Last week, we looked at the first part of this story, found in Mark 7:1-13, where Jesus teaches that true religion isn’t only about what you do, but why you do it.
Read the remainder of the story in Mark 7:14-23.
In verse 14, we see Jesus take this private debate out into the crowd and the scribes are no longer mentioned. Jesus is through debating them. Jesus explains the reasoning behind his teaching on the cleanliness laws. He begins to discuss the principle of being unclean or defiled which underlies the purity laws of Leviticus 11 and 17 and the scribal tradition. Jesus moves the focus from the “how” to include the “why” because the scribes were only concerned with the outward “how” not the inward “why”. He takes this far beyond the issue of ritual hand washing. His main point is that defilement comes from the inside not from the outside. Sin isn’t only an external problem, it resides deep within us. This is why true religion isn’t only concerned with the “what” but also the “why”; not just the action but the motivation.
In verse 17 after this, Jesus retreats privately with his disciples. He calls this teaching a “Parable”. This is different from other parables, yet it is still a story with a cloaked meaning. In typical fashion, in verse 18 the disciples don’t understand what in the world Jesus is talking about. Then in verses 18-19, he explains to them in the simplest terms possible, you can almost feel the sarcasm as he explains the digestive system. “When you eat, it goes into your stomach, not your heart”. Verse 19 goes on to say “it is expelled”, which is the polite way of translating what it literally means, “It goes down into the latrine”. This is how we can be confident that Jesus is frustrated and getting annoyed with his disciples, his words are bordering on being crass.
Then there is a parenthetical application of Jesus’ words. “In saying this, he declared all foods clean.” This is important, because soon after Jesus rises from the dead, the Gospel spreads to lots of non-Jewish people who like to eat pork chops and lobster. This allowed these people to become followers of Jesus without being bound to the books of the Law or the subsequent customs that had been set up in an effort to protect Judaism. It is also a significant comparison with Moses. Moses said certain things about dietary laws in the Book of Leviticus. Here in verse 19, Jesus is now saying new things about the diet of the people of God which supplants Moses’ words. How can he do this? Because he is fulfilling these laws. The Laws don’t make a person clean, Jesus does.
The Law couldn’t remove a person’s moral defilement and it couldn’t cleanse our sinful hearts. Only Jesus can do this. There is something similar to the chicken/egg controversy going on here, but we cannot practice true religion unless our hearts have been changed. Also, if our hearts have been changed, there will be outward and external evidence of this.
Remember, Jesus is greater than Moses. He doesn’t just proclaim the Law; he gave the Law to Moses. He doesn’t just repeat the Law, he fulfills it. Jesus points out that the deficiencies of these laws and customs is that they do not deal with the person’s heart. “Heart” is a term used metaphorically to refer to one’s essential personality. Biblically speaking, it doesn’t refer only to emotions, but also to spiritual and intellectual process: the will. In our day, we speak of the heart in more soft and emotional terms, it is the place that we feel deeply. But biblically speaking it communicates much more than this. It is a person’s individuality, what makes them who they are. This is our primary aspect of personhood that is affected by a relationship with God. Jesus points out that our hearts are not affected by what we eat or drink. Food is of nutritional significance, but not spiritual. Gluttony and drunkenness are spiritual problems manifested in the vehicles of food and alcohol, but the objects themselves have no effect on our hearts. It is sin in our hearts that cause them to be abused. Many things may be “vehicles” for our sinfulness without actually causing our sinfulness. Jesus expands this with a list of different sins which reside in our hearts in verses 21-22.
The way this list reads would lead you to think that “evil thoughts” is one of the sins, but the list is actually different examples of evil thoughts or you might even read it is as “evil plans” which reside in our hearts. The list is extensive, but not exhaustive. In other words, we all will certainly find one or more of these things in our hearts, yet, to our great encouragement, more sins than these probably can be found in our hearts. We see a list like this, and we say “Who, then, can approach God saying ‘I am clean!'”? Only those who have been made clean in Jesus, forgiven by his blood payment of our penalty.
Christianity is not an inner religion or an outer religion. It is both. There is no dualism; we are one person, body and soul. Those that practice Christianity only inwardly are prone to neglect dealing with the outward sins. Those that practice Christianity only outwardly are prone to be arrogant in their morality and judgmental, neglecting the sin which resides in the heart. We know both of these deficient practices of Christianity in a more proper term: hypocrisy. Christianity deals with the heart and the actions, neither to the exclusion of the other. Rather, the mature Christian will see how the two dance together. To truly cultivate a heart for God, our behavior must reflect the character of our King. And to truly live morally and properly, our hearts must be enamored by our King. When we read a list like this, we have to be careful not to allow our attention to drift to other people. The point of a list of attitudes and behaviors like this is to delineate specific areas where our hearts must be aligned to the way God intends for us to live. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but to be a point of reflection and repentance for each of us personally.
Some might easily check off sins like theft or murder, but slander and pride are not so easily dismissed. There is an interrelationship among these as well. Coveting leads to theft. Sensuality leads to sexual immorality. So there is a progressive nature to our sin as well that must be curtailed before we reap what we sow. The inward sins lead to the outward sins. The Pharisees added customs to prevent from breaking the laws. But Jesus says, your preventative measure should have been dealing with the sin in your heart, not adding outward duties to your religion. In this passage, Jesus is dealing with people who are prone to practicing the outer aspects of religion yet neglecting the inner aspects, the matters of the heart. Jesus shows that whether we commit these sins or they remain in our hearts, they cause us to be unclean. In the Old Testament, being unclean meant you had to be separated. Separated from other people and from the tabernacle or Temple. The physical uncleanness was taken seriously because it pointed to the spiritual uncleanliness. The outward sinfulness points to the nature of our sinful hearts. Measures we would consider drastic were taken when a law was violated. Stoning was proscribed. People had to leave town because of their uncleanness. This was to teach that spiritual uncleanliness, which we also call sin, causes us separation. Separation from God and from other people. Sin is the opposite of holiness which is one of the essential characteristics of God. No sin resides in him, nor is there evil in his motivation or meditation. So when men and women, who have sin in our hearts approach God, because of his character, he must reject us as unclean and as those who have committed rebellion and treason. The only proper place for someone like this is death and hell.
A person who commits treason and rebellion against the King has no way of rescue. Such a person has earned his punishment…unless the King extends his grace. So in his infinite love and providence, God ordained a way to accept men and women, and yet exact the death penalty for their rebellious sin in order to protect his holiness. For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.