Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
If you’re the father or mother of a teenager, then you’ve probably had to face the implications of this verse. When children are younger, you can develop a whole system of rules to keep them in line. Often, this helps give them the structure they need to develop and learn right from wrong. By the time they’re teenagers, however, they chafe against these rules. What’s sad is that sometimes parents respond by clamping down even harder, binding their children with rule upon rule to keep them under control. The parents’ intentions are good; they want to keep their children safe from harmful external influences. But they don’t realize that the problem is not something outside of their children but something inside their children’s hearts.
Jesus has just finished lambasting the Pharisees for supplementing God’s law about keeping ceremonially clean with their own man-made rules for washing before eating. He’s told them that when we make our own laws like this, we’re setting ourselves up as moral lawgivers, which is God’s place, not ours. Not only that, but we’re trying to dethrone God by pushing his rules aside to make room for our own. Replacing God’s law with human tradition is an act of insurrection against God. Ironically enough, the usual culprits of this crime are religious people. They think they’re worshiping God by supplementing his law with their own, proving their great dedication to him, but in reality they are hypocrites. They’re actors; they’re worshiping themselves and their tradition rather than God.
Now Jesus delivers the coup de grace. Not only are such legalists replacing God’s law with they’re own, they’re also making a fundamental mistake about the purpose of the law. Jesus gathers a crowd together to hear a short message. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” he says. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Now, apparently this “parable” wasn’t clear enough for his disciples, because they approach him afterward to ask about it. Jesus gets a little frustrated here and exclaims, “Then are you also without understanding?” His disciples may not be inventing their own laws like the Pharisees are doing, but they’re still thinking about the purpose of God’s law in the same way as the Pharisees.
Jesus explains that food can’t make a person ceremonially unclean, since it simply passes through the body and is expelled. It doesn’t affect the core of who a person is—the heart. So Mark observes, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This is very significant, because Jesus isn’t just condemning the Pharisees’ man-made laws. He’s also canceling the ceremonial regulations in the law of Moses that identified many foods as unclean. Jesus is nullifying the law, exactly as the Pharisees just did! How can he not be a hypocrite as well? The only way he can declare that all foods are clean is if he has divine authority, as the Author of the law, to rewrite it. If this comes as a surprise to you, you obviously haven’t been paying attention as we’ve been working our way through Mark’s gospel!
After this, Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” He lists a litany of wicked attitudes and behaviors—sexual sins, violent sins, sins of speech, sinful habits of thinking. He says that these sins come “from within, out of the heart of man.” And when they do, they defile the person who commits them.
The Pharisees thought that the primary problem was outside of a person. They believed that if you could put him or her in the right environment, free from evil influences, then he or she would turn out a good person. All you need is to separate people from the corrupt Greco-Roman culture. To the Pharisees, the law was a tool to make people holy. And apparently, the disciples bought into that way of thinking, because Jesus’ perspective is completely foreign to them.
We can’t come down too hard on the disciples. From birth, we’re raised to think just like Pharisees. We’re told that people are basically good deep down, and that if children are raised in the right environment and surrounded by the right people and given the right education, then they’ll turn out okay. And of course, these things do help. However, they don’t change the reality that the human heart is a fountain of evil desires. Our culture’s presuppositions are wrong: people are corrupt and depraved, down to the very core of their being. Trying to make people holy by tying them down with rules—even God’s law!—just won’t work. The cancer is within us; it’s genetic, and we can’t cure it. Our own good behavior won’t help. There is no hope.
We’ve seen that Jesus is the only one who knows how to interpret and use God’s law with wisdom. He knows that the law is a reflection of God’s character. It tells us who he is—that he is holy—and it commands us to be like him (Leviticus 19:2). And Jesus knows that this is a lost cause; we can’t do it.
If there’s any possible way to be accepted by God, that way is going to have to be through Jesus. It’s obvious that he is a singular piercing light in a dark and hopeless world. If there’s any way out of our slavery to sin, it will have to come through the gospel—the good news that Jesus brings.
Run, John, run, the law commands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands;
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.