In Mark 7 Jesus is in the land of Gennesaret. The same area where Jesus met the man who lived in the tombs possessed by a demon named Legion. The same area where Jesus sent the demons into the pigs and watched them run down the hill and drawn themselves in the lake. This is Gentile land. Not the area that many religiously strict Jews would find themselves. Jesus is in the area, being rushed around from town to town, healing all who were sick. While he is there he is surrounded by some of the Pharisees and the scribes who have come from Jerusalem to hear him. This group has probably not come on their own, but has been sent to gather information and report back on the actions of Jesus.
One of the first things the group notices is that Jesus and the disciples don’t follow the tradition of the elders because they aren’t washing their hands before eating. There were purity laws about ceremonial washings which had developed into traditions of making sure everything was washed before cooking, both ingredients and utensils. Besides being an act that reminded one of the truth that all of life belonged to God, even such mundane tasks as eating, the purity laws functioned in a way to separate Jews and Gentiles. Especially in this Gentile land it would be important to maintain areas of distinction.
Jesus sees through the masquerade and challenges their underlying assumptions. The Jerusalem group at the moment is not trying to honor God, nor are they worried about the faith of the disciples. Instead, they are worried about maintaining distinctions, making sure that the groups are separated. Specifically, they want to make sure the Gentiles stay in their own region and the Jews don’t become contaminated. Washing their hands before meals was a way to separate themselves from the Gentiles. The Pharisees and scribes in the story may have considered themselves advanced because they were willing to go to Gentile land, but they still maintained their separation. Just because the two groups were in proximity area wise did not make them one. Jesus tells them that they think they are following God but they are not. They claim to be honoring God with the things that they say, but their actions prove that their hearts are far away from God. It is not what goes into a person that makes one unclean, but what comes out of a person that defiles.
While Jesus will later talk about various sins that defile us, in the present context the sin is our human tendency to separate into various groups. Anything we use to separate “us” from “them” is wrong. Anytime we form various groups and begin to label these groups as those that follow the traditions and those that do not, we have become defiled. Anytime we determine that some are better Christians than others because they fulfill certain “requirements” that we have set, we begin acting no different from the Pharisees in this story.
This post is not meant to serve as a club beating us over the head in the ways we mess up, but to serve as a reminder to examine our lives to insure we are not inadvertently segregating into groups. The Pharisees in the story weren’t trying to be wicked, they were simply upholding the traditions of the elders. The traditions weren’t in themselves bad, but they had become a way to separate Jew and Gentile, to separate those who are accepted from those who are not. We, as Christians today, are not trying to separate into groups or to declare some as more important than others, but in our actions we may be making those mistakes. Who has been left out of our fellowship? Who has not been given an equal spot at the table? Which groups in our weekly gatherings are not given a voice, are not allowed to speak? Which factions of our congregations have less say in decision-making? Which sins make one a second class citizen? Which sins become a scarlet letter? How often do we only talk with our friends and not with others in the congregation?
Remember, it is not what goes into a person that makes one unclean, but what comes out. Whether intentional or not, separating into groups is sinful and it defiles the group. As Christians we are called to be one. Maybe it’s time to ensure the ideal is a reality.