Mark 7:14-23

THE REAL DEFILEMENT

Mk. 7:14-23

He called the crowd to him again and said, “Listen to me, all of you and understand. There is nothing which goes into a man from outside which can render him unclean; but it is the things which come out of a man which render the man unclean.” When he came into the house, away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about this hard saying. He said to them, “So, then, are you too unable to grasp things? Do you not understand that everything that goes into a man from outside cannot render him unclean, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and it is then evacuated from him by natural bodily processes?” (The effect of this saying is to render all foods clean.) But he went on to say, “What comes out of a man, that is what renders the man unclean. it is from within, from the heart, that there come evil designs, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetous deeds, evil deeds, guile, wanton wickedness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they render a man unclean.”

Although it may not seem so now, this passage, when it was first spoken, was well-nigh the most revolutionary passage in the New Testament. Jesus has been arguing with the legal experts about. different aspects of the traditional law. He has shown the irrelevance of the elaborate handwashings. He has shown how rigid adherence to the traditional law can actually mean disobedience to the law of God. But here he says something more startling yet. He declares that nothing that goes into a man can possibly defile him, for it is received only into his body which rids itself of it in the normal, physical way.

No Jew ever believed that and no orthodox Jew believes it yet. Lev.11 has a long list of animals that are unclean and may not be used for food. How very seriously this was taken can be seen from many an incident in Maccabean times. At that time the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, was determined to root out the Jewish faith. One of the things he demanded was that the Jews should eat pork, swine’s flesh but they died in their hundreds rather than do so. “Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing. Wherefore they chose rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant; so then they died.” (1Macc.1:62-63.) Fourth Maccabees (chapter 7) tells the story of a widow and her seven sons. It was demanded that they should eat swine’s flesh. They refused. The first had his tongue cut out, the ends of his limbs cut off; and he was then roasted alive in a pan; the second had his hair and the skin of his skull torn off; one by one they were tortured to death while their aged mother looked on and cheered them on; they died rather than eat meat which to them was unclean.

It is in face of this that Jesus made his revolutionary statement that nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean. He was wiping out at one stroke the laws for which Jews had suffered and died. No wonder the disciples were amazed.

In effect Jesus was saying that things cannot be either unclean or clean in any real religious sense of the term. Only persons can be really defiled; and what defiles a person is his own actions, which are the product of his own heart. This was new doctrine and shatteringly new doctrine. The Jew had, and still has, a whole system of things which are clean and unclean. With one sweeping pronouncement Jesus declared the whole thing irrelevant and that uncleanness has nothing to do with what a man takes into his body but everything to do with what comes out of his heart.

Let us look at the things Jesus lists as coming from the heart and making a man unclean.

He begins with evil designs (dialogismoi, GSN1261). Every outward act of sin is preceded by an inward act of choice; therefore Jesus begins with the evil thought from which the evil action comes. Next come fornications (porneiai, GSN4202); later he is to list acts of adultery (moicheiai, GSN3430); but this first word is a wide word–it means every kind of traffic in sexual vice. There follow thefts (klopai, GSN2829). In Greek there are two words for a robber–kleptes (GSN2812) and lestes (GSN3027). Lestes (GSN3027) is a brigand; Barabbas was a lestes (GSN3027) (Jn.18:40) and a brigand may be a very brave man although an outlaw. Kleptes (GSN2812) is a thief; Judas was a kleptes (GSN2812) when he pilfered from the box (Jn.12:6). A kleptes (GSN2812) is a mean, deceitful, dishonourable pilferer, without even the redeeming quality of a certain audacious gallantry that a brigand must have. Murders (phonoi, GSN5408) and adulteries come next in the list and their meaning is clear.

Then comes covetous deeds (pleonexiai, GSN4124). Pleonexia comes from two Greek words meaning to have more. It has been defined as the accursed love of having. It has been defined as “the spirit which snatches at that which it is not right to take,” “the baneful appetite for that which belongs to others.” It is the spirit which snatches at things, not to hoard them like a miser, but to spend them in lust and luxury. Cowley defined it as, “Rapacious appetite for gain, not for its own sake, but for the pleasure of refunding it immediately through all the channels of pride and luxury.” It is not the desire for money and things; it includes the desire for power, the insatiable lust of the flesh. Plato said, “The desire of man is like a sieve or pierced vessel which he ever tries to, and can never fill.” Pleonexia (GSN4124) is that lust for having which is in the heart of the man who sees happiness in things instead of in God.

There follows evil deeds. In Greek there are two words for evil–kakos (GSN2560), which describes a thing which in itself is evil, and poneros (GSN4190), which describes a person or a thing which is actively evil. Poneriai (GSN4189) is the word used here. The man who is poneros (GSN4190) is the man in whose heart there is the desire to harm. He is, as Bengel said, “trained in every crime and completely equipped to inflict evil on any man.” Jeremy Taylor defined this poneria (GSN4189) as “aptness to do shrewd turns, to delight in mischiefs and tragedies; loving to trouble our neighbour, and to do him ill offices; crossness, perverseness and peevishness of action in our intercourse.” Poneria (GSN4189) not only corrupts the man who has it; it corrupts others too. Poneros (GSN4190)–the Evil One–is the title of Satan. The worst of men, the man who is doing Satan’s work, is the man who, being bad himself, makes others as bad as himself.

Next comes dolos (GSN1388); translated guile. It comes from a word which means bait; it is used for trickery and deceit. It is used for instance of a mousetrap. When the Greeks were besieging Troy and could not gain entry, they sent the Trojans the present of a great wooden horse, as if it was a token of good will. The Trojans opened their gates and took it in. But the horse was filled with Greeks who in the night broke out and dealt death and devastation to Troy. That exactly is dolos (GSN1388). It is crafty, cunning, deceitful, clever treachery.

Next on the list is wanton wickedness (aselgeia, GSN0766). The Greeks defined aselgeia (GSN0766) as “a disposition of soul that resents all discipline,” as “a spirit that acknowledges no restraints, dares whatsoever its caprice and wanton insolence may suggest.” The great characteristic of the man who is guilty of aselgeia (GSN0766) is that he is lost to decency and to shame. An evil man may hide his sin, but the man who has aselgeia (GSN0766) sins without a qualm and never hesitates to shock his fellow-men. Jezebel was the classic instance of aselgeia (GSN0766) when she build a heathen shrine in Jerusalem the Holy City.

Envy is literally the evil eye, the eye that looks on the success and happiness of another in such a way that it would cast an evil spell upon it if it could. The next word is blasphemia (GSN0988). When this is used of words against man, it means slander; when it is used of words against God, it means blasphemy. It means insulting man or God.

There follows pride (huperephania, GSN5243). The Greek word literally means “showing oneself above.” It describes the attitude of the man “who has a certain contempt for everyone except himself.” The interesting thing about this word, as the Greeks used it, is that it describes an attitude that may never become public. It may be that in his heart of hearts a man is always secretly comparing himself with others. He might even ape humility and yet in his heart be proud. Sometimes, of course, the pride is evident. The Greeks had a legend of this pride. They said that the Giants, the sons of Tartarus and GE, in their pride sought to storm heaven and were cast down by Hercules. That is huperephania (GSN5243). It is setting oneself up against God; it is “invading God’s prerogatives.” That is why it has been called “the peak of all the vices,” and why “God opposes the proud.” (Jas.4:6.)

Lastly comes folly (aphrosune, GSN0877). This does not mean the foolishness that is due to weakness of intellect and lack of brains; it means moral folly. It describes, not the man who is a brainless fool, but the man who chooses to play the fool.

It is a truly terrible list which Jesus cites of the things that come from the human heart. When we examine it a shudder surely passes over us. Nonetheless it is a summons, not to a fastidious shrinking from such things, but to an honest self-examination of our own hearts.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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