Text Study for Mark 7:1-23 (Pt. 3); 14 Pentecost B 2021

What Happens in the Marketplace Stays in the Marketplace?

Mark 7:4 has a significant footnote in the NRSV that points to a textual variant. The text we read says that the Pharisees “do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it.” Another rendering reads, “and when they come from the market-place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves.” I think that the alternate reading is probably more accurate, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that the Pharisees want what happens in the marketplace to stay in the marketplace. Elizabeth Webb, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes, “Either way, the reference to the market is another example of Mark’s subtle way of calling our attention to what really matters. The passage immediately prior to this one,” she observes, “in which the sick are laid out ‘in the marketplaces’ (Mark 6:56) for Jesus to heal them, demonstrates the in breaking of the kingdom of God in the world.”

Photo by Danilo Ugaddan on Pexels.com

Purity rules can and often do mark some spaces as sacred and others as profane. That is a useful distinction when “sacred” means set apart for the specific purpose of worshiping God. This distinction marks off a space by its function rather than its value. It’s not that the space in a worship sanctuary behind the communion rail is “better” than other spaces. It’s just that it is set apart for the celebration of communion, the offering of prayers, the blessing of the people, and the proclaiming of the word.

Yet, such practices can quickly teach us that sacred spaces are “good” and profane spaces are “bad.” I am old enough to remember, in my liturgical tradition, the days when only the ordained pastor was allowed behind the altar rail during worship services. Lay people did not serve as lectors, did not lead worship, and did not assist in communion distribution. They were not permitted to enter the “sacred” space, and many felt naughty, guilty, and sinful if they did.

Outside of the worship time, the deacons (all men) would manage the offering. And the altar guild (all women) would manage the communion ware. These activities were treated with great care and solemnity, and the time spent in the actual “holy space” was kept to a minimum. Obviously, the old table in the Sunday School room where the counting happened, and the sacristy behind the altar where the dishes got done, didn’t count as “holy space.”

One result of this practice was that even as adults to this day, some people feel naughty if they have to go behind the altar rail for some reason. I have served in congregations where people of a certain vintage to this day are reluctant to be in the sacred spaces that were off limits to them in their youth. There is something quite charming about this sense of the sacred – something that is perhaps a loss in our less-bounded contemporary worship spaces. But I don’t wish to return to those former days.

Another function of this distinction is that the space of the church and the space of the world are radically separated. Perhaps this is part of Jesus’ larger point here. Several times in the gospel accounts, Jesus notes that his opponents carry out a variety of financial and commercial transactions – some of them unsavory – and then, with a splash of water and the application of the proper prayers enter the sacred space “undefiled.” It may be that this is a significant part of Jesus’ critique here. Jesus is not going after the purity laws themselves but rather the ways in which those traditions can be used to shield the privileged from social and moral accountability.

When I come to this text, I always think of one of my favorite novels, Dickens’ Great Expectations. This sort of hypocritical separation of realms and functions is one of the subthemes of the novel. The lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, washes his hands after every unsavory encounter and every case as if to rid himself of the impurities (and complications) of his work. Mr. Wemmick, his clerk, engages in complicated personal rituals every day to ensure that work stays at work and home stays at home.

Dickens observes that such ritual distinctions do not work in the long run. No matter how much we scrub, clean hands do not entail a clear conscience. What makes us unclean is not what we eat but rather what we do, and why. Home follows us to work. And work follows us home. No matter how I try to keep them apart, both home and work have a common feature. That common feature is me. No matter where I go, I am still there. No matter what boundaries I may try to enforce, my heart does not behave and obey the rules.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago, “but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil,” he continues, “one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

Matt Skinner notes that this is a good news/bad news kind of text. The good news is that what goes into us does not make us unfit for God’s company. Yay! The bad news is that evil “comes from within all those people who bug you. But,” he reminds us, “also from within you. Me, too.”

Skinner offers four comments on this reminder that comes from Jesus. I say “reminder” because, as Skinner notes, Jesus is not making this up out of whole cloth. This concern to connect heart to hands is a consistent them in the Hebrew scriptures in general and in the Prophets in particular. First, Skinner notes, the human heart can also produce good intentions. Second, this is about human beings, not just a Jewish interest group. Third, “the devil made me do it” argument doesn’t stand up well against this text. Fourth, this is about my brokenness, not my neighbors.

What happens in the marketplace does not stay in the marketplace. It comes with us wherever we go, because our actions (especially those dealing with our stuff) arise from our hearts. The list of vices in this text is certainly not exhaustive. But it does have a definite “marketplace” slant to it.

Fornication and adultery can be understood as stealing bodies and/or relationships. Murder can be imagined as stealing another’s life. Theft, avarice, and licentiousness are really property crimes proper. Deceit is theft of the truth. Envy, slander, pride, and folly may steal another’s good name. Wickedness is theft of goodness from God.

Washing our hands of such actions may create some social cover. But it won’t rinse the stain off our hearts. The preacher can move quite easily this week to the Second Reading from James 1 to support this line of thinking. “Be doers of the word,” the Letter of James urges, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” What happens in the marketplace cannot be kept out of the sanctuary. Preachers must deal with possessions — yes, with money — from the pulpit.

Here is the standard of purity for Jesus followers. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this,” we read in James 1:27 (NRSV), “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” I would suggest that the “and” here is explanatory rather than additive. To do otherwise than to care for orphans and widows in their distress is in fact to be stained by the world. It is to render our “religion” worthless (see James 1:26).

In Mark’s account, the Pharisees and some of the scribes are chiefly concerned with maintaining the external integrity of Israel, Bruce Malina suggests, with an emphasis on clear outer boundaries for the community of God’s people. Jesus focuses on the internal dynamics of both the person and the community, Malina continues, and therefore threatens (in their view) Israel’s integrity as a people (New Testament World, page 129).

The purity rules in the Hebrew scriptures are designed to facilitate and increase access to God, Malina argues, not to restrict that access. The emphasis of the Pharisees and some of the scribes in this encounter, he continues, is on how to approach God (or at least to be in a fit condition to approach God).

On the other hand, Jesus emphasizes how God approaches us – through our hearts. Malina argues that purity rules, at least in the “traditions of the elders,” had become the tail wagging the dog of right relationships. These rules had become a tool of the religious/political/economic elite to control the people (pages 144-145).

In what ways do we “insiders” use “traditions of the elders” to control access to our Christian congregations? We may say that “all are welcome here” but are “all” really welcome here? In most congregations, the honest answer is “no.” We exclude people through a variety of conscious and unconscious norms designed for the comfort of the insiders and the repulsion of those who might want to get in.

In their book, Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, Oswald and Friedrich define congregational norms. They are “those unwritten psychological rules that govern the way any human community behaves. They are generally unconscious,” they continue, “especially for people who have been part of the community for a long time. People are not trying to keep ‘secrets’ from one another,” they suggest, “Norms simply are by definition unconscious and therefore unspoken” (page 168).

Oswald and Friedrich offer some practical ways to identify and discuss those norms as well. One way to uncover some of them is to interview newcomers to the congregation (assuming you have any). On a larger scale, a congregation can engage in “An Evening of Norm Identification.” In the book the authors provide a detailed outline of how to carry out such an event. They note that the farther our actual living as a congregation departs from our beliefs and values, the more unhealthy the congregation becomes.

This takes us back to Jesus and his discussion partners. He points to the dissociation that has occurred between the values of the Reign of God and the power structures of first-century Israel. What makes a person, and a community, unhealthy (the real meaning of “impure”) is the increasing separation between those values and the power structures. What makes a person, and a community, healthy (the real meaning of “pure”) is coherence between the values and power structures of that community.

What happens in the marketplace can’t stay in the marketplace. What infects the human heart can’t be confined by external rules.

References and Resources

Kenny, Andrew. “Surprise, Colorado: The guy who sold all those ‘NATIVE’ stickers is a transplant.” https://denverite.com/2018/05/25/surprise-colorado-natives-inventor-beloved-bumper-sticker-utah/.

Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd Edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh. Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Oswald, Roy M., and Friedrich, Robert E. Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-2/commentary-on-mark-71-8-14-15-21-23-5.

Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Webb, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-2/commentary-on-mark-71-8-14-15-21-23-4. Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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