils used for cooking and eating. Indeed some scholars have suggested that what the Pharisees were looking to do was to require all faithful Jews to observe the 'Holiness code' to the same level and degree which was expected of priests and levites.

Jesus' reply was vigorous and to the point. First he challenged the basis of such criticism, saying that in their zeal they go beyond what actually the Mosaic law requires, quoting from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13) who offered a similar critique of the religious practices of his own day, and what they were doing instead was to "abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition" (v. 8).

He then went on to challenge their some of their own practices, in particular their use of the custom of 'corban' (which again Mark's Gospel explains in verse 11). This is the practice whereby once something has been committed to God as a gift, it is regarded as no longer available for other use, even for the support of elderly parents. Indeed this can mean that the practice is used specifically to avoid the obligation to help in such situations and thus makes void the commandment to "Honour your father and mother"(v. 10, quoting Exodus 20:12).

Nor is this the only case at issue according to Jesus, for he said that they "do many things like this" which is why he calls them "hypocrites" (v. 6). This is a language and a debate to which we will return later in the Gospel, in particular when Jesus enters Jerusalem and become involved in a whole series of debates about religious authority (as we shall hear more about in a month's time.)

To Ponder

  • How uncomfortable do you feel about Jesus' challenging his opponents with 'hypocrisy'?
  • Are there aspects to our religious life today where we may be open to the same challenge? What might they be?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley

Stephen Wigley is a Methodist minister currently serving as chair of the Wales Synod. He is married to Jenny, a priest in the Church in Wales, and they have two teenage sons, David and Andrew.