One of the most important documents I give my students is the syllabus. The diligent students peruse this document carefully, marking important due dates for homework and major assignments. Then they mark specific assigned readings in their master calendar. Like most instructors, I spend a lot of time pre-semester making sure everything is ready to go for the first day.
Occasionally, though, something arises—a snowstorm, for example—and I have to alter this document. The diligent students are the ones that care the most—they’ve been thrown off. They look flustered, as if I did this on purpose, although on some level they are at least glad that I’m on top of things: you’ve told me what to expect. The less diligent ones don’t seem to notice (a few don’t appear to follow the syllabus anyway).
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has some revising of his own to do, and he passes this important info on to his disciples. The ones most flustered by this are the ones who—at least on the surface—are the ones have been follow the old way diligently. One of these areas involves the concept of what is clean and what is unclean, (originally set down in Leviticus). Those rules included (among other things) avoiding pork and shellfish, in addition to women who were menstruating and people who had touched a dead body. These rules were created based on the sanitation realities of the day.
Teachers of the law use these old laws to confront Jesus and some of his disciples, who they find eating food with unwashed hands (7:2). Patiently, Jesus listens as they lash out at him for breaking these cleanliness traditions. Then he offers his stance, and it’s incredibly interesting and amusing.
“Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean” (7:15).
Now, Jesus was making a point about how what goes into your body doesn’t touch your heart—it heads for your stomach; yet, what words and ideas leave your mouth are directly related to the heart (and mind, likely) (7:19). Therefore, what’s really important is the content of a person’s character. By stating this, all foods were declared “clean”. What these teacher of the law should be concerned about is what comes out of men’s hearts: such as greed, malice, etc. (21-22).
By today’s standards, this philosophy is important (although what we know now about sanitation makes clear that we should wash both our hands and our food before handling it). Like so many other points he’s made to people, Jesus’ idea here is that we shouldn’t be so tied to the rules of the past, placing stock in nonsensical rules that no longer serve a purpose. Rather, we should be more concerned about who we are as people and how what we do and say affects others.
Not only does this proclamation clarify things, it also creates a more useful standard by which people can live their lives. Being good doesn’t mean adhering to some seemingly arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts; rather, people need to pay more attention to the particulars, ones that can’t be predicted by a set of hard and fast rules. Times change and circumstances dictate that we remain flexible—even if we’re following what has been set down in the past. Issues arise that create a need for change and our behavior needs to reflect that.
Up Next: The Gospel of Luke.