Mark 7:1-23. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches. And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you would have gained from me is quorban” that is, given to God- then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” Thus he declared all foods clean. And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”


1. Who are the Pharisees and teachers of the law generally? More particularly, have Jesus and the twelve already met these individuals?

 2. What is “the tradition of the elders“? How does it relate to the law? What sort of authority did the Pharisees ascribe to law and to tradition?

 3. What does it mean for something to be “quorban”? Was this a Pharisaic invention?

 4. Thinking of the categories of clean and unclean in the Old Testament, is Jesus…

a) Abolishing them for his followers. They were an Old Testament thing, which we don’t need to worry about any more. We’re New Testament believers.

b) Leaving them as they stand. He’s dealing with Pharisaic additions to the law, not the law itself.

c) Authoritatively redefining them.

 5. Accusations of “legalism” are sometimes thrown around in Christian circles. What is an accurate definition of legalism? When is it an accurate perjoration, and when is it false? Were the Pharisees legalists?

 6. People sometimes appeal to the distinction between visible actions and the invisible motives in order to justify behaviour which others think to be wrong.

Have you ever said or thought or heard others say things like… 

  • “You can’t see my heart. How can you stand in judgement over me?”
  • You don’t know whether God is displeased with what I am doing. He can see that my heart is in the right place”
  • “I’ve prayed about this, and I feel peace”?

Are these appeals valid?

 7. Is it right to be concerned about external conformity to a set of behavioural standards?

1. Who are the Pharisees and teachers of the law generally? More particularly, have Jesus and the twelve already met these individuals?

The Pharisees were a group who arose in Israel in the inter-testamental period- during what is known as “Second-temple Judaism”. A brief history lesson follows…

If you remember, Israel went off after other gods, and God raised up the Babylonians to cut Israel off from the land. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, and dragged most of the populace off into exile, and other peoples re-settled the land of Canaan. When the Jews no longer had a land, and the temple was in ruins, things were desperate. Judaism is a religion centred around a holy land and a holy city, and a holy temple within it. The return from exile, and the rebuilding of the Temple (hence “Second-temple Judaism”) in the era of Nehemiah and Ezra, made things better- but Israel was never quite the same again. Things weren’t as they had been in the golden age of the Davidic kings. Israel wasn’t really a sovereign nation any longer. God’s people only obeyed God’s laws by permission of the uncircumcised heathen. David would have been mortified if he’d been alive. Israel was always a vassal-state of some great foreign empire. The Persian emperor, Cyrus, had to give his permission for the exiles to return and for the temple to be rebuilt. A later emperor, Darius, had to ratify this decision. When the Greek Empire expanded aggressively under Alexander the Great, Israel was among her conquered possessions. After Alexander’s death, there were power struggles at the top and the empire was split among his generals. Israel was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, one of whom was the infamous Antiochus Epiphanes, who attempted to eradicate Judaism. His measures included execution of those caught in possession of scripture, and killing infants who were circumcised along with their mothers. Circumcision was outlawed, and so were Sabbaths and Jewish feast days. Some Jews didn’t really mind being Hellenised- they built gymnasia, competed in the Olympic games, even worshipped Greek gods. Others objected strongly- you had the Maccabean revolt at this time.

The domination by pagans brought about new problems with the law given to Moses. For a long time, Israel had been able to implement the law as an independent nation. The whole point of some of the laws had been to prevent Israel from mixing with the pagans and taking on pagan ideas. But now, contact was forced because the pagans were in charge. New social circumstances gave rise to new questions about life in the covenant. Should a faithful Jew obey his foreign overlords? Should he mix with them or try to isolate himself from them? Should he rebel and try to overthrow them? Everybody was looking for answers, and when there’s a market for answers, there are always plausible men who seem to have a plentiful supply of them.

