Christians in the first century dealt with many of the same questions we ourselves ask. Today, as we face questions around politics, security, and the way we are to apply the Bible to our lives, we are wrestling with what it truly means to be a Christian within our communities. Similarly, the earliest Christians in the city of Rome, who were almost entirely Gentiles, were struggling to understand how they were to apply the Jewish Law in their daily existence. Were they called to uphold the commandments in Jewish Scriptures—commandments that seemed complex and often arbitrary to them?
When the Gospel of Mark was written, probably shortly before 70 ᴄᴇ, Christianity was still seen as a divergent sect of Judaism rather than as a separate faith, and the growing church in Rome was trying to find their identity, torn between the traditions of the Jewish faith and the radical inclusivity of the gospel to the Gentiles. The Gospel of Mark addresses this conflict in our lectionary reading today, teaching its audience to avoid Judaism’s legalistic religiosity, but also to honor the Jewish community and their shared Scriptures.
By carefully examining this story and its place within a broader conversation of faithfulness in the Mark, we can learn how Jesus centered his teachings on a moral gospel while still affirming the importance of Scripture.
The Narrative Context
Our text falls at the center of a chiasm (a literary structure that, in this case, uses the stories of feeding the crowds as bookends to our text). This chiasm can diagrammed as follows:
A | Jesus feeds five thousand hungry followers (Mk 6:30–44)
B | Jesus demonstrates power over the sea and sickness (Mk 6:45–56)
C | Pharisees challenge Jesus on the breaking of tradition (Mk 7:1–23)
B’ | Jesus demonstrates power over demons and disabilities (Mk 7:24–37)
A’ | Jesus feeds four thousand hungry followers (Mk 8:1–10)
Since the Gospel writer placed our story at the center of this chiasm, he is signalling that the text we are considering today is critical to his point for this entire section.
The “A” stories are nearly identical to one another. In both stories, Jesus goes to a quiet place and is followed by crowds who beg him to heal their sick or disabled. He has compassion for the crowd, who stays with him long enough to need food. Finally, Jesus miraculously provides more than enough food to meet their needs. The “B” stories both exhibit Jesus’ authority over the powers of the world. He controls the sea, an ancient symbol for chaos and disorder; he overpowers sickness of all kinds; he casts a demon out of a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter; and he cures a man of his deafness and inability to speak.
The “A” stories and the “B” stories work together to describe what faith should look like for a follower of Jesus. Christians are to feed the hungry, serve the sick, and walk with faith in the power of Christ. These stories serve as a frame drawing attention inward to our segment, “C,” which stands as a contrast to the constructions of faith surrounding it. Where those stories inspire us to live in faith, the interaction between the Pharisees and Jesus shows us what Christian behavior should not be. It teaches us that our faith is not based on strict observation of law, but on the morality of God’s will for our relationships with the people around us.
The Challenge: Weighing Two Sacred Responsibilities
In the story, a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, the seat of Judaism, challenge Jesus by asking why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating, thus breaking “the tradition of the elders” (v. 5). (Hebraic law at the time of Jesus, even as understood by the Pharisees, did not actually require most Jews to wash their hands before meals, so this seems to have been intentionally included by the Gospel’s author, an editorial consideration which we will consider in more depth in a moment.) Rather than answering their question directly, Jesus counters their challenge by quoting from Isaiah, accusing them of “teaching human precepts as doctrine” (v. 7; see Isa 29:13).
The next verses, 9–13, are not part of the lectionary passage, so we will not consider them at length here, but they do bear meaningfully upon our understanding of Jesus’ response, so a summary may be helpful. In these verses, Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ use of Scripture by demonstrating how they were twisting it it to “[make] void the word of God” (v. 13). In doing this, Jesus makes clear that certain uses of Scripture can work against God’s purposes for the text.
