March 5, 2018
We are all moral people. It’s just that my morality differs from yours! Ethics is the language of translating between your morals and mine, and our subculture is tragically inarticulate about ethics, preferring righteous posturing in constructions of our morality as true and sane, and others as ignorant, stupid or crazy.
Mark’s Jesus takes the initiative in challenging his opponents, the religious Pharisees and scholars who have come up from Jerusalem to Galilee to confront him. He argues that they prefer their traditions and conventions to the commandment of God, an ethical distinction between his sources and authority and theirs. He cites Torah, and they rely upon oral Torah, emerging Talmudic law.
The first argument is about exemption and exception from obligations: instead of ‘honour your father and your mother’ (the 5th of 10 commandments, the hinge between the first set owed God, and the second tablet owed neighbours. The exemption permitted by the big city lawyers is akin to our charitable trusts - set aside for religious purposes, it is unavailable for personal dependants like indigent parents.
It reminds me of the old joke about the dying man smelling a batch of cookies fresh out of the oven, asking if he can have one, and being told ‘of course not – those are for the church reception after your funeral!’ The text is asking us to get under social norms to moral sources – is everybody just looking to interpret and bargain down their obligations and duties?
Next comes a related reflection on ‘defilement’. Mark’s Jesus makes an assertion in public to everybody – nothing outside a person that by going in can defile – the things that come out are what defile. Let that sit a moment. The religious rules of temple and priesthood rely upon justiciable standards, outward evidence of purity or defilement. Jesus is focused on the intention, more than the act. In our criminal law, the distinction is between mens rea, the intention, and actus reus, the prohibited action.
The second iteration is an explanation to the disciples again, who don’t get Jesus’ ethical point. First he’s disappointed that they don’t get it – and so are we. There’s an earthy bit of humour contrasting what comes in as food and what goes out in sewers: we consume stuff, digest it, and it fuels our living, and our fecal by-products!
There’s a tag line that ‘thus he declared all foods clean’. Is this Jesus, or the early church, or Mark or later editor that is cutting Jesus clear of keeping kosher? Don’t offer your Jewish friends bacon while quoting this! There are layers of irony here, in that the Pharisee party of Jesus’ generation are the crew mostly responsible for escaping the temple and Jerusalem in 70CE and obtaining permission from Vespasian to establish an academy in Jamnia, from which we get the Palestinian Talmud, citing sages in ethical discourse like Jesus’.
Finally there’s a catalogue of the defiling vicious things that come from within people: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, anger, pride, folly. These are the elements of actions with wrong intent, and wrong intent alone, by which various moral positions may be assessed ethically.
Whether it’s Jesus, church, Mark, or us – this is vulnerable to the polemics of dismissing others’ morality as ‘human rules’ or ‘religion’ while claiming for our own morality the weight of ‘divine law’ or ‘natural order’. In politics and journalism, they call that ‘spin’.
Then he said to them,
‘You have a fine way
of rejecting the commandment of God
in order to keep your tradition!
For Moses said,
“Honour your father and your mother”;
“Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.”
But you say that if anyone tells father or mother,
“Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban”
(that is, an offering to God)—
then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother,
thus making void the word of God
through your tradition that you have handed on.
And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them,
‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand:
there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,
but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house,
his disciples asked him about the parable.
He said to them,
‘Then do you also fail to understand?
Do you not see that
whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile,
since it enters, not the heart but the stomach,
and goes out into the sewer?’
(Thus he declared all foods clean.)
And he said,
‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles.
For it is from within, from the human heart,
that evil intentions come:
fornication, theft, murder, adultery,
avarice, wickedness, deceit,
anger, pride, folly.
All these evil things come from within,
and they defile a person.’