Mark 7:1-23, The Blindness of the Hardened Heart

Jesus Manifests Himself When He Feeds the Multitudes

 [July 11, 2010] In this section of the Gospel according to Mark, (Mark 6:6b—8:26), Jesus is manifesting Himself—as the Messiah and as more than the Messiah. He is the abundance of the Promised Land, and He satisfies His people in the wilderness of hardship and persecution with His own Person. He manifested this with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand.

But Not Even the Disciples Understand

But the people did not understand. In fact not even the disciples understood. In 6:52 Mark says that “they did not understand concerning the loaves, but rather their heart was hardened,” and in today’s reading Jesus asked them, “Are you also in the same manner [as the Pharisees and scribes, or the crowd] without understanding?” (7:18). Before this section finishes, Jesus will express His frustration and say, “Why are you reasoning because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?” (8:17-18).

The section ends significantly with the story of a blind man whom Jesus healed. At first the man could not see clearly. When Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” he replied, “I see men, for I see them as trees, walking.” The disciples too saw a little, but they did not see clearly.

Stories in Between that Address This Incomprehension

Today’s story comes between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. Between these two feedings are several stories. Each of these stories addresses the problem of our incomprehension in different ways.

The first story—which we spoke about last week—was about the disciples’ fear.

Today the story is about the misappropriation of the outward signs of God’s covenant with Israel (the Halakah, the legal requirements of the Torah). The “zealous,” led on by a particular school of puritanical Pharisees, used the outward signs of God’s covenant with Israel to plug their ears and blind their eyes.

The next story, about a Gentile woman and her demon-possessed daughter, addresses the exclusiveness of the “zealous” that would prevent God’s mercy from reaching the Gentiles.

In the third story Jesus opens the ears and loosens the tongue of a deaf and dumb man, signifying that He opens our spiritual ears so we cannot only hear but also understand (4:12).

The Problem Is the Heart

The people and the disciples did not understand because of the condition of their heart. In 6:52 Mark says that their heart was hardened. In 7:6 Jesus quotes Isaiah where God says, “Their heart stays far away from Me.” And in 7:18-23 Jesus says that the matter is what enters and comes out of the heart. Though the next two stories do not explicitly speak of the heart, in their own way they also deal with the subject of the hardness of the heart that refuses to make room for Jesus.

The Situation in Mark 7:1-13
Mark’s Version of Matthew 15:1-20

The story in Mark 7:1-23 follows Matthew 15:1-20 but without paying attention (as Matthew does) to the intricacies of the rabbinic argument. Instead, Mark explains things as if he were speaking to Gentiles who are not familiar with the issues.

The Purpose of the Tradition

Mark explains that the Pharisees prescribed a particular way a Jew ought to wash their hands when they eat. This is one of the “traditions of the elders.”

In the Jewish way of life, everything you do has to do with God. So they prescribe how you should do even the most common everyday things, usually in a ritual way that is full of symbolism, so that you can dedicate all your activities to God. This is the idea, so that no matter what you are doing you always remember God and remember that you are in His presence, and you can do whatever it is you are doing in a way that expresses your love for God. Not bad, right?

The Tradition Is Misappropriated When You Use It to Compare Yourself to Others

But if your heart is not right with God, you go through all these motions but not with this kind of motivation. Instead, you compare yourself to others. You do these things to show others how good you are compared to them. You judge them as less than yourself and you try to make an impression on them so that they will admire you. Your heart is obviously not focused on God but on yourself.

And When You Use It to Try to Impress God

As if this were not bad enough, you even have the arrogance to think that God is in on your game. By doing these things you think you can impress God and that even God will admire you. In religious terms, we say that you think these things will “justify” you in the sight of God.

Works of Law Do Not Justify Anyone in the Sight of God

Paul, who himself kept these “rules,” scolded Peter once (during one of Peter’s embarrassing moments) and said to him, “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; and knowing that no human being is justified by works of Law [that is, by doing Halakah] but only through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, we also have believed into Christ Jesus that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of Law, because by works of Law no flesh will be justified” (Galatians 2:15-16).

And Never Did!

Even in the Old Testament the works of Law could not justify anyone in the sight of God. (That is why Moses gave the people the priesthood and the sacrificial system.) The works of the Law were given to the Jews to express their love for God in everything they do. The rules were not to be used to fill them with pride and arrogance—the self-righteousness behind the “holier than thou” attitude.

This Misappropriation of Law Inverts Its Origin Purpose

So that is what Jesus says. The “tradition of the elders” adds more rules to the rules that God gave to ensure that you do not break any of the rules that God gave. But sometimes these rules get all the attention and become more important than the rules that God gave. If you miss the point of the original rules—all of which were to help us love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then the rules might not only get in the way, but can in fact be used to disobey God, that is, as a cover to avoid loving God. We can use the rules to build up our arrogance so that we can look down on and exclude others so that we end up doing the opposite of loving God and our neighbor.

