Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

98. Defilement (Matt. 15:1-21; Mark 7:1-23)*

Jesus was in a quandary. The reaction of the multitude to his miracle of feeding them and the reaction of both populace and Jewish leaders to his discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum presented him with difficult alternatives. To make up lost ground among the people, it was imperative that he appear at Jerusalem throughout that Passover week, and use the occasion to impress them afresh with the divine character of his mission. But other factors pointed to a different decision. The hostility of the Pharisees had crystallised out against his blasphemy (as they deemed it), and plans were now in train to get rid of him altogether. To go to Jerusalem would be to invite them to do their worst. Not that Jesus lacked courage to face this, but there was so much essential work still to be done. Especially, he must reclaim the faltering loyalty of the twelve, and so further their instruction that when his time came the task of nurturing the faithful remnant could safely be left to them.

Another Collision

So Jesus decided to break the commandment: "Three times in a year all thy males shall appear before the Lord God" (Ex. 23 :17), in order to fulfil an even higher duty. He was now confirmed in this decision by yet another sharp clash with the same group of Pharisees and scribes, a collision which quite obviously had a seriously damaging effect on his closest followers.

This apparently took place on the same day as that momentous disputation in the synagogue about Bread of Life. These eagle-eyed adversaries saw the twelve eating some of the food which they had left over from the feeding of the multitude, and this without the normal Jewish procedure (normal to this very day) of washing hands thoroughly before beginning their meal. They had learned also of how Jesus had provided food for a great multitude the day before, and no insistence on careful hand-washing then. It was a wonderful opportunity to drive the wedge deeper between Leader and disciples. So, for at least the tenth time (see Notes), these men, sent specially from Jerusalem, came aggressively at him with their criticisms. Probably they were the more eager to use this opportunity because they had some inkling of the existing strain between Jesus and the twelve.

"Unwashen Hands"

They asked; "Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?"

No Pharisee ever ate a meal without hand-washing first of all. It was an extreme form of ceremonial caution, going far beyond what Moses had laid down, a routine item in the intricate elaboration of the straightforward precepts of their Law, as worked out by generations of hair-splitting rabbis. On no account must a man eat food "with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen hands." Mark has added the parenthesis here for the sake of his Gentile readers unacquainted with the artificialities of the Pharisaic system. But the phrase also demurs from the Pharisee prejudice. Mark adds further examples of their extremism: "And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not; and many other things there be, which they have received to hold, os the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables."

How were these Pharisees expecting to make capital out of this attack? They certainly hoped to create friction between Jesus and his disciples. More than this, if Jesus agreed that the preliminary hand-washing was necessary, he would in effect be accepting "the tradition of the elders" as authoritative, and since the scribes were universally regarded as the spiritual heirs of these men, this would acknowledge them as the supreme religious authority.

On the other hand, if Jesus shrugged off the value and importance of this tradition, which the scribes had succeeded in imposing on "all the Jews," he would have the prejudices of nearly all the nation lined up against him. For, since in most minds there was only the haziest distinction between what had been taught by Moses and what had been superimposed on his teaching by the rabbis, it would be comparatively easy to represent Jesus as one who set Moses at nought. So, these evil men felt confident that one way or the other, they were sure to score over this troublesome man of Galilee.

Bitter Retort

A moment later they were almost literally reeling back from the violence of the onslaught Jesus turned on them. With biting sarcasm he quoted them their own Scriptures about themselves!

Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines die commandments of men" (Is.29:13). The text of the Septuagint Version used by Jesus (even to rabbinic scribes from Jerusalem!) is very expressive here: "their heart holds off remote from me," is the idea behind the words. Originally the prophecy probably had reference to the hypocritical men of Jerusalem who whilst still hankering for the old evil ways pretended enthusiasm for the great reformation in the reign of Hezekiah. How wrong they were shown to be when God vindicated the king by a miraculous "resurrection" from an incurable disease and by the vanquishing in a night of the great Enemy of Israel.