Douglas R. A. Hare, describing how the Pharisees were misusing Scripture, writes that, for them, “The law of vows [to God] took precedence over the command to honor… one’s parents, because an obligation to God takes priority over an obligation to humans.”When a person made a vow to God that conflicted with God’s commands to love one another, the Pharisees were prioritizing the vow to God as the higher, more important vow. In these verses, Jesus flips that on its head, saying that the purpose of the Law is to teach us how to be in relationship with one another. He does not teach that tradition (or Scripture) is wrong or outdated—Jesus was devoutly Jewish and regularly upheld the Law—but that the Pharisees refused to understand its purpose. According to Jesus, if we are to properly interpret the law, we must consider the heart of God, which is a profound, self-giving love for all of humanity, as greater and deeper than allegiance to any code.
The list of vices in verses 21–23 demonstrate that heart. Each sin listed here is relational in its orientation, showing a concern with thoughts and actions that impact the people around us. Priority is to be given to the moral and ethical observation of God’s will—caring for one another—rather than strict adherence to legal codes. Jesus does not suggest that the Law and Scripture should have no bearing on behavior whatsoever, but that they are subordinated to and fulfilled in morality.
Faithfulness in the Narrative Context
This becomes even more clear when viewed in the perspective of its chiastic context. As we discussed previously, our story is at the center of a chiasm that emphasizes the life of faith for a Christian. In the stories that surround our text, we see that God is concerned with our personal expressions of faith and deliverance from physical suffering, and God wants us to follow the guidelines given to us. Jesus makes clear, though, that those guidelines are not arbitrary—they are rooted in a morality of personhood and their value is in the way they guide us into healthy relationships with our neighbors. The author of Mark, in writing to an audience of primarily Gentile Christians, affirms the value of the Jewish laws while arguing that those laws are incomplete by themselves—they are no more and no less than a means to an end.
This echoes the words of Jesus from an earlier interaction with the Pharisees in Mark 2:27–28: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” In the same way, Jesus declares in Mark 7 that the Law and Scripture exist to help people be better humans.
An Open Table
We noted previously that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day did not require common Jews to wash their hands before eating—this conversation in our text does not fit with history. Why did the author choose to use that question as the foundation for this lesson?
The chiasm in which our segment is situated is filled with images of food: Jesus feeds the crowds, the Pharisees challenge Jesus about hand-washing before meals, and the Syrophoenician woman begs to be included at the table of Israel. The narrative strand throughout the text is unavoidable: it foreshadows the eucharistic table of the Lord’s supper as an embodiment of healing and faith in the power of God. When the Pharisees protest that Jesus’ disciples are failing to maintain the restrictive traditions of the table, Jesus rebukes them for prioritizing a strict interpretation of the Law over the personhood of those in need of grace.
This entire story is a message to the believers in Rome fifty years later, and it should be a warning to us today to avoid turning the Eucharist into an exclusive observance for the pure. We are called instead to remember that it is a participation in our ministerial, sacramental charge to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and act in faith. This story about unwashed hands, of coming to the table unclean and unfit to eat, models the hope Jesus has for us: that we recognize the personhood of all people—everyone we encounter—above the stark legalism of the differences in our doctrine or behavior.
 Evidence of this can be seen in the frequent explanation of Jewish customs within the narratives. For example, Mark 7:3-4 provides a clumsy and inaccurate description of Jewish ritual hand washing; this kind of description would only be necessary for an audience that was unfamiliar with these common rituals.
 Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453, 8/16/01 edition. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2001), 26–34.
 David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, Ill. : Leicester, England: IVP Academic, 2004), 196–198.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009).
 Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1995), 332.
 The nuances of these “Korban” vows (sometimes spelled “Corban” or “Qorban”) are not detailed in the Bible, but later extra-biblical historical writing and rabbinic writings provide further descriptions of the practices. For more on this, see: Jon Nelson Bailey, “Vowing Away the Fifth Commandment: Matthew 15:3-6//Mark 7:9-13,” Restoration Quarterly 42, no. 4 (2000).
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 174.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, First Edition. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014).