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By David Howell

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Preaching Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Right off the bat there are some key decisions the preacher needs to make about how to help congregants engage with this text. There might be a temptation to extensively exposit the teaching of the Jewish Law and the "tradition of the elders" relative to ritual hand washing. I could see myself perhaps distracting my congregation with stories of my ministry in rural Kenya. At each communal meal gathering, a young girl or boy would come around to each person with a basin of water—and sometimes soap—and a towel so that everyone could wash their hands. Granted this wasn’t about ritual purity, it had to do with basic hygiene and hospitality.

Now don’t get me wrong, it is both essential and instructive to provide some background on the concept of "ritual purity;" Mark himself does this parenthetically for his Gentile readers in verses 3 and 4. However, homiletically it would be crucial to mitigate the heavy emphasis on ritual defilement in the lection’s present form with all the missing verses, by helping the congregation to experience one or more of the possible trajectories in the text. In other words, the preacher has options in the following areas: theological, pastoral, ecclesial and inter-faith.

Christian-Jewish Relations

Each confrontational encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, particularly in the cases of explicit disagreement about the understanding and application of the Law, provides the preacher with an opportunity to counter Christian hubris and a concomitant disparagement of Jewish rituals and customs. Remember, as a Torah-observant Jew, Jesus most likely practiced many of these in his family’s household.

Firstly, there were different factions of Pharisees with differing emphases. Secondly, Jesus’ disagreements with Pharisees were very much in keeping with the vigorous debates within the family of Jewish religious leaders. By so engaging them, Jesus was not abrogating the Jewish law, but rather emphasizing the "heart" and deep purpose of the Law. Thirdly, if your congregation is like mine, there are always those who are most curious about what is in the missing verses of a chopped up lection such as the one we are considering this week. Mark’s parenthetical phrase at the end of verse 19 "Thus he declared all foods clean," could be interpreted as the vitiation of Jewish law and customs relative to food purity by Jesus. If historically Jesus had emphasized such an unequivocal repudiation of these food laws would we have seen his disciples and early Jewish converts struggling so much over the issue of eating with Gentiles? It very well may be that Mark’s inclusion of this phrase has more to do with the Gentile context in which this gospel was originally written, read and heard.


The two juxtaposed references that Mark reports Jesus making are related. First, there is the abandoning of "the commandment of God" in favor of holding on to "human tradition," and the teaching that defilement results from what is already in one’s heart rather than from what one eats. Here Jesus stands in the rich and well-documented tradition of the prophets challenging the privileging of pietistic and ritual customs over the practice of mercy and justice. For the prophets it had to do with what constitutes true devotion, worship and obedience to God. (Mic 6, Is 58)

By quoting from Isaiah, Mark has Jesus expressly practicing the rhetorical cogency of the prophetic tradition. This tradition goes to the core of hypocrisy. It exposes the idolatry that so often lies behind the unswerving and devout practice of some human traditions, which purport to be undertaken in the name of God. Further, the recurrent use of the metaphor "heart" provides the preacher with the occasion to remind the worshippers that this is a reference to the "whole being" or the "total person." Those who have a pure heart are those whose lives are unreservedly devoted to the holy, righteous and just ways of God. A heart out of which evil comes (v. 21) refers to a life that is being lived away from and in contravention of the holy, righteous and just ways of God.


There are at least two pastoral themes that cry out for attention in this text. Both require the preacher to be courageous, prayerful, sensitive, insightful, and compassionate. I have confidence that we can be this for our people.

First, engaging the laundry list of "evil intentions" found in verses 21 and 22 is fraught with dilemma. On one hand, as preachers our commitment to be faithful to the gospel and our love for the people we serve means we do not want to bash them over the head with pedantic pronouncements that come across as moralistic, judgmental, and scolding. On the other hand, our commitment to the gospel and our love of the people we serve require us to help them understand how these "evil intentions" hurt others, ourselves, society and the way of God. This bold utterance is especially necessary in our present world where many of these "evil intentions" are in fact being touted as desirable, "virtuous" (e.g. Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, and an online service with the tagline: "Life is short, have an affair) and worthy of emulation, in societal ambient messaging.

Secondly, the lived reality of the preacher as well as that of many of the worshippers may provoke a desire to take issue with Jesus’ polemical statement, rendered in Eugene’s Peterson’s The Message as "It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life." Many people in the grip of various addictions will tell you that what they are putting "inside" themselves, whether through their mouths, their veins or their eyes (i.e. pornography), are in fact polluting their lives. Here would be an opportunity for the preacher to sensitively, pastorally and theologically explore possible ways of helping worshippers nuance and interpret Mark’s intentions, and even more, God’s liberating and healing ways. For the "commandment of God" (v.8) is fundamentally about life, liberation, wholeness and faithful relations with God, others and self.

Anthony Bailey


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street.


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