That prophecy was also designed, so Jesus declared, to foretell the poisonous attitude to be adopted by the adversaries of the Son of God. And so also the context of the Isaiah quotation:

"They are drunken, but not with wine: they stagger, but not with strong drink. For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes . . . And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: and the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned" (29:9-12).

It is a caustic commentary on the Biblical incompetence of the nation, and especially of the scribes.

So in more ways than one, this Scriptural hammer-blow could hardly have been more fitting. "They honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" —never was a more telling definition of a religious hypocrite. It is apt for every generation!

In launching this attack on religious tradition, Jesus had undertaken "a Herculean dangerous task" (A.B. Bruce). Bitterly he underscored the truth of the words he had just hurled at them: "laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold fast the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do."

"The oral law was professedly a 'fence' to the written law; in practice it took its place, and even reversed its decisions. When the two were in competition the tradition was preferred" (Swete). The issue these scribes had raised with him was no isolated instance but typical of all their attitude to the Law of God. And Jesus boiled with anger as he spoke about it.

The Witness of Law and Prophets

It was unlike him to ignore a question raised in controversy, unlike him to round on his opponents with fiery denunciation. It is a measure of his fears for the well-being of his disciples. The entire success of his work hung in the balance that day. He could have quoted against these Pharisees the powerful warning of their own Moses: "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it" (Dt. 4 :2); but it was not strong enough for his purpose, for these men were worse than this. So brushing aside their remonstrations, with mordant irony he went on: "How handsomely ye reject the commandment of God, for the express purpose of keeping your own tradition!" It was a situation anticipated by the prophet Ezekiel also: "They executed not my judgements, but despised my statutes, and polluted my sabbaths ... wherefore I gave them statutes that were not good, and judgements whereby they should not live" (Ez. 20:24,25). These scribes knew well both Isaiah and Ezekiel, yet they lightly shrugged off the possibility that such sayings of the prophets might have any reference to themselves.

Jesus therefore proceeded to ram the accusation home in utterly ruthless fashion. He quoted them the Fifth Commandment. God Himself said this at Sinai. And to emphasize its high importance, there was also the extension of it, given by God through Moses: "He that curseth father or mother shall be surely put to death" (Ex. 21 :17), on which the Mishna has this elusive comment: "He that curseth father or mother is not guilty unless he curses them with express mention of the Name of the Lord." It needs to be remembered that "Honour father and mother" means financial support as well deference. (Compare the use of this Greek word in Mt. 27 :9; 1 Tim. 5 :3,17; Acts 4 :34; 5 :2,3; 7:16; 19:19).

These religious authorities had their own way of getting round such a duty to parents.


If a man wished to evade the obvious humanitarian responsibility of caring for his parents in their old age, all he need do was to dedicate all his property to the temple treasury, Corban (Mt. 27 :6), and then, since all was now God's, none of it could be profaned by being used for such a mundane purpose as the support of aged parents. But the accomplishing of this ignoble aim did not mean that the man forthwith handed over everything to the temple. By no means! A modest token payment was regarded as sanctifying all the rest for the same holy use. However this did not stop the man from continuing to enjoy the use of it himself for the rest of his life.

The evil conspiracy went even further than this. The man need only declare his intention to give his goods to the temple. This in itself made them too holy for gift to parents. But decision when the gift should be implemented was left to himself. All remained for his own selfish use right up to the day of his death, if he so chose.

Nor was this the limit. This heartless casuistry was declared irreversible. Once the vow had been taken, the man was positively forbidden to give any kind of practical aid to his parents in their need: "And ye permit him no more to do a single thing for his father or his mother." Indeed, the suggestion behind the whole sordid transaction was, even more hypocritically, that the poor parents themselves ought to find considerable satisfaction in the arrangement, since all was to the honour of God's House —a much more important thing, surely, than the paltry problem of their own meagre subsistence! This kind of "honour" which these Pharisees taught a man to pay to his father was matched by the kind of "honour" they paid to their Father!

