“There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mk 7.15f)
This brief passage from today’s Gospel reading is one of the most revolutionary of Jesus’ teachings. These words are the reason Christians don’t have ritual ablutions or dietary laws or other external markers of belonging. These words clarified for Christians that the real markers of belonging to the people of God are found simply in what we do and why we do them.
In the story, Jesus has scandalized the religious authorities by eating a meal with his disciples without performing the customary ritual hand-washing. Jesus uses this as a teaching moment and insists that nothing external can defile anyone. Thus ends any legitimate Christian idea of “purity culture” based on dos and don’ts.
The funny thing, though, is that by doing this Jesus has actually raised the bar (as he so often does). As onerous as a list of prohibitions — whether ancient, like “Don’t eat without washing your hands” or modern, like “Don’t drink alcohol” — may be, it’s actually much easier to fulfill these expectations than it is to fulfill what Jesus calls us to do. Jesus doesn’t say, “Good news! Nothing can make you ‘impure’ before God!” What he says is the more sobering truth that if we’re defiled it’s because we defile ourselves. Let’s look at what the text says:
“What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”
Now, contemporary English has lost a lot of language surrounding sinfulness and so lists like this always feel awkwardly old-fashioned. And this has the dual consequence of making it sound both harsh and judgmental and also abstract and irrelevant. But regardless of the language we use, the point remains: what ‘defiles’ us is that stuff that comes from the inside, from our hearts. Jesus’ list — partial as it is — is worth translating: evil thoughts, sexual unfaithfulness, sex that is more about a collision of bodies than a genuine communion of souls, murder, theft, envying what others have, lies, a lack of restraint, wishing evil upon someone, treating what is holy without care or concern, pride, and foolishness.
The list, of course, is suggestive and not exhaustive. And the point isn’t to put it up on our fridge as a ‘to NOT do list’ and check off all the things we haven’t done and feel good about ourselves. The point is that our hearts are often off-kilter, out of alignment with God and therefore with our true selves. And when this happens, they produce a lot of bad fruit, and this is what makes us ‘unclean’ before God.
And so, Jesus calls us to be vigilant, to become experts on our hearts and how they move us, and to have the maturity not to get caught up in their whims — which are, more often than not, the whims of our past pains and present insecurities. But connected to this call to be wise to our hearts, our Christian faith also tells us that we don’t have to be perfect. For God is a God of love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. And if we come to God with humble hearts, acknowledging the myriad ways we still act out on all the sinful nonsense of the world, we will be cleansed, and be united to God, pure and spotless.