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Jesus on Ritual Purity: What Defiles a Man? (Mark 7:14-23)

Analysis and Commentary


Jesus Arguing with the Pharisees

Jesus Arguing with the Pharisees

    14 And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. 16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. 17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.
    18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; 19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? 20 And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: 23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

What Defiles a Man?

Previously, we read about Jesus allowing his disciples to ignore a tradition of ritually washing their hands before eating despite the complaints of the Pharisees. At the time, Jesus responded to the complaints by arguing first (and incorrectly, it appears) that the Pharisees were hypocrites for worshipping Jesus in words but not in their hearts and second (with perhaps more justification) that at least some of the Pharisees made a habit of placing human traditions over God’s laws.

Now, however, we are given what is probably the real reason for allowing the disciples to violate the tradition — and it has nothing at all to do with traditions. Jesus argues that certain traditions are placing form over substance because they emphasize what might “defile” a person externally while ignoring what really defiles a person internally.

Ritually washing one’s hands before eating, along with many other traditions, was designed to ensure a ritual, religious cleanliness. Should a person be ritually unclean, that was regarded as a sort of sin which distanced a person from God. Jesus argues, however, that no such externalities could never really separate a person from God. Instead, only internalities could do that: intentions, beliefs, words, attitudes, etc.

Stories like this were used to underscore the differences between Judaism and Christianity. According to Christian apologists, Judaism had fallen into legalistic thinking which prevented people form properly understanding God. This was regarded as almost inevitable because the original covenant with the Jews was a legalistic contract to begin with — the fact that things would continue in a similar manner was not surprising.

» Continue: Jesus and the Law: Establishing a New Covenant

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