A text without a context is a pretext. Early this afternoon one of the loyal readers of this blog, and someone who frequently asks me questions about various biblical matters asked me a question about Mark 7 and Matthew 15 concerning what defiles a person. Mark 7:14-16 reads as follows: “When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing which enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” This particular passage, taken in isolation and out of context, is often misused to argue that there are no more unclean foods for Christians. Much ink has been spent overcoming these objections to obeying God’s ways, and it is perhaps in one sense little mystery why this passage is used, because it contains a possible reading that justifies the desire of many to disobey God’s laws by claiming a sanction from Jesus Himself to do so, and to try to paint Him as being hostile to the law of God, creating God in their own image instead of seeking to be recreated in His image. While the motivation that drives people to take scriptures out of context in order to pervert and twist their meaning is not usually mysterious at all, this passage is genuinely mysterious on other grounds. The real mystery in this particular verse, and something that remains mysterious and deeply significant even when it is taken in its proper context, are what are the implications of that statement for believers today and throughout history? We may not think that defilement is a matter that is significant in our lives, but that thought would be deeply mistaken.
First, let us set up the context of this particular passage. Fortunately, this context is particularly plain, in that the context of the passage is plain. Mark 7:1-9 gives the lengthy introduction: “Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.” If this is not plain enough, Jesus Christ makes it plainer when he explains the point of the conversation to his uncomprehending disciples in verses 17 through 23, which read as follows: “When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”
There is a lot that is going on in this lengthy passage, and much of it is worthy of reflection and comment. For example, when looking at the lengthy verse of sins that come out of a man, we may reflect, if we are honest, on the fact that even if we have not engaged in the conduct discussed here, that these sorts of thoughts and longings have been within our hearts, defiling us. Speaking of the heart I know the best, namely my own, there are few of those longings and evil things that have not come out of my heart, and some of these evil things that are a continual struggle to deal with. Perhaps the same is true for you also. Since none of us is immune from evil thinking, even apart from acting on those thoughts, but merely dwelling on them and letting them reside in our minds a bit too long before evicting them, we all have to accept our own defilement in the eyes of God. The Pharisees, of course, were greatly defiled in this sense, since the whole conversation was precipitated from their finding fault with Jesus’ disciples and seeking to discredit Him. Nor can we look down on them, for we too quickly seek to find fault with others, and even our finding fault with the Pharisees would put us, morally speaking, on the same boat that they were in, and that is nowhere we want to be. There is a way in which the moral determination that Jesus speaks of here is highly relevant to the way that the passage is frequently misused, in that to the extent that we covet for that which is outside of God’s law, whether it refers to sexual immorality, for instance, or baby back ribs or shrimp scampi, to give another example, we are defiled by that coveting. I once accidentally ate calamari while at a restaurant in Turkey, without ever having coveted eating squid, and that night I was wracked by horrible digestive troubles that kept me up the entire night, violently ill, but however defiled my intestines felt, there was no moral defilement for having eaten something by accident, since there was no intent or desire to sin. I asked God to forgive my foolishness for eating something put before me a bit too quickly simply because it was breaded and looked like onion rings, and that was that.
We need to understand that there is a stark difference between how defiled we feel about something and how defiled we are from a moral perspective. For obvious personal reasons, this is a matter of considerable personal importance, as I will shortly make plain. There are all kinds of experiences where we feel defiled, even if we are not, and plenty of others where we would not feel defiled but are. Using an example not at random, let us deal with the question of rape. Much of the time in rape, people feel defiled because of what enters them. The feeling of defilement and desecration is one that one never seems to forget, a horror that remains with us as long as we live, even when we are not consciously dwelling on it. And, to be certain, just like calamari, we may face all kinds of unwanted consequences as a result of rape, from unplanned pregnancies to diseases to post-traumatic stress disorder and a permanent sensitivity to people surprising us from behind. Yet such things do not morally defile us. After all, what makes something rape is that something is forced upon us without our desire. There are many times where people commit all kinds of consensual sexual acts that, being contrary to God’s law, defile them, but feel no defilement whatsoever, and may feel it quite holy and good. Our feelings, as regards the moral value of an act, are quite irrelevant. Yet the only person defiled in a rape is the person with the evil thoughts and desires, and that person is the rapist, for it is he (or she) who disregarded the protests and dignity of the person assaulted. Whatever defilement we may feel as a result of that assault, thankfully this passage reminds us that God does not consider people defiled for what other people do to them, only for their own desires and longings. That is enough defilement for any of us to have, and more than enough for most of us, myself included.
This particular passage has great relevance in less dramatic instances as well. Jesus’ statement that what enters us from outside, like the dirt on our hands that mixes with the food we eat, should we eat with unwashed or improperly washed hands can metaphorically be extended to any sort of action that we do. It has already been commented, for example, that the moral defilement lies not in the consumption of unclean foods, as that can happen by accident, but in the desire to break God’s laws, and to do what He prohibits by reasoning to ourselves that this clear prohibition has somehow been done away with, or was only valid for those legalistic ancient Israelites. To be sure, we have an obligation to seek out knowledge. For example, we may inquire about the cooking practices of restaurants where we eat frequently, to know if they cook with vegetable oil instead of lard, or use beef sausage instead of pork sausage in their lasagna, and so on. Likewise, we may ask about the origins of the songs we sing in church , and ponder whether it defiles one to sing a nationalistic hymn that was the anthem of Hitler’s Germany, to give an example not at random. In looking at our own actions, we may look at our own motivations for engaging in certain behaviors. Behavior out of compulsion would be cause to repent, and cause to seek help and encouragement, but would not be a cause to despair. To the extent that we watch a given movie or read a certain type of book because we have a pull towards magic thinking and the occult, the behavior is defiling. Watching the wrong thing for reasons of mistake may be foolish, but not actively wicked, and an occasion for being wiser in the future. It is not my point, nor should it be anyone else’s, to try to control someone else’s life about what is and what is not appropriate. I do believe, though, that we should all look to ourselves, and seek to understand our own longings and our own desires, and act to restrain them, and to pray about God for them, and to be careful about engaging in activities in order to indulge those longings. What is temptation for one person another person may be able to do entirely innocently. God willing, we should be able to be innocent about at least some things. Hopefully we are not so defiled that everything is corrupted by our own hearts and minds, and if so, may God forgive, and create in us a clean heart and a renewed Spirit within.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: