The National Catholic Review
Following the marvelous miracles of multiplication of food and walking on water, and a host of still other wonders, Mark again interjects a conflict story. Here, Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem want to know why Jews (followers of Jesus) do not obey the Tradition of the Elders, but instead eat a meal with unclean hands. This Tradition of the Elders, Mark explains, has to do with purity, i.e. what was required of a Jew, particularly to be able to take his place in the Temple worship worthily. The Tradition is a series of unwritten laws, derived logically from the Law of Moses; because they express logically the intentions of the Law of Moses, they themselves become law. As Mark notes, this Tradition covers many matters, added to the Laws of Purity of the Law of Moses already found in the OT, especially in Leviticus. That certain Pharisees (totally obedient to the Tradition) and scribes (professional interpreters of the Law) come from Jerusalem suggests the final Jewish group who will decide Jesus’ fate one day; now there is interest in Jesus from beyond the small and outlying towns of Galilee. (It seems most likely that the laws of the Tradition stem from physical dangers associated with physical uncleanness; unless one was recognized as clean, and no threat to society, he could not worship with society.) Jesus’ response is threefold. First, Teachers of Israel teach as doctrine human laws. This suggests that the Teachers may encourage obedience to Tradition, but for this cannot call for the obedience that is owed to divine Law; human law cannot be made to be divine law. Second, Teachers allow that human laws can have precedence over divine Law. The latter calls one to care for his parents. Yet, the Teachers allow one to ignore needy parents, if their child has no money for them after paying for gifts to God; God never intended that parents should go needy because of gifts to Him. Third (and with an eye to the original subject of argument), what comes from the heart is what makes a person unworthy to be in the presence of God with the rest of the community, not what is put into the body from outside. In fact, this teaching about cleanliness of heart so as to be in God’s presence corresponds very well with the OT: note the earlier citation from Isaiah: ’This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’; it is the heart, not the purifying of food or other unclean things, that keeps one close to God. In his response to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus did not say the words, "I declare all foods clean"; Mark has interjected them, drawing a principle from the examples and observations of Jesus. Is it legitimate that the writer universalize Jesus’ teaching? Yes, if it reflects the mind of Jesus. In fact, in a number of ways, the NT writers have enshrined in their writings what is the mind of Jesus, without words from him. An excellent example is St. Paul (I Cor 7, 12-14) who, after admitting that Jesus did not allow divorce, gives an example in which divorce is allowed; Paul could do this only if he thought he ’had the mind of Jesus’, that Jesus would have allowed divorce in the circumstance Paul cites. Jesus lists examples of ’the evil (impurity, uncleanness) that comes from within and makes one unworthy to stand before God; the list can expand, as other NT writings show. The human heart, capable of sublimity, also knows evil. It seems right to say that Mark’s long explanation of Jewish laws of cleanliness suggests that his audience was a group who did not know these laws. Were they Gentile Christians, or Jewish Christians who had long ago converted to Christianity and left these laws? A combination of both? John Kilgallen, S.J.