The Stain (Mark 7:1-16)

The Stain (Mark 7:1-16)

Preached by Pastor Jeff Hamling

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Stain


A few years back, Annmarie and I really got into the television show “Sherlock Holmes” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show was consistent with Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The most exciting parts for me is when Sherlock would enter a crime scene and immediately know what happened.

In the first episode, the police ask Sherlock to look at a scene where a woman supposedly committed suicide. However, Sherlock, with his acute observation skills, looks at all the clues. He says, “She didn’t commit suicide—she was murdered; it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

Watson says, “It isn’t obvious to me.” Sherlock says, “Amazing! What must it be like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!”

He then explains that there are small splashes of mud on the back of her right ankle indicating that she must have been rolling a suitcase behind her. But because the case is missing, someone must have taken it. And therefore, she didn’t commit suicide—she was murdered.

Similarly, our passage from Mark 7, is a crime scene. At first glance, we might conclude that the culprits are the Pharisee who commit the crime of being legalistic hypocrites. But, as we look more closely at the evidence, we’ll realize that there is another more sinister culprit; one whose fingerprints are all over this scene. There’s even a smoking gun. This passage is a classic “Who-Done-It?” mystery story.

By carefully observing the evidence and looking at the clues, we’ll understand how the same culprit commits similar crimes in our own lives and what we can do about it.

Three questions: 1) What are the clues in this mystery? 2) Who commits the crime? 3) How does Jesus solve it?

What Are the Clues?

There are three.

First Clue: The Need to Criticize and Blame

In v.1-2: The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food (literally in the Greek: “bread”) with hands that were defiled, that is unwashed. And then, in v.5, they ask: Why [do] your disciples…[eat] their [bread] with defiled hands?

The Pharisees are a group of lay-leaders within Judaism. They’re goal was societal reform in Israel. They believed the sooner Israel cleaned up their act, the sooner God would deliver them from their oppressors.

Here’s what stands out: They’re appalled that the disciples are eating bread with defiled hands.

This is important because this entire section—Mark 6-8—is known as “The Bread Section.” The word bread is mentioned 17 times!

Earlier, in chapter 6, Jesus miraculously multiplies a few loaves of bread in order to feed over 5000 people. The Pharisees no doubt heard about this. Some scholars believe that they saw the disciples and the crowd eating bread, and this is the eating bread they are referring to. Whether they saw it or now, they undoubtedly heard about it.

But instead of seeing Jesus’ miracle with the bread through eyes of wonder and curiosity, they only see something to criticize.

Like a parent who looks at his son’s math test when he got a perfect score except for missing one problem. Instead of saying, “Great job!” The parent asks, “What did you do wrong on the problem you missed? Why did you get it wrong?”

It’s worth asking yourself if you show the same propensity. Are you inclined to view the people in your life with wonder and curiosity? Or are you quick to criticize, condemn and vilify? Where do you think that tendency comes from? That’s what this story is about.

Second Clue: The Need to Cleanse

The Pharisees criticize the disciples for not washing their hands before they eat bread.

This is not about proper hygiene and germs. Ancient people didn’t know about germs.

This is about ritual purity.

In the OT, God required a ceremonial washing for priests before they offered sacrifices in the temple and before they ate their share of the sacrifice.

But the Pharisees went further, insisting that all Israel should wash before every meal. It makes you wonder, “Of all the laws they can make up, why make up laws about ritual cleansing?”

It’s almost as if they see some imperceptible stain on their hands, on their souls, and they keep washing and scrubbing—like Pilate trying to get the blood of his hands. Like Macbeth’s wife in Shakespeare, who repeatedly washes her hands to deal with the guilt of killing the King of Scotland.

There is this obsessive-compulsive desire to wash. To cover. To cleanse.

But are we really so far removed from them? Don’t we have our own ceremonial washings?

  • If you have struggled with an eating disorder, you know what it’s like to eat too much, and then to feel the need to cleanse by purging. It’s a cleansing ritual of sorts.
  • Or what if you look at some inappropriate content online? You feel bad, but what can you do? You delete your browser history. You swear you’ll never do it again. It’s your ceremonial washing.
  • Or perhaps you struggle with feelings of inadequacy. Something deep down tells you that you don’t measure up. You discover that you feel better about yourself when you compare yourself to others. Maybe it’s your looks. Or your political beliefs. Your income. You wash by comparing. It’s your cleansing ritual.

Third Clue: The Need for Distance

In v.6-13, Jesus points out that the Pharisees are being hypocrites. He gives an example.

He says, “Your parents are getting older and need some financial help. But instead of helping them, you say ‘My money doesn’t belong to my parents, it belongs to God.’ So holy! You’ve managed to honor God with your money by keeping it for yourself. How convenient!”

And then, Jesus says in v.6: What Isaiah said in the OT applies to you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”   Their hearts are distant from God.

Some people run away from God by avoiding religion: “I don’t want to go to church. I don’t want to pray. I don’t want anything to do with God.”

But others, like the Pharisees, avoid God by using their made up religious rules.

For example, in the 1990s, there was a movement in the church that is today known as purity culture. It said, “You can’t date. You can’t hold hands. You can’t kiss. The only kissing you should be doing is kissing dating goodbye!”

