There are so many teachings of Jesus that turned the conventional wisdom of his religious tradition—and sometimes his culture—upside down. It’s sometimes hard for us to understand just how revolutionary his pronouncements were, because they have been transformed from “radical statements” to “accepted doctrine” over the course of two thousand years.
Take, for example, Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7:14–23. Here, Jesus basically says that purity isn’t determined by the food that goes into your body, but the words that come out of your mouth.
The Jewish purity codes were a big deal—and big business—in Jesus’ time. The underlying idea was this: In order to be in right relationship with God, people had to follow the various rules and regulations set down in the Torah (Hebrew Scripture), which clearly delineated what could be eaten and how it should be prepared. This had spawned an entire class of people who regulated foods and their preparation—something that continues to the present day (modern American Kosher certification has moved from being a function of the synagogue to being big business, with over three hundred kosher-certifying agencies).
In Jesus’ time, only people who were “pure” could enter the temple and perform religious rituals, for example, so there were real-life consequences to remaining in an impure state. But Jesus says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
For starters, this statement is so revolutionary that his disciples don’t get it. They have to ask him for clarification after the day’s sermon is over. I can imagine them, pulling him aside as he enters the house, saying, “Jesus, what did you mean by that?” This teaching was so far beyond conventional wisdom that they couldn’t wrap their minds around it.
Jesus then explains the underlying truth of his words. He wants his followers—including those disciples—to think of purity as a matter of the heart. He cares about motivation. He cares about right relationship. He cares about how we speak with each other. He believes that our words reveal the state of our souls.
This is not a simple, black-and-white differentiation. In other places, Jesus clearly teaches that how we act is more important than what we say. (In Matthew 21:28–31, for example, he tells a story about one son who says he will obey the father, but doesn’t, while the other initially says he won’t, but changes his mind and does.) Rather, this is about a deeper understanding of our covenant with God being about right relationship with God.
Jesus clearly doesn’t think that the religious leaders of his time are living this way. Earlier in Mark 7, Jesus lectures the Pharisees about using some of those religious rules and regulations to avoid following others—not unlike people today who use certain parts of the tax code to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. I can imagine Jesus being just as angry at today’s tax dodgers as he was at the Pharisees—for not being in right relationship with those around them.
I look forward to exploring teachings like these from the perspective of those who heard Jesus speak. Perhaps I might even take the perspective of a Pharisee…! Which of Jesus’ teachings are the most challenging or revolutionary for you? What teachings would you like me to address in my online retreat series on The Ministry of Jesus through the Eyes of Others?