Sunday’s reading is actually a collage of sayings and events, and every commentary I have consulted today has conceded that the text is a bit of a challenge to follow. However, scholars are also in good agreement that this sequence contains text that is historically very close to Jesus’ own words. Bible commentaries use the phrase ipsissima verba or “the very words” to denote sayings that may have originated with Jesus and have been passed down to the evangelists relatively unaltered.
There has been tension building since the earliest chapters of Mark between Jesus and Jewish authorities. In fact, in just three opening chapters it is possible to identify as many as four distinct bodies of Jews who were distressed by Jesus’ words and actions, or as in this text, with the behavior of the disciples. In Chapter 2 the scribes (1) were angered that Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic before restoring his health. In the same chapter the scribes again critique Jesus’ habit of eating and drinking with sinners. Also in Chapter 2, the Pharisees (2) are angered that the disciples pluck grain to eat on the Sabbath. In Chapter 3 the officials of the synagogue (3) are upset that Jesus performed a healing on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees join cause with the Herodians (4) to plot Jesus’ death.
There are at least two different strands of teaching in Sunday’s Gospel here, both of them critical of contemporary religious practices. The edited narrative opens with the appearance of Pharisees and “experts of the law.” (The Law in question would be the Pentateuch and its multiple commentaries and customs developed over the centuries.) It seems as though they have made the trip specifically to discuss with Jesus his tolerance of a breach of law habitually committed by his disciples, that is, their failure to wash their hands before eating. Mark, as is his custom, steps back for a moment to explain Jewish law and practice, indicating that his Gospel audience was probably not Jewish and needed the background information. So the immediate question at hand is whether Jesus himself still respects the tradition of Jewish Law.
Jesus’ answer does not directly address their question. Instead, he takes the longer view and comments in effect on the kind of mind that would ask such a question. He quotes the greatly revered prophet Isaiah in calling his protagonists “hypocrites.” Jesus refers to Isaiah’s condemnation of a people who honor with lip service but whose hearts are miles away. He then introduces a second train of thought: that the commandments of God were being ignored in an unhealthy preoccupation with human tradition. It would be unwise to interpret his teaching as a kind of antinomian rant, for in fact Jesus was a highly observant Jew throughout his life. His issue is with attitude and the crazy patchwork of casuistry that excused many from true observance of the heart. (When the late W.C. Fields was on his deathbed, a friend was surprised to find the generally unrepentant Fields reading a Bible. “Why are you reading the Bible now?” he asked. Field replied with his trademark drawl, “Looking for loopholes.”)
The text continues with a commentary on moral observance, something of an argument in reverse. Jesus observes that wickedness is generated from the deep recesses of the heart, listing the most common failures of the human experience. Impurity, he notes, comes from within, not from without. Of course, he has never in this sequence addressed the original question of the disciples’ eating habits, but the omission is probably his point. Fuss over minor distractions had made it near impossible for the Jew to access the true evil that lurks in every man. His point, the one that would eventually get him killed, was that external observance alone was little more than social etiquette and was in fact an affront to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.