The relationship of Jesus to the Torah, the Law of Moses, is a decidedly complex issue in general. In the case of specifics, such as the kosher or dietary laws, it can be just as complex. The Gospel reading for the Memorial of Saint Scholastica, virgin, February, 10, Mark 7:14-23, is indeed complex. In Mark 7:14, Jesus states a pithy “parable” (7:17; Greek is parabole):
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
Mark later interprets this to indicate that the Jewish food laws have been struck down – “Thus he declared all foods clean” (7:19). It was not immediately clear to Jesus’ disciples, though, that this was about food laws, for “when he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable” (7:17). Nothing Jesus says after v.19 is necessarily applicable to food laws either. If Jesus had made such a clear claim declaring all foods clean, one would think that the early Church would not have struggled so with this issue, either in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8-10) or elsewhere. Recall that Peter does not go to Cornelius in Caesarea until he has a vision from God indicating that all foods are clean (Acts 10:9-16) and that later his fellow Jewish Christians criticize him for going to Gentiles and eating with them (Acts 11:2-3). It did not seem clear to Peter, prior to his vision, that all foods were declared clean, and certainly not to the Christians of Jerusalem. Even after the Apostolic Council, which freed the Gentiles from following the kosher laws, some foods were still off limits (“abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood”: Acts 15:20). Mark interprets Jesus’ saying in v. 14 in light of later Church practice and the understanding of the Church, and, I would argue, in accord with a deep meaning of the explanation given by Jesus in vv.18-19 - “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” – which was like a seed planted in the Church that only came to growth and development in the years to come.
What was Jesus getting at initially? Ben F. Meyer, in his magisterial entry on Jesus Christ in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Volume 3, 785, states that
“the deepest and most authentic use of the word “defile” belonged, not to the sphere of food laws, but to that of human speech. Tongue revealed heart, for “from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34= Luke 6:45). In sins of speech, then, lay the real danger of defilement. Scribal tradition on food laws would not figure at all in God’s judgment; by contrast, “in accord with your words you will be acquitted and in accord with your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).” (Emphasis added)
Once again, Jesus’ words on ancient Jewish scribal tradition reveal themselves not as historical relics, but as a living tradition, pointed at each of us, at the state of our hearts and the words which spill from us. “But what comes out of the man that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” It is more than easy in the age of the Internet to spill bile on those with whom we disagree, but our words matter and since we are accountable to God for them, they are never anonymous. Let our hearts be pure so that our words might be too.
John W. Martens