Cleansing Food, Cleansing People

Mark 7:24-37 gives us Mark’s version of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.

Mark 7:1-23 sets up this story by telling us that a dispute arose between Jesus and some Pharisees about ceremonial hand-washing. Jesus’ disciples, it seems, did not always ceremonially wash their hands as tradition dictated (Mark 7:1-4). Mark describes at considerable length how Jesus’ responded to the Pharisees’ accusatory questions regarding the matter (Mark 7:5).

The issue was ceremonial purity – that is, fitness to participate in the temple ritual and offer sacrifices to God, which was God’s chosen means of communion with him – not modern sanitary principles.

Some of the Pharisees extended the law’s concerns with temple purity to everyday life. If you should be ritually pure to worship in the temple, you should be equally pure before God every moment of every day. When you think it about it, that’s a pretty good principle. We should be the same holy people when we go to work and when we talk with our neighbors as we are when we go to church. The problem was that these Pharisees mistook their application of this principle with the law of God itself.

There are two issues here, Jesus said. First, Jesus accused his opponents of holding on to human traditions in this matter but abandoning the law of God in others (Mark 7:6-9).

Within Mark’s rhetorical scheme, the next section (Mark 7:10-13) simply serves an illustration of Jesus’ basic assertion. Some of the same opponents who criticized Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands failed to obey the law’s requirement to care for their own parents. Their wealth was “dedicated” to God, so sorry Mom and Dad.

After giving this example of his opponents’ hypocrisy, Jesus returns to his main topic: why his disciples did not ceremonially wash before meals.

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)

So second, and more importantly, Jesus said that true cleanness and acceptability in God’s sight is not a matter of ritual purity but of heart purity. Everyday purity isn’t about washing your hands in a certain way, but about keeping your heart clean before God.

Immediately, then, Mark tells us the story of the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter who has an “unclean” spirit.

Having just spoken at length about how unwashed hands cannot defile you and how food – even Gentile food – cannot be unclean, will Jesus now treat this woman’s presence as defiling and her body as unclean, simply because she is a Gentile? Of course not!

Jesus does distinguish between those who belong to the household of God and those who do not, but he answers this woman according to her faith.

Rhetorically, the word “clean” links the two stories. In Mark 7:19, Mark tells us that Jesus declared all foods clean. Actually, there is no helping word like “declare.” Jesus spoke, Mark says, cleansing (present active participle of kathorizo) all kinds of food – including that stuff that only Gentiles ate. His word made them clean.

Then by casting out an “unclean” (akathartos) spirit from a little girl in the region of Tyre, Jesus implicitly made her ritually clean as well, even though she was a Gentile. Her momma, too, for that matter.

Just as Jesus’ word made Gentile food acceptable in God’s sight, so his actions made Gentile believers acceptable.