Mark 7:8

You neglect God’s commandments and hold to human traditions.

when in doubt

read revolutionary prophets

old or new

read them aloud

taste their word

the sour bile

the umami hope

the spiced critique

chew their word

the salty phrase

the lingering courage

the forgotten promise

use their word

the negating greed

the raw power

the pervasive suffering

The Isaiah quote in 7:6b–7 was a lead-in to its application in an accusatorial setting. (Yes, questions are a way we can put another on the spot with built-in wiggle room to claim that it was just an honest question, not an accusation.)

The word behind “ignore” is much stronger in that it is active ignoring or “abandon”/”forsake”/ ”leave”. An irony here is the way the early and continuing church prefers to ignore the radical insight of Jesus by declaiming its own oral tradition and deciding certain groups of people are incompatible with their doctrine or teaching.

This insight applies to today’s Church as well as Mark’s. Charles W. Hedrick writes in an article, “The Church’s Gospel and the Idiom of Jesus”, in the Fourth R: An Advocate for Religious Literacy (Volume 30, Number 4, page 5):

Perhaps the most notable shift from Jesus to the church was that the proclaimer became the proclaimed: whereas Jesus proclaimed the Empire of God, the church proclaimed Jesus—specifically his crucifixion and resurrection. And this proclamation became known as “the gospel” in churches that thought of themselves as part of the “universal” (catholic) church. The short of the matter is that Jesus did not proclaim the “gospel” that the church proclaimed. The church’s gospel is couched in the language of religious institutionalism: it is direct, unambiguous, authoritarian, confessional, propositional, and intolerant.

This is nothing new since Hermann Samuel Reimarus and his work, On the Intentions of Jesus and his Disciples, written before 1678 and partly published by Gotthold Lessing in 1778. This is still worth reflecting on as a source of difficulty of continuing the church in today’s culture—Jesus versus Christianity.

Mark 7:7

but vainly do they worship me, For they teach but human precepts.’

lucky seven plus seven
pretending to be eleven
empties awe

made up rules of success
trump common senses
gilding lilies

ephemeral words jump around
eluding meanings as they go
null sets

the right-way announcer
solves every problem for you
but vanity

there is no devil nor blue sea
such knotty developments slice easily
no consequences

hovering over the face of the deep
tomorrow invites today to come forth
awe fulfilled

This is an excellent example of how the gospel writers appropriated ancient prophets. As LaVerdiere193 notes:

The quotation from Isaiah 29:13 in Mark 7:6b–7 follows neither the Septuagint nor the Hebrew Massoretic text, but is closer to the Septuagint. The distinctive elements in the New Testament, rendering could stem from a loose quotation done from memory or represent a traditional Christian form of the text. Those elements probably constitute a deliberate adaption of Isaiah 29:13 for the present Markan context.

The word translated here as “empty” attempts to carry Isaiah’s accusation of being “rote” or “memorized”—where the form has obliterated the content.

Regarding “instructions” it is instructive to return to the venerable King James translation that reads: “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” The word “doctrine” comes to us from Latin for “doctors”. Doctrine is what is taught by those who claim authority or have it affirmed by others. Either way it is as provisional as are humans.

“Instruction” is too mild a term here for a “commandment” as used by the Jewish Study Bible841 or “doctrine”. These carry a stronger sense of “must be followed”.

It is this “mustness”, one person to another or a culture to an individual, that Jesus responds to by using a close version of Isaiah to shift the question from honoring rote responses to physical realities.

Mark 7:6

His answer was, “It was well said by Isaiah when he prophesied about you hypocrites in the words – ‘This is a people who honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far removed from me;

hypocrites grow without planting
mysterious in their formation
until little by little
an addictive craft is ready
for every life event

an advantage box is constructed
taking heart pulses apart
their constituent parts compared
against immediate short-term desires

reconstructed pulses stir anxieties
every decision-making situation
effective dot-connecting delayed

mouths twitter away every thought
decaying compassion to punishment

disconnection drifts to a whimper

“Prophecy” is too often thought of as “prediction”. At a later date, it becomes useful as a self-fulfilling statement. Mark and other gospel writers presume the Greek understanding of prophecy as fate. Both fate and a hardened heart are blind to being able to see it until it is too late and the “prediction” has come to pass.

In the Hebrew tradition, prophets are speaking to the people they are speaking with, not some later generation. Their intent is in seeing a change in behavior—BANG! NOW!

