1 Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. 3 (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. 4 And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles (and beds).) 5 So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” 6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;7 In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ 8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”… 14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”…. 21 From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. 23 All these evils come from within and they defile.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
After five consecutive Sunday gospels addressing the Bread of Life Discourse in John’s Gospel, we again return to the primary source of gospel readings for Year B in the Liturgical Cycle: the Gospel according to Mark. When we last proclaimed this gospel we did so in the 15th and 16th Sundays of Year B. In those Sundays Jesus had sent the disciples out on mission “two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick— no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic.” (Mark 6:7-9). While the disciples are on mission, Mark notes the ministry of John the Baptist and his death at the hands of King Herod (vv.14-29). The disciples return from their mission and Jesus calls them (v.31) to “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” It is at this point the Mark will include the miraculous feeding of the people – and we turned our attention to the Gospel of John. But what happens in the remainder of Mark 7?
Immediately after the multiplication of the loaves, Mark narrates a second scene in which Jesus calms a wind-swept sea on behalf of his fearful disciples (6:45–52; echoing 4:35–41) in which Jesus comes to the boat walking on the water. Jesus’ calming of the sea and the disciples (vv. 50–51) are further signs for Mark and his readers that Jesus was their Lord of creation. Only God had such mastery over the sea (e.g., Gen 1:1–10). The back-to-back miracles of the breads and walking on the water would seem to be enough to lead people to believe in the person of Jesus, but… “[Jesus] got into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.” Does this mean the disciples began to disbelieve? Not likely given they remain with Jesus. “When Mark says that the hearts of Jesus’ disciples were hardened (v. 52), it seems that he is looking for something more from his readers. He hopes that they will question their own degree of intimacy with their risen Lord. In their own wind-tossed times, some forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, would the reassuring words of Jesus (“Do not be afraid!”) be enough for them? Or was the fear of the first disciples still present in the Christian community? Mark hopes that his readers will come to understand the meaning of all the events, including Jesus’ humiliating death, as they understand more about the loaves. He hopes that their fears will be resolved when, at the Eucharist, they come to understand their own suffering in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice for them and for all his people.” (Van Linden, 917)
Chapter 6 ends with the summary statement “Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed.” (v.56) This seems to be in contrast to the disciples with the hardened hearts. This is also in contrast to the Pharisees and the leaders of Jerusalem who will begin to oppose Jesus in Chapter 7.