The issue of purity. 7:1-23


This passage falls within the second major section of Mark's gospel, "The journey to God's mountain", and serves as part of the period of growing discontent. Here, we see the religious leaders without understanding, confined by their religiosity. The passage is in two parts: i] Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who rely on tradition at the expense of God's law, v1-13, and ii] Jesus identifies the true source of defilement, namely the heart, v14-23. The passage, as a whole, performs the function of law in that Jesus' words expose the human condition of loss and therefore, our need for a divine renewal of the heart.

The passage

v1-2. Jesus is confronted by local Pharisees, along with some from Jerusalem. They are critical of his laxity toward matters of ritual purity, particularly in allowing his disciples to defile themselves by eating with unwashed hands.

v3-4. In an editorial note, Mark gives a general overview of purity rituals practiced by the Pharisees.

v5. The Pharisees assume that their traditions have authority and so question Jesus' failure to observe them. Jesus happily rises to the occasion.

v6-7. Jesus sets out to expound the quote from Isaiah 29:13. First, that the religion of Israel is now shaped by externals based on human traditions, and second, that defilement is a product of a corrupt heart, quite apart from externals.

v8. In grasping onto subjective traditions, the Pharisees have neglected God's authoritative word.

v9. Jesus goes on to make the point that the Pharisees have actually set aside the commandments for the sake of their traditions.

v10-12. In quoting the fifth commandment, Jesus adds the penalty for dishonoring parents, namely death. The Pharisees had found a way around honouring parents, with regard financial assistance, through a device whereby the son's funds were declared "divine property."

v13. Jesus sums up his argument, namely, that the Pharisees have dared to nullify the commandments in favour of their traditions.

v14-15. Addressing the crowd, Jesus presents a short parabolic saying: Defilement is from within, not from without.

v17-19a. As is typical, Jesus later explains the saying to the disciples. An external, such as food, does not defile a person's being ("heart"), it simply passes through.

v19b. Mark makes his own comment here regarding Levitical regulations, particularly food regulations. The issue had caused division in the early church between Gentiles and Jews. The comment doesn't actually seek to dispense with the regulations as such, rather make the point that purity, in the end, has nothing to do with what we eat.

v20-23. It is what is within the inner being that defiles us, for from within comes "evil divisings which issue in degraded acts and vices", Taylor. By means of these words, Jesus has demolished any idea that pious regulations can purify. In the end, we are all left with a "desperate need for the renewal and cleansing of the human heart", Lane.

The heart of the matter

"These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me", Isaiah 29:13.

The teaching of this passage is quite straightforward. The Pharisees had developed their own particular religiosity, their "kosher" faith. Jesus, of course, ignores their religious correctness. They respond by questioning his faith. Jesus then points to their hypocrisy. They practice religious correctness while ignoring matters of substance, matters of justice. Jesus then pushes to the core problem facing all humanity: the human heart is the source of corruption and out of it comes all manner of evil.

Pious traditions have no authority in themselves and certainly no capacity to purify the inner being. In fact, they are a product of human reasoning. Even the purity regulations of Leviticus can't purify. All the law does is identify our defilement, but it certainly can't cure it. Our problem is a spiritual one; we all need spiritual renewal. So again, Jesus' teaching drives us to the cross for renewal, for the gift of a new heart within.

As we stand in the shadow of the cross, saved by grace through faith, we do wonder about the propriety of the many Levitical regulations on food and the like. In fact, we may well wonder to what extent the moral law itself applies to those with a renewed heart.

The fact is, Jesus hasn't actually wiped away the law, not even the food laws. His point is that externals, in themselves, neither purify nor pollute the inner being. The law serves as a guide to godliness, with some elements more important than others. The eating, or not eating, of crustaceans, is not very important, whereas the honouring of parents is important. Yet, hovering over the issue of the relative importance of individual Biblical laws, there lies the fact that no law can purify. A new heart within is the essential human need, and this as a gift of God, through faith, apart from works of the law.

So again we come to the heart of the gospel. How easy it is to feel secure in the worthiness of our Christian walk, yet worthiness before God is found in the worthiness of Christ. Let us rest secure in him, and allow him, through the Spirit, to shape our daily walk.


1. We could argue that a believer who wants to maintain their church traditions is a pharisee, ie. wanting to "observe many other traditions." Why is this not the correct application of the passage?

2. If evil or good comes from the heart, how do we change the heart that good may emerge?

3. Why is it, when the heart is not renewed, that a religious person often becomes consumed by their religiosity?

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