One wonders, did Jesus also quote the trenchant proverb: "Whoso robbeth his father or his mother, and saith, It is no transgression; the same is the companion of a destroyer"—he is as good (as bad) as a murderer.

There was something ominous about the Lord's citation of the Fifth Commandment against the Pharisees, for it was the first commandment with promise: "that thy days may be long upon the Land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." Since their unloosing of this precept was so flagrant, and exposed as such, ought they not to infer that their days in the Land of their fathers were now numbered?—hence his acid figure of speech about an unnatural plant being rooted up (v. 13).

It was a very angry Jesus who rounded off his castigation of such spiritual small-mindedness. "Thus," he concluded, "ye make the Word of God of none effect (s.w. Pr. 1 :25; 5 :7) through your tradition: and many such things ye do," With what biting sarcasm would Jesus repeat that word "tradition," for it carried also another sinister meaning: "betrayal"!

Whilst this scathing word rang in their ears, Jesus turned away from them and called the crowd around him. He had now declared open war against this spiritual wickedness in higli places. The scribes' attempt to drive a wedge between himself and his disciples was up against unexpected retaliation —his exposure before the multitude of their own hypocrisy, The time was to come, a year later, when his invective against them would dissect yet more savagely many of the similar hypocritical things they did (cp.Mt.23, the entire chapter; Studies 167,168).

Defilement as God sees it

With the crowd around him, and the discomfited Pharisees listening from a distance, he proceeded to answer the criticism about defilement, and he did it in plain unvarnished language: "Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: there is nothing from withouto man, that entering into him can defile him: bu! the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man."

Mere familiarity with the words tends to blind many a modern reader to the dramatically revolutionary character of this pronouncement At a sweep Jesus was now setting aside not only all the ridiculous accretions which had grown up round the Mosaic food laws but also the Torol principle itself of distinction between clean and unclean food. The literal application of Leviticus ch. 11 was being consigned to the waste-papei basket. This last conclusion was so radical, that even after explanation the twelve were reluctant to believe that their Teacher really meant this. So they and the multitude must have concluded that Jesus was striking only at the rabbinic food laws.

Yet even so this astonishing aspect of the Lord's law of liberty was surely the most radical teaching they had heard from him yet. For, in those days, scrupulous observance of rules about eating and drinking were at the very heart of Judaism, and have been ever since. In the time of the apostles it was this more thoo anything else which was to turn Jewry awoy from acceptance of the gospel. Jesus knewwhaf a tremendous shock he was giving to all who heard him. From now on, as had been already exemplified in the synagogue that day, hewos resolved on making no sort of concession to either teachers or multitude for the sake of having their sympathy or support. If they found his word "a hard saying," he would be content *o concentrate on the instruction of the faithful remnant left to him. But he went on to underline the basic importance of this issue: "If any man have ears to hear, let him hear."

Reaction of the Twelve

The reaction of the people is not indicated, but probably their prejudices were offended almost as much as those of the scribes, the more so since the Lord's earlier discourse had already gone so far towards estranging them.

The twelve heard him with incredulity and dismay. When they were alone in the house (Peter's home, most probably), they came nearer to open rebuke of their Leader than they had ever dared: "Knowest thou not that the Pharisees were offended at this saying?" In effect: "Do you realise what you have done? You have made enemies of the most influential people in the country' — and no wonder! This, on top of their Master's intransigent behaviour and teaching during the past twenty-four hours, was almost more than they could stomach. Had he lost all sense of proportion? He certainly seemed to have lost his usual uncanny intuition which on so many occasions had enabled him to bow unerringly what was going on in men's minds. This for sure, or he would hardly have flouted the opinions of the scribes as violently as he had done.

