Jesus summoned the crowd again. ‘Listen to me, all of you,’ he said, ‘and get this straight. What goes into you from outside can’t make you unclean. What makes you unclean is what comes out from inside.’ When they got back into the house, away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. ‘You didn’t get it either?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that whatever goes into someone from outside can’t make them unclean? It doesn’t go into the heart; it only goes into the stomach, and then carries on, out down the drain.’ (Result: all foods are clean.) ‘What makes someone unclean’, he went on, ‘is what comes out of them. Evil intentions come from inside, out of people’s hearts – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, treachery, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, stupidity. These evil things all come from inside. They are what make someone unclean.’
I once watched as an angry crowd burnt a Russian flag. Soviet military aircraft had shot down a Korean civilian plane on 1 September 1983, over the Pacific Ocean, on the suspicion that it had been spying. All on board were killed. It was at the height of the cold war, and the plane, which had taken off in the United States, had strayed into Soviet air space, almost certainly because of a computer malfunction. Around the world, not least in the considerable Korean community in Montreal, where I was then living, furious and grieving Koreans gave vent to their feelings. And when there is nobody you can actually attack, burning their flag is a powerfully symbolic way of saying what you think.
Flags are a comparatively modern invention (though ancient armies would carry ‘standards’ that functioned in the same way). In the ancient world, especially in the ancient Jewish world, there were various badges of identity that had a similar function. When you kept certain customs, you were waving the flag and celebrating your national identity. If some-one tried to abolish or stamp out those customs, this felt like a kick in the stomach, much as if they had burnt your flag.
Among the first-century Jewish customs that functioned in this way was the code that determined what you could and couldn’t eat (and, though this raises other questions, who you could and couldn’t eat it with). The stories of the Maccabaean martyrs from two centuries before had been told and retold: the seven brothers who refused to submit to the Syrian megalomaniac king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who in his efforts to enforce his kind of paganism on the Jews did his best to make Jews abandon their food laws and – the most obvious feature – to eat pork. One noble old man, forced to open his mouth to receive the forbidden food, spat it out again as they tortured him to death. Such stories were plentiful, and served in turn to reinforce the ban. Don’t let the side down! Don’t side with those who want to destroy our nation and our customs! Don’t let them burn the flag!
Only when we have this picture firmly in mind can we appreciate why Jesus had to go into the house, away from the crowd, before he could explain one of his most cryptic sayings. ‘What goes into you from the outside can’t make you unclean. What makes you unclean is what comes out from inside.’ We today are perhaps more used to the distinction between outward, physical things and the inner world of feelings and thoughts. We are also predisposed, in much Western culture, to think of the inner world as more important than the outer. Most first-century Jews didn’t readily make that distinction, or that value judgment. For them, the saying was very puzzling.
It was, perhaps, the only way Jesus could address the larger issue raised by the question about hand-washing (verses 2, 5). What’s at stake is the issue of purity and impurity; and purity matters because it’s one of the key symbols of Judaism. And Jesus is radically redefining it. Is he burning the flag? Many people would think so – if they understood what he meant. Even the disciples didn’t get it, so he had to explain. Even then he doesn’t spell out the full implications, so Mark, writing for a non-Jewish Christian community (as we can tell from his explanatory notes in verses 3 – 4), has to make it clear, in the bracket at the end of verse 19.
Watch how this works. First, Jesus declares that nothing that goes in through the mouth can make someone genuinely ‘unclean’ in any deeply significant sense. Second, he explains this a little further: food, of whatever sort, simply goes in at one end and out at the other. This saying, too, is still cryptic, needing (like lots of rabbinic sayings needed) one more move to make it explicit. So, third, Mark adds his extra note. ‘Result,’ he says: ‘all foods are clean.’
With that, we might think, the flag has been burnt, and with it all chance of Jesus ever being seen in a positive light from within Judaism.
But wait. What’s he saying now? He hasn’t abolished the distinction between clean and unclean. He hasn’t said purity doesn’t matter. It’s simply that he has a far deeper, far more radical idea of what purity is. Outward purity – washing the hands, not eating certain foods – is simply a signpost to the real thing. Don’t mistake the signpost, he is saying, for the reality. I’ve come to give you the reality.
Has he? But how? Surely what he’s now saying is very bad news indeed. ‘What makes someone unclean is what comes out of them, out of people’s hearts.’ He lists the things he has in mind, and a sad, sordid array it makes. Immorality, theft, murder, greed, envy and the rest. This isn’t a liberalizing tendency, as some imagine (‘Hurrah! Jesus has got rid of those stupid old rules!’). This is the ultimate standard. God always wanted humans to be genuine humans; greed, pride and the other things corrupt and destroy that genuine humanness (as we all know if we stop to think about it for a minute). If Jesus had simply said, ‘Well, no more rules – do what comes naturally,’ what we would have ‘done naturally’ is, alas, a lot of those things: adultery, treachery, and so on.
So what follows from this? Everything we know about Jesus indicates that he doesn’t want to leave it there. He isn’t telling his disciples all this just to make them – and all the rest of us – feel guilty. He is hinting at something more than diagnosis. He believes he has the treatment we require. He has a cure for the impure heart. He is setting an absolute standard, and providing the means by which, to our amazement, we are to attain it.
Has he burnt the flag? Actually, no. Change the picture. He has taken down the signposts that point to purity. And he has put up, in their place, a new sign, which indicates that Purity itself has arrived.
This (of course) raises all kinds of problems for us. Every pastor – every honest Christian! – knows the failings and impurities that still lurk within. But Jesus’ first followers were equally uncompromising. These things must be put to death. And because of Jesus they can be.
Give us courage, gracious Lord, to follow you, this Lent and always, on the path that leads to full purity of heart.