27. Mark 7:14-23: The Heart of the Matter
Purity is always an issue for peoples everywhere. Purity guards identity and identity is a peoples’ profoundest possession. They fight, suffer, and die for their identity. Insults cut deepest when they trash identity. Identity harbors integrity and integrity flows from identity.
Why should Jesus bring this up now? He has just lodged the most serious critique possible of the people and its leaders: they have been faithless to God who redeemed their people from slavery in Egypt and chose them to be the prototype of his design for all humanity. Defaulting on this calling they have forfeited their identity. Having called them out for their faithlessness, Jesus now tells them what the problem is. He goes to the heart of the matter: the human heart (v.21).
The Bible conceives of the heart as the control center of a person. Think the control center of NASA space flight. Everything pertaining to the flight is centered and controlled from there. Similarly the human heart. Not just our affections or emotions are lodged there. Rather, intellect, will, and emotions come from the heart. Our passions, priorities, and practices are determined there. When our heart is right, our passions, priorities, and practices walk arm in arm in the same direction and at the same pace. Our lives have coherence. Our commitments are clear. When our hearts are not right, our lives do not hang together, or they hang together in distorted and damaging ways. Yes, Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter.
It’s not what we put into our bodies that defiles us, Jesus says. “Defiles,” that’s purity language. Identity language. It’s not what we eat or don’t eat that makes us unclean or impure, Jesus claims. What goes into the body does not have that power. Food does its nutritional work in us and then we eliminate its waste out of us. It’s what comes out of us from within that defiles us. That is, what flows out of the heart alone has the capacity to corrupt our identity. Things like “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” (vv.21-22).
Jesus’ disciples do not understand (v.18). Again. For they too struggle with the internal division of heart of which Jesus speaks. Paul, looking back on the Jewish experience as God’s people, individualizes this inner turmoil in Rom.7:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (vv.15-24)
Paul and Jesus both identify that it is what comes out of our disordered control center that corrupts us from who we are supposed to be. The Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book titled Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. I think that’s an excellent way to capture what Jesus is after here. The Jewish problem, indeed, the human problem, is our divided hearts. Our control centers are out of whack.
And for the people called to declare and demonstrate God’s design for human life, to be the instrument of spreading God’s blessing to everyone, this a desperate failing.
J. R. R. Tolkien has the One Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings that corrupts its bearer and those under its influence and must be destroyed to break its hold over Middle-earth. Those who seek it or its master, Sauron, are no longer able to “will one thing” but become enemies of the good order of Middle-earth.
Jesus is diagnosing here not prescribing. He gets to the heart of the problem but does not offer a solution here. Paul does, however. In Rom.7:25, the verse after the material I quoted from Rom.7 above, he joyfully exclaims, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus himself is the answer to this intractable reality. How we will discover as Mark unfolds his story. But it is good to take note of it now. Jesus in the gospels is reconstituting Israel as the genuine Abrahamic people of God through whom God will spread his blessings everywhere. His analysis here, then, bears directly on the destiny of all of us and should claim our interest. For their problem is our problem too. And Jesus is our answer to that as well as theirs.
As a postscript, when Mark notes the Jesus had “declared all foods clean” in this teaching, he is indeed claiming that Jesus set aside a portion of Jewish law about foods. So, is Jesus a law-breaker (just what he accused the Pharisees and scribe of in the last story)? Yes, he is. Not in the sense that he disparages or demeans God’s law. On the contrary, he honors the law by announcing its fulfilment in him and his action as God’s agent of the New Exodus. The law has fulfilled its role with his arrival it has been fulfilled. The reality toward which the law pointed was new here. And the fulfillment exceeds it by as much as the righteousness Jesus brings exceeds that of the Pharisees (Mt.5:20)!