From within: what defiles

gospel-of-markJesus Answers. 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.”…

One should immediately notice that Jesus does not respond to the specifics of the question posed. He responds to their intention and as well their competence for religious leadership. Jesus’ response provides reasoning for rejecting the human traditions that are imposed upon people as an authentic interpretation of the Law. Only the first part appears in the Sunday gospel reading. Jesus first challenges the “elders” with a quotation from Isaiah (vv. 6–7; Isa 29:13) that castigates the people because they substitute human teaching for true devotion to God. The quotation introduces the distinction between outward piety and devotion to God in one’s heart. What is “in the heart” forms the basis for the teaching that follows the exchange between Jesus and his enemies. Jesus substitutes a new understanding of purity.

The second and third part of Jesus’ response in contained in verses not part of the Sunday Gospel: 8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” 9 He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ 11 Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”’ (meaning, dedicated to God), 12 you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. 13 You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.”

Each citation of scripture is introduced with the charge that the questioners fulfill or set aside its words in an excellent way – “how well” (kalōs; vv. 6, 9). The word that they should keep, “Honor your father and your mother,” instead they set aside. The one they should avoid, teaching human traditions with a heart far from God (v.7) they fulfill. A similar argument is extended into the discussion on qorban – that is dedicated to the Temple. The argument being made is that Pharisees are making a human vow of dedication as superior to the commandment of God.

The last verse (v.13) moves from these specific cases to the general practice of teaching such traditions. A progression of verbs indicates the disastrous effect of such teaching. The opponents are said to progressively “disregard God’s commandment” (v.8), “set aside the commandment” (v.9), and finally “nullify the word of God” (v.13). This generalization removes the discussion from the question concerning particular traditions. It rejects all such heartless interpretation as opposed to the word of God.

Jesus Summons the Flock

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.”

Notice that the Pharisee’s attempt to discredit Jesus as an authoritative teacher fail. Jesus summons the crowd and their response indicates that Jesus’ opponents have failed in their attempt. Jesus resumes his role as authoritative teacher (cf. 1:27).

Jesus asserts that nothing one eats or drinks can defile a person (v. 15a). Instead of concern with external categories, Jesus insists that impurity comes from within. “Hellenistic Jewish writers explained Jewish rules concerning clean and unclean animals in moralizing terms. Animals that Jews are not permitted to eat exhibit undesirable moral traits. The original challenge did not concern food that is either impure or non-kosher but ritual washing associated with meals. Jesus’ reply, which refers to what is “taken into” and “comes out” of a person, shifts to rules that governed the behavior of all Jews. Readers have seen that Jesus was not concerned with being defiled by contact with persons like the leper (1:41) and the hemorrhaging woman (5:30–34). He could even command the leper to carry out the purification rites required by the Law (1:44).” [Perkins, 607]

The first half, “what goes in cannot defile,” is justified by an anatomical observation. Food travels through the digestive tract into the latrine; it never comes near a person’s heart (vv. 18–19). The second half, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile,” uses a catalogue of vices to depict the inner corruption of the heart. The vices include actions proscribed in the Ten Commandments (theft, murder, adultery, avarice or envy, deceit). Consequently, Jesus continues to uphold the commandment of God, which his opponents undermine.

Rejection of kosher rules and other purification rituals takes away the observable outward markers that separate Jews from their Gentile neighbors. A Jewish teacher might insist that the moral virtues in Jesus’ list are just as important as kosher rules and that both are central to Jewish identity. External rules remind Jews that they are different from other nations. Mark’s generalization makes a claim about the Christian community as a whole. External practices do not distinguish its members from their non-Christian neighbors. This claim has important implications for the next episode, in which Jesus enters Gentile territory and heals the child of a Gentile woman.

Final Thoughts

“Why Mark presents this heavy conflict passage here is just as important as the message it contains. This conflict section interrupts a chain of six miracle stories (it comes after the feeding of the multitude, the walk on the water, and the healing of the crowds; it is followed by the healing of the Canaanite child, the cure of the deaf-mute, and the second feeding of the multitude). Mark seems to have at least two reasons for doing this. First, this heightens the tension of his drama, suggesting that anyone who chooses to follow Jesus as healer will be involved in many conflicts for the sake of the gospel, perhaps even with religious leaders and structures. Secondly, the conflict passage builds on his theme of the slow-witted disciples, because they need special tutoring again (here in v. 17), as they did earlier (in 4:10, 34). Thus Mark challenges Christian leaders within his audience to reevaluate the way they understand and pass on the Christian tradition entrusted to them.” [Van Linden, 918]