Further Denunciation

But Jesus was not to be restrained. His indignation was still running high. "Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up," he answered grimly, with pointed allusion to a proverb they knew well: "The wicked shall be cut off from the Land, and they that deal treacherously (with God's Law) shall be rooted out of it" (Pr. 2 :22). It was another fateful reminder that, according to the commandment he had just quoted, those who failed to honour the Father in heaven would not have long to live in the Land which He had given them.

"Let them alone," he went on, "they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the pit." The injunction here can be read as meaning: "Forgive them." But if indeed Jesus did mean it this way, it is only possible to read the words as charged with the most biting irony. The present mood of Jesus would not allow of any more tender interpretation.

Again he was harnessing the Old Testament to his diatribe. "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone," Hosea had cried against the northern kingdom. Jesus could yet be moved with compassion by the needs of the ignorant multitude, but for these men who should, and did, know better, he had nothing but scorn and censure.

Newly come into the Land of Promise, Israel had heard the curses of God thunder out from the slopes of mount Ebal: "Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way" (Dt. 27 :18); and all the people had added their mighty Amen. Following this up, Isaiah's scornful denunciation had anticipated the Lord's caustic parable: "The leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed" (9 :16). "O my people they which lead thee cause thee to err, ana destroy the way of thy paths. The Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the people. The Lord will enter into judgement with the elders of his people" (3 :12-14). Those who have seen Rembrandt's marvellously vivid cartoon illustrating this parable of Jesus will need no further exposition.

Yet there is a further biting implication behind the Lord's figure of the blind and the blind. Because of David's intense frustration outside the walls of Jebus due to the confident taunt about the blind and the lame, it became the rule from that day forward that "the blind and the lame shall not come into the House" (2Sam.5:8).

Thus, by his angry mini-parable the Lord of the House pronounced these pernickety purveyors of spiritual trivialities disqualified from worship in the temple; and those who followed them (Mt. 23:16,24) were likewise written off.

Well-meaning Peter

Peter was worried with the way things were going. He could even envisage some of his colleagues, their faith in Jesus already badly shaken, swinging right over to the side of the Pharisees. So, with a heavy-footed attempt at tactfulness, he interposed: "Declare unto us this parable." They had surely misunderstood him, as so many others already had done that day This talk about food and the law of defilement must be yet another of the vivid figures of speech he delighted in. It was as though Peter said to his fellows: 'There's no need for ail this puzzlement and indignation about these sayings. Remember his talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? This is no more meant literally than that was. Give him a chance to explain himself. Declare unto us this parable!' But even Peter this time omitted the title "Lord." Yet he did encourage Jesus in what he thought the right direction by using the word which Nebuchadnezzar’s magicians had chosen to describe the interpretation of their monarch's mysterious dream (Dan. 2 :4).

At this time even Peter found the Lord's talk difficult to accept. Later, with the vast enlightenment of the Forty Days, followed by Pentecost, he was still to be found thinking on the old lines: "Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean" (Acts 10:14).

So it is not to be wondered at that also in modern times loyal Peters read Mosiac proscriptions of blood and certain foods, as unclean, and proceed to make for themselves various prohibitory food rules, deeming them necessary to their obedience of Christ. It is needful to think clearly about this. If he wishes, every man is fully at liberty to come to such conclusions and decisions — for himself. But as soon as he seeks to impose them on others or to censure others for their non-conformity, he proclaims his own spiritual immaturity or blindness. More than this, he is a sinner against both his Master and his brethren, in that he makes the way of Truth narrower than Jesus did, and he condemns those who refuse a doctrine of justification by works.

Further Explanation

Peter's well-meant effort in what he thought the right direction sickened Jesus. He turned on the twelve in dismay and discouragement. The situation was even worse than he feared. "Are ye (like them) so (completely) without understanding?" Were they as unspiritually stubborn as the scribes? Difficult as this day was for the apostles, it was proving to be at least as sore a trial for their Leader.

So Jesus settled down to explain, as to children, that he had meant literally and precisely what he said. If they, bewildered, were willing to learn, then he would spare no pains to enlighten them. But for these clever wilfully-blind academics he had only one word: "Let them alone!"

So he settled down to demonstrate to the twelve, as to children, that they were making a mystery out of a plain matter. It was only a hard saying because they were reluctant to believe it to be true.

"Whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught. It cannot defile him, because it entereth not into his heart, but into his belly. But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man " So what he had said earlier he had meant very literally: "Nothing (in the form of food) from without a man, entering into him, can defile him . because it entereth not into his heart." A man's mind is the only part of him that can be defiled The only food that can make a man uncleanis his bad intellectual food —his reading ad his listening —this is the nub of the argument, lit that which goes into and comes out of a man's heart which defiles him —and when Jesus spott of the heart, he meant, of course, according It the familiar Hebrew idiom, not a man's emotions or affections, but his mind (see Notes) By contrast the blunt words of the Lord about gastronomical processes made it very plain, that, far from a man's food defiling him, he defiles it.

"All meats clean"

At this point Mark's record adds a phrase translated: "purging (cleansing) all meats This, in its context, is meaningless. King James's translators followed inferior manuscripts here The better texts have only one letter different but this is sufficient to require that the phrase be referred to Jesus himself. A parenthesis is implied and required: "(This he said) making all foods clean." It cannot be too strongly emphasized that this is, not may be, the correct reading of the passage. It settles once and for all the question as to whether disciples of Christ are ever to allow themselves to come under a yoke of bondage by which one's food is subject to rules and regulations.

It is true that in the earliest days of the church Gentile converts to the Faith made concessions of this kind for the sake of the tender consciences of their Jewish brethren reared under food laws all their days. This was, however, only a temporary agreement. The time came, in solidly Gentile churches, when it could be set aside.

This Paul proceeded to do in unequivocal fashion: "I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus (with reference to the incident now under review) that there is nothing unclean of itself" (Rom. 14 :14). "Meat commendeth us not to God; for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse' (1 Cor. 8:8). And especially : "In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits. . . commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God (Acts 10 :15) and prayer (grace before meat)" (1 Tim.4 :l-5). There can be no arguing with words like these, no questioning of their intent.

Spiritual Defilement

In a further bluntly-spoken attempt to set this question in its proper perspective Jesus went on: "From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness; all these things come from within, and they defile the man."

It is a brutally frank assessment of human nature. From the first item, which comes last in the Ten Commandments-"evil thoughts or reasonings" (Jer. 4 :14)-spring all the rest. This Is the human Messiah, followed by his twelve terrible apostles, the last of whom (in the place of Judas) renders all the rest incurable. The mere enunciation of a catalogue like this was surely designed by Jesus to make evident to his twelve that no man can re-shape his own life to the glory of God by mere self-discipline, such as the scribes demanded. What is needed is regeneration, a new creature, nothing less. And then: "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life" (Pr. 4:23).

In comment on this frightful catalogue Dean Inge once inveighed against "the poisonous sentimentalism which teaches that man is always innocent, society always guilty, that we have to reform not ourselves but our institutions."

It is noteworthy that Jesus spoke of "the heart (singular) of men (plural);" thus in a phrase he put all human nature in the same category, none is at liberty to preen himself for his moral superiority. All are made of the same stuff.


Next day Jesus and the twelve got away from Galilee, and headed north to the very limits of the Land of Promise. In time of drought and famine Elijah had gone off in the same direction, and had found subsistence and encouragement in the humble home of a woman of Zarephath. In this the most acute period of spiritual drought and starvation in his three and a half years of unrewarding witness Jesus was similarly to have his spirits refreshed by the faith of a Gentile woman.

