26. Mark 7:1-13: Tradition and God's Word

The two dramatic stories of a miraculous feeding and a sea walk have given some major clues as to who Jesus is even though the disciples don’t get it. Though scarcely as compelling, the inter-Jewish debate Mark narrates here follows the previous stories nicely.

Mark has made huge claims for Jesus – the hugest! He is the messiah! Jewish leadership, however, were not going to take that claim sitting down. It’s not surprising, then, that Pharisees and scribes come to him to contest his spurious (to them) claims. They attack him on purity issues – the nest of traditions of washings before meals that marked Jews off from other peoples as Jews, God’s people.

Jesus’ disciples apparently no longer observed these regulations or human traditions. Surely messiah would not condone such flaunting of Israel’s identity markers. He speaks for Israel after all. Indeed he does. And that’s just why his disciples engage in such scurrilous behavior.

The issue here is who really speaks for Israel. Who truly holds forth God’s word to guide and order the people’s life?  The debate between Jesus and the Pharisees, however, was  between two different ways of understanding what it meant to  be a good Jew in the first century” (Wright, Mark for Everyone, 114).

Jesus responds to their queries not with an answer but with a condemnation. He quotes from Isa.29:13 indicting them as teaching human traditions rather than God’s law:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’                                                                           You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

The surrounding context of this passage claims they are illiterate as to God’s Word (29:10) and that their wisdom will perish (Is.29:14). These leaders and the people they lead are pursuing a path that contravenes God’s law and places them on a collision course with Rome. A losing proposition indeed!

Then Jesus goes on to proves it.

The law, he says, taught children to care for one’s aging, dependent, and vulnerable parents (Ex.20:12) and curses those who try to evade it (Ex.21:17). This is just what these teachers are condoning, Jesus claims. They taught that the people could will their estates to the temple (“Corban,” 7:11). “Such vows of dedication froze one’s assets until at death they were released to the Temple treasury, for which they represented an important source of revenue. (Myers, Say to this Mountain, 80).        

This instance (“you do many things like this, v.13) of institutionally self-serving human tradition has voided God’s law and any legitimacy or credibility these Pharisees and scribes thought to claim. That belongs to Jesus. He is one who speaks for and advances God’s New Exodus movement, his Israel. Because he is messiah!

This story is not about the relation of theology to church tradition as many have read it in light of the arguments between Protestants and Catholics in the aftermath of the Reformation. Nor is it about ethics in the sense that Jesus is giving direction for his followers. He does affirm God’s law but his intent is not that. The issue for this story and for us today is to listen to Jesus, and Jesus alone, for the direction and way we need to go.

That’s no easy or simple task, as life in our time and place today demonstrates. Yet we must try and figure out how to do it. Obviously, when a law of God is nullified in the interest of other people, issues, and causes, we need to cling to God’s law and word. And there’s a lot of that going on here today. We have our work cut out for us!


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