The Pharisees were one of many groups who thought they had the answers. There were lots of different Jewish groups forming around common concerns and interests, and the Pharisees were one group who gained a more formal structure and code. They’d have looked back over history and said “We were destroyed as a judgement of God for our unfaithfulness”, which was true. They’d have wanted to make sure that this would never happen again, and so they determined to be ultra-faithful. The Pharisees were Jews who remained zealously faithful to “Judaism” despite pressures from Greek culture, and despite religious persecution. They tried to make the Torah applicable to “modern” life. The Pharisees were in many respects an admirable group of men. They read the law and the prophets, and they saw very clearly that Israel did not keep the law properly. They themselves took very seriously their responsibility to keep the law personally. They also saw themselves as partly responsible to uphold the law in the nation at large. The people looked up to them as righteous men. All very good.

That said, I’d like to be clear that we can’t rehabilitate the reputation of the Pharisees. That reputation was authoritatively wrecked by Jesus, who said that Pharisees were whitewashed tombs. They devoured widow’s houses. They loved money. They hated the attention Jesus got and envied him. They were full of self-indulgence. They were full of all uncleanness. They were hypocrites. Though their concern for the law looked good on the outside, it was all a sham. They did wicked things, and they didn’t do these wicked things out of a grateful concern to keep God’s law. Maybe Jesus was generalising. Maybe some Pharisees were decent men. But if he is, then it’s an authoritative generalisation.

 Jesus and the Twelve may already have met these men personally. Back in chapter 2, Jesus and the disciples clashed with Pharisees who criticised them for “working” on the Sabbath. They had been picking grains as they walked through a field- which was “work” only in the way that the size of a “fun-size” Mars bar is “fun”[1]. But Jesus didn’t defend his disciples by arguing about the details of definitions. Instead, he compared himself to David, and said that as God’s appointed king, he got to define what the Sabbath was all about. It is quite possible that some of those men are still following Jesus around and hassling him.

 2. What is “the tradition of the elders“? How does it relate to the law? What sort of authority did the Pharisees ascribe to law and to tradition?

Firstly, what was law? Which things came under the heading “Law”, and which things didn’t? How did you know whether any given principle was a law, or just a piece of advice, a guideline?

Obviously, the teaching of the Pentateuch was law. God spoke to Moses, saying “Tell Israel this: Law 1, law 2, law 3… thus saith the LORD”. The bulk of the text of Leviticus and Deuteronomy is simply transcripts of God’s words to Moses- and these were indisputably law. On that point, Jesus would have no disagreement with the Pharisees. The Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, gave similar authority to the prophets (the Old Testament being divided into “the law” and “the prophets”). Again, Jesus would agree with the Pharisees about that.

But the Pharisees also elevated Rabbinic tradition to a level where it was effectively as authoritative as the law. Teaching in the synagogues would go along the lines of “Rabbi x says this, and rabbi y says that. You should hear and obey.”

The motives for this were possibly noble at the outset. The Pharisees saw acutely the dangers of lawlessness, and so wanted to hedge themselves and others about with a proliferation of extra regulations, to make sure that God’s law was properly kept. Take the Sabbath law as an example. The law actually says “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. On six days shall you labour and do all your work, but the seventh day shall be a Sabbath. On it you shall do no work, neither you nor your manservant nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass. You shall keep it as a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 5)

Seems clear enough, doesn’t it? Well, the Pharisees rightly wanted to obey it thoroughly. So they set about defining precisely what work was. If you went on a long arduous hike on the Sabbath, was that work? How about a short stroll? How long did a walk have to be before it counted as “work”? How many steps should you be allowed to take? Some Pharisees actually set limits on the number of steps they could take. It was stupid, over the top. Counting your steps made more work, made the Sabbath a burden rather than a rest. They started by trying to uphold the law, but finished up undermining it, unable to see the wood for the trees.

In the example we had in Chapter 2- what about gathering in the harvest? Reaping was definitely work, wasn’t it? Of course it was. At harvest time, Israelites would sweat in the fields all day. This was exactly what work was all about, eating food by the sweat of the face, wrestling crops out of the cursed earth. So then, no reaping on the Sabbath. Good, that’s clear.

But then, if we’re going to keep the law properly, we need to know exactly when we are reaping and when we aren’t. The urge then was to define reaping very tightly, leaving no room for doubt or ambiguity. So reaping is defined as picking grain from the stalk. And that means that if a man strolling through his field on his way to the synagogue on a sunny Sabbath morning should pick a few grains from his wheat crop and rub the husks off and pop them in his mouth- then he was a lawbreaker.

The Pharisees’ problem wasn’t that they were concerned with the minute details of the law- it was that in their concern, they forgot the broader sweep of it. Jesus does not criticise them for tithing the mint and cumin in their gardens, but for doing it so myopically that they forgot the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). They were right to be careful about law keeping. They had gone wrong in that they had over-inflated the importance of their extra regulations. If a Pharisee wanted to define what was reaping and what was not, then all power to his elbow. It would be a good and profitable exercise… provided of course that his reason for so doing was to glorify the thrice holy God by striving to please him in obedience. But the Pharisee must always remember that his definition, though it may be a help to the law, is only a help to the law. It is not the law itself. It does not carry the full weight of the law in itself.

And the Pharisee needs to retain the larger perspective- when enforcing the help to the law would actually violate a part of the law, then of course the help is a help no longer, and must be abandoned. The Pharisees went wrong in that they had forgotten this. Their view of what was law had extended to include their own traditions. They no longer thought of their traditions as commentaries on the law, but as authoritative, like the law itself. They were adding to the law.

 Secondly, the Pharisaic view of what law was, of how far the obedience it demanded went. This is one of Paul’s sharpest points of difference with 1st century Judaism. Paul insisted that law is law. It is absolute, unalterable, demanding obedience in every point. Break one point of the law, and you are a lawbreaker. It doesn’t matter that you’ve kept 99% of it while your fellow men have kept a miserable 40%. Law is law. The pass-mark is 100%. You must keep it all to be reckoned righteous according to the law. Break the smallest part, and you’ve failed. The Pharisees, at the same time as upgrading their own traditions to the level of the law, also downgraded the law to the point where it was keepable. Instead of looking at the great command- “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6), and saying with David and Isaiah, “there is nobody righteous, not even one” and, “all we, like sheep, are gone astray” (Psalm 14, Isaiah 53), they would, had they read Romans 3, have fumed inwardly, and contradicted Paul- “Of course there are those who are righteous. I’m righteous. Haven’t I kept all the law since my childhood? Who can charge me with fault?” Paul himself, in his days as a Pharisee, thought himself blameless under the law. Of course he didn’t love the Lord with all his heart. But he still thought he had kept the law. Law became something purely external.

Jesus then argues against both of these abuses. On the one hand, he is firm that the law is from God, and additions of men are not authoritative. On the other, he is firm that righteousness must come from within. The law must be applied to the heart first.

 3. What does it mean for something to be “quorban”? Was this a Pharisaic invention?

Jesus gives a concrete example of a situation in which the Pharisees actually contradicted the law with their traditions. The Old Testament introduces a practice of devoting things to God (Quorban). When Joshua took the cities of Ai and Jericho, they were declared quorban, and everything in them was to be devoted to God. The Israelites were not to plunder those cities for gold and silver, or wear the garments of their defeated enemies, or add their livestock to the Israelite herds- everything in those cities is to be devoted to God. In this case, it was to be burnt up, so that the Israelites could not use it for themselves. Their invasion was a holy war, carried out for God’s honour, not primarily for their own earthly gain. The Pharisees had developed this principle, and as teachers of the law, religious authorities, they took it seriously. If a man declared something quorban, then he should not be allowed to change his mind and get the goods back again. Thus saith the Pharisee. Again, doubtless this was a good and useful principle in many cases. It would prevent many wrongs. It would mean that people didn’t declare quorban lightly, didn’t declare it, then decide they wanted a nice holiday after all, and took the money back to pay for a few weeks off work. But the Pharisees had lost sight of the biggest, underlying principle- to please God. They gave their codification the authority of God’s law, and this led to serious error.

