For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.
Mark gestured to the physicians sitting under the olive tree. “As my mother said, our practice of sharing resources across the rigid social lines we are expected to maintain continues to draw the same attention that Jesus’ actions did. I have mentioned before that the scribal class here in Jerusalem paid close attention to Jesus and his small school of disciples. Inevitably the Pharisees and some of those scribes came down from the city again and gathered around him. They had seen that some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed.
“As you know, the Pharisees do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands first, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they ritually purify themselves. And there are many other things which they have received from the tradition that they are expected to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots. These dietary practices are part of the purity code which the scribes continue to defend as fundamental to our identity as Jews.”
Simeon spoke up. “But in reality, it is only the haverim – that extreme sect of the Pharisees – and some of the priests who keep these strict practices.” “Perhaps,” Rachel interjected, “But my father and his business partners insisted those practices applied to all who wished to believe themselves faithful to Torah. And woe betide me if I forgot to sprinkle my food with water before eating it. I can hear his lecture now: ‘Rachel – how do you know the farmer didn’t plant or harvest that grain on the sabbath? You threaten the purity of all at this table!’”
“Hah,” snorted Yiftach. “Spoken by someone who’s never got dirt under their fingernails. You plant seed when the ground is dry – even if that’s on the sabbath.” Rachel blushed and looked down. Yiftach, seeing this, spoke quickly, “I meant your father, Rachel. And men like him. The village Pharisees who constantly berated us about ritual purity. But how are fishermen supposed to observe the traditions of the elders when they’re constantly handling dead fish? Fish those same Pharisees are quite happy to eat, mind you.” Many heads nodded at Yiftach’s words.
“Well,” Mark said, “as I said, Jesus was on the end of the Pharisees’ critique again on this occasion. The scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?’” Mark reached down and picked up a loaf of bread from a basket. “After Jesus called the crowd to him again, he began saying to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand.’” Mark held up the loaf. “There is nothing outside a man which, going into him, can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile him.’
“After leaving the crowds behind, Jesus entered a house and his disciples questioned him about the parable he had told the crowd. Jesus said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and then is eliminated?’” Gesturing with the loaf, Mark said, “By saying that, Jesus declared all foods to be clean. Then he said, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.’”
“Jesus relocates the boundaries for what is pure or impure from external ritual to internal disposition: from our bodies to our hearts. And the vices that defile us which Jesus lists are rooted in the Ten Words – the covenant that created our people, the Jews. The social boundaries maintained by the kosher diet and other aspects of the purity code of the Pharisees and the scribes are thus subverted and redrawn along moral lines.” Mark laid the bread back in the basket.
Miryam leaned forward to speak. “As we have heard over these past nights together, Jesus constantly violated the ritual purity laws. He touched those who would ‘defile’ his purity: lepers, the woman with the constant flow of blood – even the dead body of a little girl. Nor did he guard against the ‘defilement’ that comes through eating – for he ate with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, with vast crowds, no way of knowing their suitability for table fellowship.
“But it is not that Jesus is unconcerned with what is ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ – as my son has said, Jesus redefined what they mean. And why should he not? After all, did not G_d declare, ‘This is my beloved Son – listen to him’? Did not the demons declare that he is the ‘Holy One of Israel’? Jesus is not defiled by those he touches – rather, he makes them clean. Jesus continually crossed boundaries for the sake of bringing God’s mercy to others. And he calls us to the same. And so the question that is constantly before us is this: ‘What boundaries am I maintaining to preserve my personal ‘purity’? Who do I avoid for fear of ‘defilement’? What comes forth from my heart?”
Miryam’s questions were greeted by silence, as the assembly considered her words. The silence was broken by Rachel, who asked Mark, “So, did Jesus just ignore the scribes’ critique of his disciples?”
“Oh no,” Mark responded, a gleam in his eye. “He had something to say about that…”