Two key concerns emerge from this text. The first has to do with Jesus’ definition of spirituality in terms of heart actions, thought, and interaction with others. This is an extension of Jesus’ emphasis on the law of loving God and loving one’s neighbor, where the focus is on right relationship. The second is the implication that Jesus’ remarks had for his own authority. Who had the right to make pronouncements about issues tied to Jewish tradition and to the law? Jesus’ apparent comfort in speaking on matters pertaining to the law and with making judgments about them suggests a self-understanding that he could speak for God in his divine role and call. [Turner and Bock, 461]



Mark 7:6–7 you hypocrites! This phrase is far more common in Matthew (thirteen times) than in Mark, where this is its only use. Luke uses it three times. A hypocrite is really an “actor”, and not the person he or she appears to be. their hearts are far from me. … In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. The citation is from Isa 29:13, especially as it appears in the LXX.

Mark 7:9 How well you have set aside the commandment of God. The Greek reads, “You reject the command of God well.” Jesus argued that they were in complete disobedience. The adverb “well” adds a touch of sarcasm, because they did this so “beautifully” (kalōs).

in order to hold on to your own tradition. Their rejection was to “establish” or “validate” their tradition. God’s voice was muted by their tradition. The next few verses illustrate how this worked.

Mark 7:11 qorban A formula for a gift belonging to God and thus rendered it unusable for any other purpose (Lev 2:1, 4, 12–13; Josephus Antiquities 4.73; Against Apion 1.167; m. Nedarim 5.6). Taking this religious vow either prevented a person from using his resources to help care for his parents or became such a focal point that he simply disregarded their needs. Jesus saw the act as a violation of the divine command to honor one’s parents. Archaeologists have discovered an ossuary lid marked “qorban,” which indicates that the practice was typical of Jesus’ time. Although the term could mean no more than an item offered to the Temple, it appears to have taken on the status of a vow attached to goods, which meant that they could not be used for any other purpose. Later rabbinic legislation discusses cases in which an individual can be released from such a vow. The need to obey the command to “honor father and mother” by supporting aging parents was explicitly decided in favor of the Mosaic commandment. The existence of that dispute in later Judaism suggests that the issue raised by Jesus was probably a matter of contention in his time as well.

Mark 7:13 you nullify. They cancelled or set aside God’s word by giving such a controlling status to tradition. This verb (akuroō) is used only three times in the NT (in the parallel Matt 15:6 and in Gal 3:17).

Mark 7:14 the crowd. Jesus broadened his remarks beyond the Pharisees and scribes; he called on the crowd to really comprehend what he was saying.

Mark 7:16 “Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear.” This verse is not in the earlier manuscripts of Mark and thus it is absent in many recent translations. It restates the call to hear already given in Mark 7:14. is omitted because it is lacking in some of the best Greek manuscripts and was probably transferred here by scribes from Mark 4:9,23.

Mark 7:18 cannot defile He explained why food is not an ultimate concern, since it both enters and exits the body (Mark 7:19). In this, Jesus was in continuity with the OT prophets (Isa 1:10–20; Amos 5:21–27).

Mark 7:19 (Thus he declared all foods clean): if this bold declaration goes back to Jesus, its force was not realized among Jewish Christians in the early church; cf Acts 10:1–11:18.

Mark 7:20 But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. The key principle for Jesus is that it is what proceeds from within, from the heart (Mark 7:21)—actions and thoughts that impact relationships—that defiles a person.

Mark 7:21 evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder. This list of vices resembles the “deeds of the flesh” in Gal 5:19–21 (cf. Wis 14:25–26; 1QS 4:9–11; Rom 1:29–31; 1 Pet 4:13). Such lists were common, and some were very long (Philo, Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 32 has 150 items; Marcus 2000:459). “Envy” (lit., “an evil eye”); on the evil eye, see Deut 15:9; Prov 28:22; Sir 14:8–10; 35:8–10.


  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
  • Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 185-90
  • John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina v.2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer / Liturgical Press, 2001) 219-31
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, The New Testament Message, v.4 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Press, 1979) 95-102
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 242-57
  • Philip Van Linden, C.M., “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 917-18
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994) 605-8
  • Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 223-31
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 456-61
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
  • The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at

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