Jesus gives them an example. Imagine a fairly well-to-do young Jewish man, born of fairly well-to-do parents. He has a young family, and he is looking to take on his father’s large farm in over the coming decade, as his father ages. He sees no need to scrimp and save for the future- and he’s right. He has plenty. His parents have plenty. He is more than able to supply for himself and all his dependants in the foreseeable future. And he is grateful to God for all this, so he puts aside a large part of his estate, and declares it quorban. It is now for God’s use exclusively. But seven years later, disaster strikes. The rains are dry for three years in a row. Crops on the family farm fail and income gets very low, and he has to sell the land. His wife falls ill, and the medical expenses eat a large hole in his emergency funds. Suddenly he’s not so flush anymore. Then, just as his wife is on the mend, his mother goes down with the same illness. What should he do? He can’t let her die. He has a responsibility to her. The law says “Honour your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you”. It is his clear duty under God to care for his parents. They are old, and need his support- but the money he’d hoped would be more than enough to support them is all spent, he has no prospect of booming income in the years ahead. What should he do? Well, he goes to the local teachers of the law and says to them “Rabbi, there is a portion of wealth which I declared quorban many years ago. I now need to support my aged parents, can I make use of it?” And they say “No chance, sonny. You should have thought of that, before you made your vow, shouldn’t you. It’s too late now. Tough”.

 They are saying that the responsibilities of the man to his parents- responsibilities backed up by God’s law- come second to obeying their regulations about quorban. Doubtless they would attempt to justify themselves by spiritual-sounding appeals to the absolute first place of God, but Jesus clearly sees this as an impious blasphemy. If they were so concerned about God, they’d let the man please God and obey God’s law. His point is that the Pharisees are not concerned for the law at all, they just want to look like they are. These men are hypocrites, their hearts far from God.

 All this was primarily for the ears of the Pharisees. Jesus then gathers the crowd around him, and teaches them the wider principle of what he has said. The law must be concerned with externals only insofaras they show what is internal. The Lord looks at the heart. God’s laws do deal with externals- ritual washings for priests, for example. But those externals are supposed to flow from an internal desire to serve the Lord. Of course it is wrong to commit adultery, to murder, to do those visible actions- but the actions flow from a sinful heart, a heart full of lust, full of hatred.

Jesus elaborates the idea further when his disciples question him about it (note, by the way, that again the disciples’ lack of understanding is pointed out). It is from the heart that evil actions come. The law was never meant as a ladder to perfect righteousness in the way the Pharisees attempted to use it. It was meant to restrain wickedness, and to teach Israel that the heart is unteachable. They were supposed to recognise their inability to keep the law, and to look for something better. They were supposed to react as John’s disciples reacted to his teaching- to recognise their transgressions of the law as being serious, to repent, and to look for Messiah- for the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. Jesus came to deliver from the curse of the law. The law still stands as an expression of God’s righteousness, and of what is good and pleasing to him. The law is good, says Paul (Romans 7). But man is evil. He needs to be changed. Dipping the body in water cannot change him. He needs to have the heart dipped in the Holy Spirit- to be born again, given new life, regenerated.

 4. Thinking of the categories of clean and unclean in the Old Testament, is Jesus…

a) Abolishing them for his followers. They were an Old Testament thing, which we don’t need to worry about any more. We’re New Testament believers.

b) Leaving them as they stand. He’s dealing with Pharisaic additions to the law, not the law itself.

c) Authoritatively redefining them.

In verse 19, we have an editorial note to tell us that Jesus declared all foods to be clean. We know from a cursory reading of Leviticus that plenty of foods were unclean, and made a man unclean if he ate them. Is Mark saying that Jesus swept away those laws?

