In the Gospel passage we will hear proclaimed this weekend it is the actions of the disciples rather than those of Jesus himself that evoke opposition (a lesson for us).
A dispute arises between Jesus and the Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem over precisely how “loaves” are to be eaten. The plural “loaves” links this dispute with the previous sequence of “bread narratives.”
The dispute escalates into a larger one over food laws and over the relation of external and internal purity. Jesus does not so much abrogate ritual laws as criticize their potential misuse. The initial question about eating with unwashed hands is reframed into a debate about tradition.
It is important to note that around the time of this gospel’s composition, the destruction of the Temple had occurred or was imminent. During this period Judaism was regrouping under the leadership of the Pharisees and was in a process of self-definition and revision. Early Christian groups, in reaction to Jewish self-definition, often defined themselves over against Jewish groups. Therefore, Mark 7:1-23 should be seen in the context of a Christian community formulating their view toward Jewish law and custom and in function of their missionary outreach to gentiles.
It is within this context that we hear Jesus arguing with the legal experts (Scribes) about different aspects of the traditional law. He has shored up the irrelevance of the elaborate handwashing. He has shown how rigid adherence to tradition can devolve into disobedience to the laws of God. And then Jesus says something more startling. He declares that nothing that goes into a person can possibly defile him. In effect Jesus was saying that things cannot be either unclean or clean in any real religious sense of the term only persons can be really defiled; and what defiles a person is his own actions, which are the product of his own heart. The Jews had a wide system of things that were clean and unclean and with one sweeping pronouncement Jesus declared that uncleanness has nothing to do with what a person takes into their body but everything to do with what comes out of their heart.
The Second Vatican Council called Scripture the “soul of theology”. Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that there must be a constant and faithful interplay between Scripture and tradition lest we end up “nullifying the word of God.” (7:13)
Engage in some soul searching!
Liturgy of the Word | 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Director of Adult Formation