Mark 7: Israel is the Corpse
The Pharisees come up to confront Jesus about his disciples eating bread with unwashed hands, following almost directly on the heels of the multiplication of the loaves. It appears that these folks missed the point, or Mark is at least suggesting it to his readers. This would be like a young boy announcing proudly to his father that he had hit a homerun and the father griping about his stance or follow through.
The Tradition of the Elders
We’ve noted previously that Yahweh had organized Israel’s culture around making careful distinctions about clean and unclean foods, clean and unclean people, sacred and common, etc. The point in part, was to make Israel a discerning people, a people of wisdom, with the ability to make careful distinctions. But the temptation with any rule is to bend it in one of two directions. Legalists and Sentamentalists out of “zeal” for the law erect more laws and rules around the original rule, essentially setting themselves up as the guardians, and ultimately the law is set aside for their own person. Of course some bend the law in the other direction, making it virtually meaningless. And we may point out that both of these tendencies have the same root problem of disregard for the law.
In Israel, laws grew up that were supposed to protect and safeguard Israel from breaking the law of God. We see that by the time of the Christ it was not lawful to eat with anyone suspected of uncleanness (Mk. 2:16). And while God had prescribed various “washings” when something had become unclean (Lev. 11, 15), a tradition of the elders had grown up around that basically assuming “uncleanness” and mandating washings (Mk. 4:7). But this was a misunderstanding of the cleanliness code. When we see Jesus touching “unclean” people, we just assume he’s like “superman” and that’s why he doesn’t get infected. But Jesus says that it’s what’s inside a man that comes out and makes him unclean. This is inspired commentary on the Old Testament, and we should receive it as such. In other words, there’s something inside man that makes him susceptible to “uncleanness”. The Pharisees assumed they could deal with the problem with a more vigorous system, but they had radically misjudged the problem. This would be like trying to protect our children from the highway by teaching them to run through the street faster. That’s not part of the solution at all.
Jesus tackles this very issue by bringing up Isaiah. Isaiah 29 is a prophecy of the downfall of Jerusalem. The reason for Jerusalem’s downfall Isaiah says is that God has poured out a “spirit of deep sleep” on Israel (Is. 29:10). That “deep sleep” is the prophets and seers that God has sent to them. And because Israel is “dead” (cf. Is. 29:4), all they can muster is lip service, but their hearts are far from God. The ceremonial uncleanness or “death” is communicable and contagious for the very reason that there is already death inside them. And this is what is coming out them. And Jesus applies this to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophecy of you hypocrites…” (Mk. 7:6). And this means that their worship is worthless vanity. Their “qorbans” are despised by God because they dishonor their parents by not supporting them financially. With lungs and bellies full of death they cannot approach the source of all life. Death cannot approach Life. Death is dead.
Jesus is Elijah
Like Elijah before him (1 Kg. 17), Jesus declares the death of Israel and leaves and goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Like Elijah, Jesus meets a woman with a sick child and has a conversation about bread. The story is altered somewhat, but the effect is the same. And Jesus’ initial reluctance to heal the woman’s child draws this fact out. Why is Jesus off healing Gentiles when he should be healing Jews? Part of the movement here also indicates that there is uncleanness outside of Israel because of “what’s coming out of Israel” (cf. Mk. 7:20). Israel is the corpse infecting the nations.
Finally, returning to Decapolis, a gentile region within Israel, a deaf/mute man is brought to Jesus for healing. This is a different reaction to him from the last time he was here (Mk. 5:17) apparently the result of the former-demoniac’s proclamation.
The irony is high enough to swim in. Jesus has cleansed the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter from her unclean spirit, while the Pharisees are the ones who are unclean. The ones who are most “concerned” about God’s Word have no interest when it confronts them in the flesh. And the “little dogs” and the gentiles are flocking to him for crumbs. Israel is deaf and mute because Israel is dead. Their ears and mouths need to be opened.
Application and Conclusion
First, we need to recognize that God doesn’t hear all prayer and worship. He sends deep sleeps, and closes his eyes and ears to the pleas of his people for a time. The arrogance and pride of many Christians who think they can summon God up at their whims while refusing to repent of sin is this “deep sleep”. Peter suggests that our prayers may be hindered for simply not honoring our wives properly (1 Pet. 3:7). Therefore we should be aware of our own Pharisaism. Where have we invented traditions and enforced them as tests of orthodoxy? Praying before meals? Having quiet time every day? Maybe certain expectations about hospitality? It’s one thing to develop glorious traditions and celebrate them as such. But it is an entirely different thing to consider them as though they are God’s Word.
Secondly, we should not forget the rest of Isaiah 29 or what God did with the “deep sleep” he sent upon Adam. From Adam he formed a new bride, from Exile God formed a new united Israel from the divided and scattered tribes. And in the death of Jesus, God has formed one new man (or to change the metaphor) one new bride for his son, in the death of His Son. And God continues to work in this way. While we live among a people of stupor, our duty is to pray and work for reformation, and expect that God is going to raise us up into a new, united Christian people. But we must be prepared for whatever new things God brings to pass.