The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus, and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture:
This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.
You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.’
He called the people to him again and said, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.’Mk 7:1-8. 14-15. 21-23
In this Gospel account, Jesus begins with a critique of religious customs manufactured by the Pharisees and introduced into the Mosaic Law. This body of rituals was designed to supplement God’s written law and intensify its requirements of ritual purity. The controversy of this episode arises out of the “unclean hands” of the disciples (v. 2). To the Pharisees, this looked like religious laxity, a charge they wished to bring against Jesus.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees with a rigorous defence, intended to refocus attention on what the Law really required – moral purity of heart. This moral purity is to be measured not by what passes through the mouth, but what comes from the heart (vv. 14-15). The heart is the centre of the person and the source of every decision. The heart of the person is revealed through the deeds of the person. Blindly, the Pharisees elevated the traditions of ritual purity to be equal to the revealed laws of God. This error had its roots in the Pharisee’s relying on their own wisdom rather than God’s. Hence, their worship of God was mere lip service devoid of living faith.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on Mark, vol. 2) this episode in which the disciples eat with unwashed hands signifies their future fellowship with the Gentiles. This episode provides us with a powerful message, one that warns against the dangers of hypocrisy. We must not become modern-day Pharisees, quick to criticise and condemn. Nor should we give a perfunctory lip-service to God, devoid of meaning. Rather, we must be a people of gentle hands and compassionate hearts, always knowing that our words will only be empty rhetoric if they are not lived out through our deeds and through our deeds we move our hearts closer to God.
Director, Mission and Identity