There are the words of the Law, but then there is the meaning of the Law. One is supposed to lead you to the other…

Read the passage here, Mark 7:1-22

(Click here to start with part 1)

Dying Parishes and the Letter of the Law

As many of you know, His Grace sent me to Portland last fall to attend the first ever GOA conference on Orthodox Missions and Evangelism.

We discussed a wide range of topics, but one of the most important takeaways was that in order for a parish to grow, it must be outwardly focused.

Outwardly focused parishes seek to serve the community. They are mission-oriented, always looking for new ways to be a witness of Jesus Christ to those around them. They embody the sort life that Christ lived.

Dying parishes, on the other hand, are all inwardly focused. Their concerns are about meeting the needs of current members. The church becomes a club and the priest becomes a personal chaplain. History has shown that when this happens the parish is on its last legs and soon will be no more.

Conversations about stewardship, in dying parishes, aren’t about creating an atmosphere of true Christian growth. Instead, they are about money and dues. Who has paid and how much? They are also concerned about asserting “my rights” as a member while ignoring Christian service to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Another way to look at it is to see dying parishes as concerned with the letter of the law, caught up in regulations and by-laws, while not considering how to live out the gospel in a Christ-like manner.

This problem isn’t new and it’s precisely the issue at hand in today’s passage.

More Than Meets the Eye

There are a few things going on in this passage and, as modern Christians, we tend not notice them.

Most of us are aware that Jews keep kosher. There are permitted foods and prohibited foods, such as pork. But, that’s the extent that most of us understand the kosher laws.

With this limited understanding, we actually mishear the passage.

What we hear is an argument about kosher foods. We presume that eating food with unclean hands makes it non-kosher and we presume that the Law of Moses prohibits such a thing.

Then, at the end of the passage, we hear that Jesus makes all food kosher – it’s not what goes in a person’s body that makes them unclean but, rather, what comes out.

But, to our surprise, that’s not quite what’s going on here!

Mixing Up Different Parts of the Law

Our mistake was to conflate two separate parts of the Law: laws regarding food and laws regarding purity. These are actually two, unrelated parts of the Mosaic Law.

Food laws are what we know as kosher laws and they can be found in Leviticus (chapter 11).

They essentially boil down to this:

To call food kosher refers to its permissibility or impermissibility for eating by Jews as defined in the Bible and the later rabbinic literature. Among the foods forbidden are non-ruminants such as pigs and rabbits, birds of prey, and sea creatures that have no fins or scales. Meat, to be kosher, has also to be slaughtered in a special way deemed painless to the animal, and milk and meat foods must be kept separate from each other.[1]

Purity laws, on the other hand, are a different matter, not related to food.

These laws can also be found in several chapters of Leviticus. Those laws can be summed up in this manner:

Purity and impurity, or pollution, is an entirely different sphere of life, namely, the laws having to do with the touching of various objects, such as dead humans or humans who have touched dead humans and not washed properly, as well as other causes of impurity such as skin diseases or fluxes from the body…which render a person ‘impure’ according to the Torah [Law} but carry no moral opprobrium. …In fact, most Israelites were impure most of the time (and today we are all are all the time), since it requires a trip to the Temple to be purified from some kinds of ubiquitous impurities.[2]

So, we have laws that pertain to what foods can be eaten (that is, which foods are clean and which ones are unclean) and laws that pertain to death and bodily fluids (what makes us pure or impure).

It should be noted, and this is key. We have to pay attention to the difference between clean/unclean and pure/impure. We have to note that eating foods that are unclean (i.e., non-kosher) does not necessarily make someone impure!

And this is the context of our passage.

Understanding the Law

Jesus’s argument is that the Pharisees and Scribes had added to the law. And they had done it by combining these two different parts of the Law.

The Pharisees and Scribes said that if you eat without performing a ritual washing, then your hands made your food unclean (note, this is not the same as impure) and, when you ate this food, then you would become impure from this unclean food.

But, the problem is that the Mosaic Law never says such a thing!

It’s this sort of innovation that Jesus called the “tradition of the elders.”

So, he is following the actual Law, without additions, by saying,

“Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” (Mark 7:14-15 RSV)

In other words, eating food with defiled hands does not make you impure. And we have to be careful to hear what he’s saying because he’s not arguing for the abolishment of kosher laws (not in this passage at least).

Don’t mix up food laws and purity laws.

What Jesus is arguing for is a correct understanding of the Mosaic Law. Don’t worry about the traditions that grew up around the law.

And a correct understanding goes much deeper.

The Deeper Meaning

A deeper meaning is apparent in a verse that is, ironically, missing in most Bibles. That is verse 16.

“If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 7:16 RSV)

In other words, the surface meaning of the Law points to something much more important. If we have ears, then we should be listening closely to the meaning of the Law, not just the words of it.

In this light, the real question becomes: why does the Law teach that what comes out makes one impure and not what goes in?

This is not explicitly answered in the Law. It requires some reflection.

And this reflection is precisely what Jesus does.

And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods pure.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:18-23 Revised RSV)

Jesus doesn’t abandon the Law but, rather, calls us to a deeper and more genuine understanding of the Law.

It reveals something about ourselves.

Living Out the Deeper Meaning

Humanity, in its current fallen state, is quite ugly. It gets even uglier when we let this ugliness rule our lives and how we interact with others.

Jesus pointed out some of the obvious ones: murder, theft, pride…

But, we all struggle with something – both personally and as a faith community.

I’ve seen how this ugliness boils up. It sets old friends against each other and divides families of faith. It creates congregations that are inwardly looking, one’s that are more concerned with asserting their “rights” as opposed to living out the gospel.

It creates gossip and misinformation which, in turn, leads to pain and hurt.

And all of this makes us impure. It creates distance between us and God.

Ultimately, one can say it is of the “devil,” which in Greek means “one who divides.”

As Orthodox Christians, we may follow different dietary laws (fasting, for example) rather than kosher laws, but the deeper meaning is still the same. It’s not what goes in that sets us apart of from God, it’s what comes out of our hearts.

The solution is simple: to turn back to God. Give up the idols that defile us, confess our sins, repent, and wholeheartedly turn to Jesus.

His broken body is offered to us every Sunday. May his brokenness transform our hearts so that we can truly live up to our name as “Christians.”

As Christians, living for one another, we will become a stronger family that loves another.

Continue on with part 9 here.

P.S. Come and Live Out the Spirit of the Law!

I now invite you to enter deeper into the mystery of Christ with the Orthodox Church!

St. Elias the Prophet (419 N. Grandview Ave., Dubuque)
Saturdays: Great Vespers, 4 pm
Sundays: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am

Or find your nearest Orthodox Church by clicking here

[1] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012), pg. 112.

[2] Boyarin, pg. 114.

Journey Through Mark, part 8

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