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.