It is this predictive usage that allows Mark to put the word “Hypocrite” in Jesus’ mouth. Again, the Greek has reference to a stage actor playing a role. The actor is there as a marker for the playwright, not because it is not something the actor would have said without the playwright’s words. This is a counter-, ad hominem argument.

Because of the tensions between the Jewish sects of the time, Mark enlists Isaiah as Jesus’ authority. This appeal to the written word instead of an interpretive word carries with it an interpretation. It is as if Jesus is not interested in responding to the question raised as much as upping the ante on an internal argument. This is not keeping question and response on the same level, which has some hope of resolution. This is boxing the Pharisees and Scribes into a corner where tag-team members can rough them up.

In its day, a hypocrite is more like a “pettifogging lawyer” (Mann313). Here it is helpful to remember Job’s rule-limited “friends”.

Mark 7:5

So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law asked Jesus this question – “How is it that your disciples do not follow the traditions of our ancestors, but eat their food with defiled hands?”

a big question
why are you different

side-stepping bigger questions
who are you

are you my teacher
are we in this together

is the risk you represent
worth the taking today

if I convert
can I keep my accomplishments

isn’t hand-washing
a daily reminder of belovedness

with each denial
differences widen

Finally the question comes: “Why didn’t you do a better job in selecting holier people for your work? The great unwashed won’t do as they are too common to make a difference.”

There is an alternating reality of the source of change—top-down or bottom-up.

The questioners are about living by the rules. περιπατοῦσιν (peripatousin) is better here in its literal translation of “walking”, rather than “living”. This makes it easier to see that behind the question is the assumption that conformation, lock-step along the way, is the way to go—given the fraught situation of occupation in any age or setting.

Moving from physical walking to figurative living diffuses the situation regarding what is at stake with this encounter. Perkins606 puts it this way:

The implication of the question is that if Jesus does not teach his disciples such rules of piety, he cannot be a religious teacher…. The arguments in this section may have been formulated when Jewish Christians had to defend their failure to observe such [traditions/orthodoxies].

This attack on the disciples stands in a long line of arguments between teachers. The aphorism of “the proof is in the pudding” is an easy one to claim the failure of cook or teacher. When we can’t get directly at a teacher/leader we point at their students/appointments. And, as usual, this doesn’t do anything other than confirm each side in the rightness of their approach. There are still many more layers of onion to go through to get to a larger picture.

Mark 7:4

When they come from market, they will not eat without first sprinkling themselves; and there are many other customs which they have inherited and hold to, such as the ceremonial washing of cups, and jugs, and copper pans).

if washing hands is good
anti-bacterial soap
will only add to goodness
so we invent
so we market
so we fail
the very washing we do
strengthens illness’ systems
how ironic law begets lawlessness

A long and incomplete sentence begun in verse 2 peters out here. Some scholars go so far as to recommend deleting them.

A takeaway is that returning from market, the person, the food, and the utensils are to be cleansed (remember today to wash possible pesticides off food before preparing it). Regardless of any good reasons for the continuance of a ritual, we are not to turn it into merely a habit or privileged control of another.

The fact that Mark sets this debate in relation to the “marketplace” also suggests an economic dimension in the background. Pharisaic regulators were concerned that marketplace food had been rendered unclean at some stage (i.e., seed sown on the Sabbath or fruits harvested without properly separating out tithes), and sought to control such “contamination.” Many Galilean peasants resented these Pharisaic “middlemen” in the processes of production, distribution, and consumption of produce.      Myers80

Only a few translations keep the washing of a “bed”. With that strange last word we have climbed into bed with ritual.

David Rhoads’ chapter on “Social Criticism: Crossing the Boundaries” in Anderson/Moore163 notes a pattern in Mark that carries an implicit question for today’s readers about current cultural norms:

When we turn to the depiction of Israel in the Gospel of Mark, we see issues of both purity and defilement throughout: The Holy Spirit, cleansing a leper, work on the Sabbath, corpses, exorcism of unclean spirits, Gentiles, sinners, unclean foods, and so on. As portrayed in Mark’s story, the elders of the nation uphold the laws of ritual purity…. By contrast Jesus makes an onslaught against these purity rules and regulations. In Mark’s view, Jesus is indeed holy, for the “Holy Spirit” comes upon Jesus at his baptism (1:10) and he is called “the Holy One of God” (1:24). Nevertheless, Jesus counters the purity rules that preserved the holiness of the nation.

Mark 7:3

(For the Pharisees, and indeed all strict Jews, will not eat without first scrupulously washing their hands, holding in this to the traditions of their ancestors.

won’t our ancestors be proud
we copy the old ways
conceived in limits not ours
dedicated to denied new opportunities

carefully we consult laws
built on one circumstance
eager to ease today’s decisions
with cut and paste reduction

each and every action we meet
comes pre-cut pre-chewed
digested down to a smaller package
treasured or trashed

such offal is awful
no shoulder-standing allowed
we become nose-blind to stink
accommodated to the uncouth

won’t our ancestors be proud
we copy the old ways
conceived in limits not ours
dedicated to denied new opportunities

Perkins605 notes,

Controversy stories ordinarily begin with a question or challenge, and the retort follows quickly. But both the question over customs of purification (v. 5) and the reply are delayed in this episode (vv. 14–15).

This is a notation worthy of a question or two about what would lead Mark to bring emphasis to this encounter by changing the style of telling his story.

An easy response has to do with the possibility of Mark dealing with Gentiles who aren’t up on a significant struggle within the Israelite community about a relationship with G*D: The Torah as written, the oral Torah which finds options to the strictness of commandment abominations.

Perhaps closer to an author’s process is that the introduction of the elders and heritage begins to set up a different line of inquiry that Jesus will look at more closely than the too-easy, either/or question by Pharisees and Scribes.

Though Mark can be an awkward writer, he wrestles with what a new Messiah might mean for those not yet scared away from the dangers posed by following John and/or Jesus. Mark continues his simultaneous use of and revision of the ancient texts that shape the frame of a new response in the midst of a stuck situation with the Roman Empire ruling through the Herods and Temple leadership. The written/oral debate is no longer helpful in a state of occupation.

Mark 7:2

They had noticed that some of his disciples ate their food with their hands ‘defiled,’ by which they meant unwashed.

when wrong is looked for
it is but moments away
nothing can block
ever-creative conspiracy
quickly finding a greater fault
than our own weakness

the slightest jot
smallest tittle
stands out as a large affront
to sensibilities and privileges
an endless line of quo-ed status
built to continue order

before realization sparks
expected and unexpected heresy
breaks into the open
with chaos its expected wake
we prepare to fight not flee
to save god universe and all

hand wringing
takes precedence over hand washing
to such a degree
we wash our hands of responsibility
prepared to cut off hands
imagining heads

A helpful reminder for readers of many recent translations that either speak simply of eating or eating food. The Greek here is “bread”. This is loss of a reading signifier as we continue to live out of the hardened hearts regarding a feeding of 5,000.

Bratcher219 is helpful in looking at the word translated as “unclean” — κοινός (koinos, common).

koinos ‘common (to) all)’, ‘communal’: from this primary sense the word came to mean (in the N.T.) ‘ordinary’, ‘profane’. Here, then, it would mean ‘ceremonially unclean’. Morton Smith (Tannaitic Parallels, 31-32) adduces proof from Rabbinical literature to show that koinos in the N.T. refers to “objects of which the cleanness or uncleanness is uncertain, and which are therefore a sort of third class, apart from the clean (certainly so) and the (certainly) unclean.”

In hearing this accusation, Jesus, as usual, walks a third way between clean and unclean with the understanding that there is much that is simply uncertain about its categorization. He will respond from a point beyond the givens of an either/or proposition. When partnered with G*D and Neighb*r things are never as clear as we project them to be based on our preferences and heritage.

Mark 7:1

One day the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the Law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus.

adversary fascination
confronts our confrontation gene
a temptation too far

we gather to plot
implement our plan
surrounding the infection

an autonomic reaction
to self-limited survival
gathers strange bed-fellows

a common enemy
builds a false unity
between adversaries

such heightened awareness
will crash soon enough
of its own weightlessness

The timing and setting of this confluence of local Pharisees and Scribes connected with the High Priest and Temple in Jerusalem is not known. This is an urgent shift from Crowd to Institutional Debate. However the Pharisees and Scribes came together and honed in on Jesus, there is a looming background.

Imagine yourself sitting, teaching, as your known opponents “assemble” around you. There is menace in the air.

