We can see here that Mark is writing to a Gentile audience in Rome because he takes time in this passage to explain the Jewish rules, regulations, ceremonies and customs. However, he is doing more than explaining. By going into such detail in the first few verses it is as if he is mocking the Jews. You can almost hear him say in a persnickety voice, “So you see, they have to wash their hands five time in an anti clockwise direction and they must wash each pot three times and then rinse.” The way he goes into detail stresses how obsessive compulsive these people are in their legalism.
When the Pharisees and scribes question him Jesus’ reply shows the contrasting ways they have of dealing with the Scriptures. The Pharisees and scribes have used the Old Testament as a source book for rules and regulations to be obeyed. Jesus uses the Old Testament in the proper way–as the account of an open ended and unpredictable relationship with God. He then goes on to show how, with their obsession with rules and traditions they actually contradict the basic commandments of God. “Corban” was a little tradition the Jews had developed in which they dedicated a certain amount of money to God, but they didn’t actually give it–it was more like a symbolic gesture. Jesus blames them for their hypocrisy and for missing the point of the God’s rules completely.
Mark also uses this passage to contrast with the chapter before. In the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on the water we saw how Jesus–in all his words and actions–fulfills the Old Testament in a deeply significant, powerful and symbolic way. He bursts the Old Testament from the inside out. Mark contrasts this exciting and dynamic understanding of the Old Testament–as being alive in the person of Jesus–with the narrow minded legalism of the Pharisees and scribes.
Finally, in a brilliant passage Jesus tries to hammer home his point that all the outward stuff is irrelevant if the inward heart is not right. The Jews were obsessed with outward regulations including dietary regulations. To paraphrase Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter if you eat a bacon sandwich if your heart is impure. Check out the state of your soul not your stomach.” This passage is very important because at this point in the gospel Mark not only shows the tension and conflict with the Pharisees and scribes growing, but he is showing how Jesus is undermining their whole religious system. They had narrowed God down to their petty rules and regulations. Jesus blows that wide open.
This passage also serves the purpose of resolving the question in the early church about whether or not the Gentile converts needed to obey the Jewish dietary regulations and all the other customs and rules. Mark (with the authority of Peter behind him) says all foods are declared clean by Jesus. Remember Peter, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, was the one who had the vision of the sheet with unclean animals being lowered down and heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Rise and eat.” So this passage of Jesus’ teaching is remembered and applied to the early church situation.
Once again, in doing so, Mark shows Jesus’ frustration and impatience, not only with the Pharisees and scribes, but also with his disciples. Are you seeing Jesus in a fresh way? He’s sharp and quick to answer. Extremely intelligent he is always one step ahead of everyone else. He is not afraid to speak bluntly and cares not one bit what people think of him. What courage! At the same time I sense a sharp wit and humor beneath it all. Jesus sees clearly what is happening, answers with a cutting wit and then seems to throw up his hands in frustration. Did he do so with laughter as well? The text doesn’t say so, but I can see his laughter of frustration, disbelief at their hard heartedness and their inability to see the plain truth.
The tension is building and Mark will take us further in the rest of this chapter in a fascinating way. Stay tuned and come back on Monday for more.