A Missional Interpretation of Mark 7:1-23

The Gospel according to Mark stands apart from the other three Gospels because of its objective structure and focused narratives. These literary clues suggest that Mark was the first account of Gospels to be composed, serving as a basic outline for the other two synoptic documents from Matthew and Luke. The objective character of Mark’s writing aims for the ontological and teleological core of the “good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (Mk 1:1 CEB). Mark seems intent in summarizing what it may have been like to walk with Jesus, although he was not a part of the twelve himself. He does this by particularly focusing on Jesus’ power encounters as the Son of God. He achieves this by describing the miraculous elements of Jesus’ mission, the liberating power of his message and the power dynamics between the Jesus movement and the established structures of his time, vis-à-vis the Roman Empire and the ruling Jewish eldership. So in Mark, the title “Son of God” bears a certain socio-political significance. It does not only refer to God’s Son as sharing the divine nature. Rather, it refers to Jesus the Messiah as the new lord and ruler of Israel.

It is inside this broader plot that we find the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7:1-23. This particular passage was preluded by the events in chapter six where Mark seems intentional in relaying that Jesus’ ministry was not without its struggles. As Jesus began preaching the coming of God’s Kingdom, he did so by deeds of power that sought to dismantle injustice and ultimately restructure the Jewish society. The events in chapter six present a crisis in in the Jesus movement. His authority is questioned in his hometown by his own kin, and we learn that his forerunner, John the Baptist, was decapitated in a display of political power by the Romans.

Nonetheless, it is in chapter six that we find Jesus’ ministry becoming even more public than before. In the face of immanent persecution from both the Romans and the Jews, Jesus sends out the twelve apostles for the first time. It is clear that the early Jesus movement was gaining popularity as the twelve disciples began experiencing success in their own mission (6:13). Jesus’ name was becoming known and his popularity reached the royal palace (6:14) and the Sanhedrin (7:1). Jesus’ mission was beginning to disrupt the established structures of power. Chapter six represents a shift in the Jesus movement. In it, the disciples begin to take active roles in the mission. This marks the important fact that, Jesus’ mission of ushering the Kingdom of God was going to require the active participation of his followers.

In chapter six, we see this shift happening in two ways. First, they were sent out two by two to announce the evangélion of God’s Kingdom just as Jesus did (6:8). The followers were now apostolos, those who are sent out to declare the Good News. The followers were now the sent ones. By sending them out, Mark highlights the centrifugal character of God’s mission. This was a mission to go and engage in a kerigmatic activity whereby the Kingdom itself was ushered in. Jesus sends as he himself was sent. It did not take long for the disciples to report on what they had achieved as apostolos tou evangélion. Second, the apostles became shepherds of Israel through the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44). They became as servants to the people (6:39) and were moved by compassion, gathering them in order to nourish their needs. The successful powerful preachers who were sent out were now compassionate shepherds that were gathering in. Here, Mark highlights the centripetal nature of God’s mission. Their mission became a mission of gathering. A mission of bringing people into the fold of God’s Kingdom under the leadership and protection of the Good Shepherd, Jesus. With this in mind, chapter six stands out as the place where Jesus defines the disciple’s mission. They were to go out, but they were also to come together. They were to scatter, but also to gather. They were to be preachers, but also shepherds of their own people. Like centripetal and centrifugal forces, they were to come and to go in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples had followed Jesus in the hope that he was the fulfillment of a prophetic expectation. Mark 6 asserts that hope by confirming that the disciples were now doing the same works that Jesus was. Above all, in Mark 6, Jesus makes apostles out of his followers, sending them out to emulate his own messianic mission that aimed to bring the ontological freedom that would allow Israel to fulfill its mission in the context of Roman occupation and in the revelation of God’s coming kingdom embodied in the Messiah.