Jesus Gives Understanding in 7:14-23
Material Things Have No Moral Value

Material things in-and-of-themselves have no moral value. How we wash things, what we eat, and so on, has no moral significance. Even the difference between clean and unclean in the Levitical sense is not a moral distinction. These distinctions are ritual distinctions with symbolic meaning (7:19; see Acts 10:15). Even food that has been offered to an idol is unaffected as long as you do not yourself associate it with the idol (1 Corinthians 10:19, 23-30). In fact, all material things are good because they are created by God.

Moral Value Is Imputed by Our Minds

If they become evil it is in our minds and feelings, because we impute onto them our own evil values. The objects themselves remain the good creation of God. What is evil is in the “world,” which is not material. The “world” is the collective mental sphere, the sphere of meanings and values and ideas that we share and exchange. The “world” is what we mistakenly equate with reality, but it is not. Reality is God, and the creation He has made.

The Problem Is with the Intentions of Our Heart

So, material things, the things “outside of a human being,” “everything that enters from outside into a human being,” do not defile you—not morally, that is. The problem is the heart. What affects the heart in order to defile it is not the material creation. What affects the heart is, as Jesus says, what comes out of the heart.

Jesus lists the things that come out of the heart: “evil reasonings, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and foolishness. All these wicked things proceed from within and defile the human being.” It is the intentions of the heart that matter.

How We Defile Ourselves and Harden Our  Heart:

We are to love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. This is what matters to God. We defile ourselves when we do not love. We do not love because we are afraid. Hardness of heart results from not softening and opening ourselves to the love of God. When we do not love God we shut God out, as though we could live without God. This rupture, this attempt to separate, to seal ourselves off, is what the Bible means by sin. And sin can have the most religious and righteous of appearances!

We are afraid of God’s judgment, with good cause! Ironically, what we need to do to overcome our fear is to surrender to God’s judgment, and to do so out of love for God. It is only when we do this that we can discover God’s mercy and love. It is also only by the mercy and love of God expressed as grace (Christ in us) that we can do this. Otherwise, we remain in our fear and try to protect ourselves—from God!—by hardening our heart.

Within the Church
The Local Church Is a School Where We Learn to Love

Paul says, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves the other has fulfilled the Law” (Romans 13:8). Romans 12:1—15:13 is about loving one another in the local church and being at peace—“as far as it depends on you”—with “all human beings” (12:18). In all of Paul’s epistles he says the same thing, over and over again.

The local church is the school where we learn to love. Without such a school to test us, serving as a mirror so we can see ourselves, we do not really know ourselves. If we do not love one another here, our love for Christ (and for God) is questionable.

It Is Not About Keeping Rules

Being a Christian is not about keeping a bunch of rules if all they do is make us think that we can impress God or impress other people. If that is the case, we can follow all the Ten Commandments and a million others and we will still be “defiled” in the sight of God. In fact, following the rules might be making us defiled! The question is: Do we love one another? If we think we do, how are we showing it?

Others in the Church Provide a Mirror for Us

Christians often set themselves up as a moral authority to others. We judge others. But when others in the church annoy us, what do we think is happening? Why do they annoy us? When they annoy us they are actually holding a mirror to us so that we can see ourselves. Next time I or someone else annoys you, ask what this is telling you about yourself.

There Is No Love without Humility

Humility always goes along with love. Humility is not having a bad opinion about yourself. If you are beautiful, kind, generous, wise, knowledgeable, and so on, it is pretentious not to recognize this (if it is true!). It is about context. Humility is about seeing clearly and having an accurate and realistic knowledge of ourselves. It is also about seeing ourselves in the sight of God—what is really going on there (in this context). If we see clearly, no pride or arrogance would be possible. Unless the grace of God lifts us up, we cannot stand. But the grace of God does lift us up and we do continue to stand.

Our Love Reflects How We Perceive God’s Love for Us

Love comes from knowing the love of God. When we know the love that God has for us, love of our brothers and sisters flows automatically.

We will long to be with one another. We will have a hunger for spiritual fellowship.

We will not judge one another but instead be blind to each other’s faults (we will see other’s faults as an opportunity for our love).

We will love others but we will also let them love us (it will be mutual). In the church we will shepherd and also be shepherded even by the so-called “least” among us (whatever “least” means in your own mind, for truly there is no “least” in the sight of God).

Our love for one another will also be personal. We will show it personally. It can never be institutionalized or shown by means of a token. It will be personal and from the heart.

We will love each other with the same generosity of love that God has shown us.

We will also love others outside the church, loving especially those who are poor, dejected, rejected and ignored, for our love for them testify to the love that God has for us, who are so poor in soul. If you do not love those outside the church, can you tell me about how God has shown His love to you? I think not.

Love Is the Distinctive Mark of the Church

This love is the distinctive mark of the church (John 13:35). It is the most important command of Christ that shapes us as disciples. Without it, nothing else we do as a disciple matters at all. Nothing. Of course we all have to struggle with this. It requires that we die daily. That is why the church is a school, and why Peter has to tell us to “love one another from a pure heart fervently having purified your souls (by your obedience to the truth) unto unfeigned brotherly love” (1 Peter 1:22). But it is also our glory, joy and comfort. Let us, then, love one another as Christ has loved us.

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