But it was not with this aim or hope that he turned northwards. His greatest anxiety now was the disaffection of the twelve. They were more important to him than all the crowds of Galilee. So he took them away from the subverting influence of arrogant Pharisees and from the seething nationalistic excitement of the crowds who were interested in their Master only as a political deliverer and worldly king. At all cost the Twelve must be rescued. And they went with him, these twelve lost sheep of the house of Israel, wanting to go away, yet having no one to go to. For them and for Jesus the next few weeks would be a crucial time.

Notes: Mk. 7:1-23

Came together. Gk: synagogued. This, and "the bread" in v.2, and "Then" (Mt. 15:1), all combine to suggest the idea in the text.

From Jerusalem. An official delegation, as in Mk. 3 :22. To gain an impression of the incessant attacks on Jesus, consider: Mt. 9:3,11,14; 12 :2,10,24; Jn. 4 :1,3; 5 :16; 6 :41; and also Mt. 16:1; 19 :3; Jn. 7 :32; 8 :3,48; 10 :31; 11:53.

Certain of the scribes. This phrase seems to imply divided attitudes towards Jesus.
That is to say. With this expression Mark demurs from their prejudice in this matter.
Alt the Jews; i.e. all the nation. This is not the Johannine usage: Jews = the rulers.

Except they wash. A gross misapplication of Is. 1:16 (See Jer.4 :14). Gk: "baptize", i.e. immerse their hands. But disciples of Jesus immerse completely before they eat of the Bread of Life! Wash oft. Literally: with the fist (of wickedness? Is.58:4).
Then. Gk: "thereupon" links with v.2 (with v.3,4 as a parenthesis). Why walk not...? An allusion to Halachah, the rabbinic term for standard Jewish religious practice.
Esaias. Mt. gives this Isaiah quote and the Lord's counter-charge in reverse order, but it is difficult to see why.

You hypocrites. Careful attention to the details of verses 6,8,9, 13,14,18, Mt. 15 :3, shows how intenselyexasperated Jesus was.

With their lips. Cp. Mt. 15 :5: "ye say".
Your tradition. In Mt. there is a very effective repetition of "Transgress . . . tradition," with a sudden switch to "commandment."
Moses said. Mt: God commanded. At Sinai, the voice of God Himself. (But which phrase did Jesus use?).
Corban. In O.T. this word 80 times means "offering."
No more. The word implies that the duty had been done hitherto.
RV: He called to him the multitude again. Inclusion of "again" is textualy uncertain. But if correct it seems to imply that Jesus had been instructing the crowd, then the Pharisees took over the discussion, and now Jesus calls the people away from these evil men in order to expound the contrast between the two teachings.
Characteristically, RV omits this verse in spite of the massive witness of almost all the MSS. Is it or is it not relevant? (Mt. 15:13) Every plant. . . rooted up. There are other remarkably vivid scriptures in line with this: Judeli, Dt. 29:28,22; 2 Chr.7 :20,17; Ps.52 :4,5,8; Lk. 17:6. "Let them alone" and this rooting up both suggest allusion to the parable of the tares. God had planted His Commandments; the Pharisees had sown their tradition (tares).
From the people. An unfavourable reception from them also?

The parable. And misunderstanding from the disciples also; cp. Mt. 16:7,22; Lk. 22 :38; Jn. 14 :5; 11 :13.
Out of the mouth. But some of the evil things mentioned (e.g. murder, adultery) are hardly covered bylte expression.
His heart. For heart = mind, consider Jer. 15:16; Ex. 36:2; 1 Kgs. 3:9; Pr.2:2; Lk.5 :22;24:25,32,38; Rom. 10 :8,9. There are a great many more.
Out of the heart of man. A few Bible assessments of the quality of human nature: Ps. 39 :5; Jer. 17 :9; Mt. 7:11; 10:17; Rom.7:15; l Pet. 1 :24; Eph.2:3.
Six plurals and then six singular nouns. Why? Is this to emphasize the evil of the race and of the individual?

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