No. Mark doesn’t say that Jesus did away with the clean/unclean thing. Mark actually says something very different. He says that Jesus declared all foods to be clean. While leaving the clean/unclean distinction standing, Jesus is redefining the boundaries of clean and unclean. Everything is now moved into the “clean” category. And if it is all “clean” then “clean” must still exist as a category. Jesus gets to do this because he is the King of God’s kingdom. Other kings have done vaguely similar things in the past. David was God’s king, and so it was OK for him to give his men the priest’s bread to eat. Solomon was God’s king, and so he could update the whole pattern of worship in Israel and build a temple. But Jesus is the fulfilment of all the types. He is the reality, the solid presence who cast the shadows of the Old Testament. Before, it would have been wrong to eat certain foods. It would have made an Israelite unclean, and unfit to worship God. But when Jesus comes, he makes the unclean things clean. Unclean people are made clean when they are joined to Jesus. People made clean in that way can eat lobster wrapped in bacon, and it won’t defile them. The law is still relevant and necessary in every point. Not the least stroke of a pen of it shall pass away until heaven and earth pass away, said Jesus. As long as you can look out of your window and see the sunrise in the morning, the law still stands. But God’s people A.D. will keep the law differently from the way they did B.C. The food laws were given to keep Israel separate from the Gentiles around them. We still need to keep ourselves separate from evil and unbelief, but cuisine is no longer a marker of who is clean and who isn’t.

 5. Accusations of “legalism” are sometimes thrown around in Christian circles. What is an accurate definition of legalism? When is it an accurate perjoration, and when is it false? Were the Pharisees legalists?

Legalism properly defined is an attempt at merit theology. It is the belief that you earn your salvation by keeping God’s law.

Legalism isn’t the same thing as a careful regard to do righteousness, and it isn’t the same thing as a willingness to condemn others for doing wickedness. When I hear one Christian describe another as “legalistic”, I’m often reluctant to give the allegation much weight. It usually means “He’s more bothered about right and wrong than I am. I want to let this sin slide, and he keeps picking up on it.”

Were the Pharisees legalists, proper bona-fide “I’ve kept the law and so I’ll get into God’s kingdom” legalists? Well, maybe some of them were. But there’s more than one way of being a legalist.

Look at the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who went to pray (Luke 19). The Pharisee’s prayer was thoroughly orthodox in one sense. “Thank you God, that I am not like other men.” What he actually said gave God the credit for any goodness he had. There’s no problem with thanking God that you’re not a murderer or an adulterer. If you’re not, then God be praised indeed. But this man was a hypocrite. It wasn’t what he said that was the problem- it was what he thought. He had a mouth full of grace, and a heart full of works, and so he went down to his house unjustified.

Jesus also said that the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, and that the disciples should obey their teaching, but not copy their actions (Matt 23). The Pharisees weren’t necessarily theological legalists, but they were practical ones.

 6) People sometimes appeal to the distinction between visible actions and the invisible motives in order to justify behaviour which others think to be wrong. Are these appeals valid?

There is some truth in such appeals. We all know that appearances can be misleading. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is common wisdom. And the motives really do matter. But still, the law is good. Jesus interpreted the law authoritatively for us. When Jesus explained how the law was going to function in his kingdom (Matthew 5), the examples he gave called for real heart righteousness, and also called for more stringent external standards of righteousness than were operative in Israel. We need to bear in mind that the heart of the law is to do with the heart; that all the law can be boiled down to “Love the Lord your God with all you have, and love your neighbour as yourself”. But we need to have our notions of what love looks like dictated to us by the Bible. We are naïve if we think that people aren’t going to want to break the law and then excuse themselves by telling us their heart was in the right place all along. If a man tells us (for example) that he left his wife because he wasn’t able to care for her properly, and leaving her was the most loving thing he could do for her, and so he was obeying the law when he walked out- then we ought to be able to spot the hypocrisy going on there. It is not legalism to tell him that his duty is to go back, repent, ask her forgiveness, and start working hard at being a better husband if she’ll have him. If he tells us that he’s prayed about the matter, and he is sure that he’s doing the right thing, then we should question the identity of the god to whom he prays- because it doesn’t look like the God of the Bible.

 7) Is it right to be concerned about external conformity to a set of behavioural standards?

Short answer: Yes. Looking at the outside is how we tell what is on the inside. We might get it wrong, and we need to do it with wisdom, but the caveats don’t mean that we shouldn’t do it.

Jesus says that out of the heart come a lot of evil things. The heart is the wellspring, and the heart is what matters before any external actions. But the external actions do matter too. They tell us whether the well is polluted or not. A man whose heart is clean won’t be prey to evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.

[1] It’s smaller. What’s fun about that?

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