Our text in Mark 7:1-23 highlights the struggles of the Jewish eldership regarding what Jesus and his disciples were now teaching and doing. The “Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem” (7:1 CEB) who came to see Jesus were most likely emissaries from the Sanhedrin that was based in Jerusalem. In the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin served as the highest Jewish court. Its leaders were zealous Jews who sought to lead Israel as its tribunal and legislative body during Roman rule. They were the leaders and shepherds of the people, who instructed how Israel was to live in light of their tradition based on the Torah. In the traditions of the elders, religion overlapped with politics, society and culture. At the center of the Pharisaic belief system was the understanding that Israel’s exile under Roman occupation was caused by its disobedience to Yahweh. The restoration of Israel by the ultimate defeat of its Roman oppressors was to be the result of Israel’s unwavering obedience and devotion to Yahweh through many customs that were inspired by the Torah.

In keeping with the character of his writing, Mark 7 does not shy away from registering the clash of power between Jesus and the Sanhedrin representatives. Jesus was becoming a threat to the Sanhedrin agenda. He was deviating from the Jewish traditions which intended to unite Israel through a shared imagination and well-defined set of practices. One of these practices was the ceremonial washing before every meal, which became the point of contention from the Pharisees as the disciples ate without having washed their hands (7:2). What followed was a stern rebuke by Jesus. Jesus draws on Isaiah 29:13 and notes Isaiah’s prophetic judgment against Jerusalem as he admonishes the Sanhedrin emissaries (7:6-8). Jesus highlights the hypocrisy of their belief system that overemphasized human traditions for the sake of supporting their cause at the cost of excluding others from the true Israel (7:10-13). They did this by negating the very Scriptures that inspired their mission (7:13). The Sanhedrin agenda was neither gathering, nor sending Israel out to fulfill the mission of God. Rather, it was tearing apart the Jewish society at its very seams. In their quest for obedience that would lead them to overcome Rome, the Pharisees had grown obsessed with policing every element of the Law that could eventually lead into sin. The Pharisaical obsession over tradition and the purification of Israel was now tearing apart the community of Israel beginning at the celula mater of society, the Jewish family (7:10-12). Their quest for purity was actually contaminating the rest of society like the spreading of yeast (8:15).

Whereas Jesus uses a riddle to teach the crowd about what truly defiles the human person (7:15), he addresses the “dullness” (7:18 TNIV) of his disciples directly in the same manner as the Pharisees. At the core of Jesus’ discourse lies the issue of purity. It would be tempting to look at this narrative through a modern dichotomous lens and assume that Jesus cares more about the heart, in detriment of the physical body. As if Jesus prioritizes spiritual things over the natural ones. At the same time, it would be misleading to assume that Jesus is trying to debunk tradition, while upholding the Word of God. As if Jesus is speaking of a personal, individualistic view of religion where wholeness can be attained by oneself without the practices that shape a community. Instead, Jesus does the opposite. He seems to synthetize the heart and the body, the individual and the collective, by highlighting the individual propensity towards evil and its consequences towards to the collective whole. Truly, it seems clear that while no one disobeys in isolation, there is also no collective disobedience without individual collaboration.

At the end, Mark 7:1-23 represents a rearranging of society and a remolding of the imagination that shapes the Kingdom of God. In my opinion, it is to be read and interpreted within its wider context where the mission of God is both centripetal and centrifugal. In this exercise, Jesus gathers all of Israel by reimagining what it means to be a united and holy community. While the Pharisaic table had no room for those who weren’t pure, Jesus’ table fellowship included all. While the Pharisaic paradigm maintained that holiness through the observance of traditions ultimately would produce unity, the Jesus model upheld that unity and inclusivity ultimately produced a holy community that disarmed sin’s potential for social harm.

In the verses that prelude the narrative in Mark 7:1-23, we find Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee on the way to Bethsaida. Jesus sends them ahead of him as his apostolos as he stays behind to pray. While the disciples struggled against the wind at sea (6:48), Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Just as the night is darkest before the dawn, Jesus appears before the first light of the morning walking on the waters, as one who is above the chaos (6:48b). As a new day breaks, they arrive at a new destination. They come to Gennesaret instead of Bethsaida and begin to heal the sick. The allegorical correspondence between this pericope with the story of creation is not to be overlooked. Here, Jesus is doing a new thing. The ordered chaos that comes from the calming of the seas is leading the disciples to a new place. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is recreating the community of Israel. Jesus is inaugurating the kingdom of God through a new reality where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed and the impure are included as a part of God’s redeemed and holy community.

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