The Revised Common Lectionary pieces the first part of Chapter 7 together (1–8; 14–15; 21–23). Swanson201 notes that the resultant scene “sets ethics in opposition to ritual”.

This tension needs a bit of warning that we not set Jesus against Judaism. As generations-later Christians, removed by time and culture, we dare not overlook the importance of codes of practice or purity for a community. Every community, including Christianity, has them. We are in danger of allowing this ethical/ritual tension to turn into anti-Semitism. Without an appreciation for the positive value of boundaries to aid in a “stable and orderly love of God”, Swanson205 continues, “Gentile Christians will simply misunderstand this scene from beginning to end.”

It is easy to miss an internal debate between an oral Torah of specific commentary by Rabbis and a written Torah of overarching commandments. This tension has continued in what has become the Christian tradition. Mark and other Gospel writers are quite capable of shading prior written words to speak for and to their communities. By refining and redefining a word here and there, the prophets devolve from present warning to predictor of our bias.

Mark 6:56

So wherever he went – to villages, or towns, or farms – they would lay their sick in the market-places, begging him to let them touch only the tassel of his cloak; and all who touched were made well.

we beg for allowance
to do what we could do
simply on our own

thinking life is a trick
we look for permission
to access an open door

when external affirmation
is not forthcoming
we collapse

these internal limits
crop up again and again
to stunt our growth

after spending so much time
and energy to travel
we abort our arrival

lift up your head
o mighty gate-crasher
you are welcome

Jesus is portrayed as observing the Torah commandment from Numbers 15:37­­–41: G*D partnered with Moses says, “Tell the Israelites to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations. When they see it, they will remember and live our rules of engagement.”

This technical term, κράσπεδον (kraspedon) noted by Bratcher218

(only here in Mark) ‘edge’, ‘border’, ‘hem’; probably here not in the general sense, but in the specific sense of ‘tassel’ worn by pious Jews on each of the four corners of the cloak.

is lost in our contemporary familiarity with the fabric neatly turned under and stitched flat.

Who knows what else we have lost in the passage of time and culture as language is added to and, at the same time, turns archaic. Reading slowly with others heals compromised understanding when everyone uses their own lens and applies their own meaning to ancient words.

Connecting touching in Jesus’ work with reading, Moore40 says:

This touching is a kind of darshan, being in the presence of the teacher and receiving healing power from it. It is significant that a story like this one shows the importance of an effort to be present, rather than an intellectual agreement with a set of teachings. Many people who love the Gospel stories have not had the full experience because they have been taught to think of them as the basis for a creed rather than a way of being…. We might think of reading the Gospel stories as a kind of darshan, where the reading itself puts us in touch with the power of the story.

Mark 6:55

hurried over the whole country-side, and began to carry about on mats those who were ill, wherever they heard he was.

finding health
is difficult enough
without a secret M.A.S.H.
mobile announcement spreading hero

put the wounded on mats
toted stretcher style
slowly through tough terrain
faster helicoptering above

rather than ride off in all directions
tune-in to traffic on the eights
for news of delays and accidents
to arrive before another venue change

In Europe first, United States of America next, and expected in the currently growing churches south of the equator—people are not running to bring the sick and poor to the church. When they are not present, “church” ceases to be a community of compassion and premeditated mercy. Not all the money in the world will cover for the bankruptcy of homogeneity.

Somehow the crowds are able to see value in the presence of Jesus and go out of their way to see that those who need a revival are able to be present with him. Admittedly, an appreciation of a return to health can be short-lived and turn into, “I’ve got mine; you are responsible for your own getting.” What we too easily term curing miracles pale in regard to a healing miracle of heart, attitude, and running to honor a healing by sharing its source with all about.

The detail of people being carried on a mat takes us back to Chapter 2 and the friends of a paralytic digging through the roof to be let in.

Imagine the sick of a whole region showing up. It was difficult with the paralytic when the “competition” for healing was only the city of Capernaum. If even more people crowd around, the desired respite (remember this is a continuation of wanting to get away because there wasn’t time to eat) is again put off.

An obvious question: Why the current disconnect from people running to bring folks to Jesus and folks running from the presence of his official trademark? A not obvious response: First, we have lost the Chapter 6 commission to recognize “hospitality” and leverage it to cast out demons. Second, will be a Chapter 9 “prayer” (vs. 29) that redeems technique from proof to the mystery of partnered relationships. On these two rest an authority connected with creation energy.