Of course, not everyone who ascribed to purity culture was avoiding God. But we have to be careful when we come up with rules outside of the Bible. Sometimes it’s easier to follow rules than to be in a relationship.

The Pharisees, through their rules, kept their distance from God.

Who Committed the Crime?

We’ve looked at 3 clues: The need to criticize. The need to cleanse. The need for distance. If this story is a crime scene, the question now is “whodunit?” Who committed the crime?

At first glance, we might say, “The Pharisees! It’s not even a mystery. They’re guilty of hypocrisy and being judgmental.”

True. But we can go deeper. What’s causing them to behave this way? That is the culprit we’re after.

We might say, “Sin is making them do it.” But that’s only mildly helpful.

If you’re a counselor, and one of these Pharisees came in to see you and said, “I’m struggling with criticism, the need to cleanse myself, and distance in my relationships.” Would you just say, “I’ll tell you what your problem is—sin. That’s your problem. That will be $300”?

Not helpful. Because to be a good counselor to others, to understand your own heart—you have to be a detective who understands what specifically is motivating these behaviors.

This is where we must pay close attention to the clues. Because if we do, we hear echoes of an ancient story—the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

In Genesis 2:25, it describes their original condition: “Adam and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.” But soon, they ate the forbidden fruit, and everything changed. They felt shame for the first time. And they responded in 3 ways:

1. They blamed and criticized. “God it’s your fault—you put me here with this woman.” “God it’s the serpent’s fault—he tricked me.” Curt Thompson in his book, The Soul of Shame, says, “One of the hallmarks of shame is its employment of judgment.” Shame loves to shame others. Judge them and criticize them.

2. They covered. Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves because they felt exposed, unclean. This was their ceremonial washing. A covering.

3. They wanted distance. When God appeared in the Garden to talk with Adam and Eve, they hid in the trees from God. They wanted distance.

Why do they act this way? The same reason the Pharisees act this way. The same reason we act this way. They feel shame. Shame is the feeling that says, “You’re unclean. You don’t measure up. You’re inadequate.” Shame is the real culprit in this crime mystery.

Shame is the feeling of being unworthy. Unacceptable. Inadequate. It’s the natural response to our sin.

Unfortunately, it’s also the feeling we get when people have sinned against us—victimized us. We feel unclean. Unworthy. Stained.

The question isn’t whether you feel shame. The question is, what will you do about it?

Try and manage it on your own, and you’ll most likely deal with it by being critical of others, trying to cleanse yourself, or keep distance from God and important relationships in your life.

What then is Jesus’ solution? How does he solve this crime as it were?

How Does Jesus Solve the Case?

In v.14-15 Jesus says, it’s not what happens to you on the outside that makes you unclean. It what happens to you on the inside.

He says it more graphically in v.18-19: “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body. (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.).”

Two observations:1. He gives the example of eating “clean” food.

In the OT, Jews were set aside from the other nations by the kind of foods they ate. Foods were divided into clean foods and unclean foods (like shellfish or pork).

But here, Jesus says, “Do you really think that eating a “clean” food is what makes you clean?

You eat it and it doesn’t go into your heart and change you—it goes out of your body. Jesus is graphic here, because literally, in the Greek he says, the food goes into your body and out into the latrine.

How clean is that?  Does that really solve your problem? Does it really change your heart?

His point is that our external attempts at dealing with sin and shame won’t change us. Our criticizing, our ceremonial washings, our keeping distance. It doesn’t work. We need a change of the heart.

2. Jesus declares all foods clean.

In v.19 Mark states in what seems to be an aside. It seems to be a mere insignificant parenthesis. It says, “Jesus in saying this, declares all foods clean.”

But it’s not a mere aside. We have to ask, Wait! How can Jesus by a mere declaration, undo thousands of years’ worth of OT law? How can he pronounce something “unclean” as “clean”?

And if he can declare by mere proclamation food “clean” what else can he do?

Jesus is hinting at the message of the gospel: I can make you clean.  I will clothe myself with your filth. Your feelings of uncleanliness and shame. So that you can be clean from the inside—out!

When I was in high school, there was a family in our church, Ken and Sally Larson. They couldn’t have children, so they decided they would adopt kids who had been abused.  They would ask me to watch them from time to time.

  • Raymond—mom gave him cocaine and his brain was fried.
  • Jeremy. Beaten—brain damage.
  • Robby—autistic. Parents frustrated—beat him. I remember teaching him the a song from the Beatles: Here comes the sun…do, do, do, do. Whenever I would say, “Here comes the sun.” He would immediately say, “Do, do, do, do.”

When I was a senior in high school, the Larson family asked if I would accompany Robby to the Special Olympics in Great Falls. Another chaperon and I took him and a couple other kids.

On the first night, Robby had an accident. Soiled himself. I called another attendant and we had to clean him up. He couldn’t do it by himself. We had to draw the bath for him. Lay out his clean clothes. He was so embarrassed. Ashamed.

But I still remember, when he came out of the bathroom, the first thing he said to me was, with a big smile was, “Here comes the sun!”

He couldn’t do it on his own, but he was clean!

I later thought to myself, what a picture of me. What a picture of the gospel! We can’t wipe away our own shame. We need help—outside of ourselves.

This is what Jesus offers in the gospel.