The Revolution That Undefiled – August 29

A sermon based on Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 29, 2021

by Rev. Scott Elliott

As we heard in Jesus’ day some religious people got uptight about others not following the traditions they thought put people in the right holy condition before a meal. The story mentions meal washing traditions that sound a lot like what do nowadays before we eat.  But back then the nature of germs and hygienic washing concepts, as modern science has helped us understand them, were unknown.  So, it would be a mistake to hear the story to be about modern-day meal hygiene.   The rules at issue were about making the body holy– and they were religious rules developed by tradition, they’re not in the Bible.  The religious folks criticizing the disciples were pushing their physical holiness standard, and felt those who did not comply,  were profane and unclean– and basically named them as such.

When I looked at commentaries for this lesson I saw a claim that we don’t have physical holiness standards today, but that’s not been my experience.  As a pastor in another state, I actually had two church workers tell me they were chewed out by another patron at a restaurant for not praying before eating.  I’ve also heard stories about churches telling visitors to dress nicer before they come back to visit again. In the south I heard from parents about a church that would not baptize their child because they were a mixed-race couple.  Sadly, I have heard even more stories about churches telling visitors and members they cannot participate if they are LGBTQ+.  In this town just a few weeks after I arrived one Advent Sunday protesters marched outside claiming this church itself was unclean and profane for accepting LGBTQ+ folks as goodly and Godly made.

Twenty-first Century religious people can be uptight about traditions regarding physical holiness standards, insisting people can be physically unclean or profane, by not praying, by not dressing a certain way or tragically by just being the good way that God created them.  People are treated as profane and unclean for transgressions of religious traditions. It. Still. Happens.

In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles (10: 28), right there in the Bible,  there is an unequivocal command issued by God in Chapter 10 verse 28. The command was given to Peter that Christians “should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Before God issued that command to Peter Jesus had already put it another way to the religious folks in our lesson. They were chastising him for his followers’ failure to ritually purify themselves before eating.  They claimed the disciples and their food were defiled. They were naming the disciples profane and unclean. They considered Jesus and his unwashed-for-dinner friends unholy. To them the status of holiness was a matter of ritual compliance so the food they ingested would not defile them.  To be unholy was to be profane and unclean.

In fairness to the religious folks who confronted Jesus, up to that point, purity and holiness were thought to have come from rituals, on the outside. It was such a widespread and accepted tradition that some believe that Jesus’ words in verse 15 are “one of the most radical sayings in the teachings of Jesus.”

Professor Marcus Borg noted that the reason is it “radically redefines purity.” Dr. Borg pointed out that for Jesus:

“Purity is not about the observance of laws that separate a person from what is impure and unclean. Rather Jesus insists ‘There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.” Instead, it is ‘ the things that come out [of a person] that defile. What matters is ‘the inside or ‘the heart’ as Mark calls it [in verse 21 in the reading].” 1 (end quote)

Those radical words of Jesus are:  “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Confused by the radical idea the disciples asked for an explanation. That’s when Jesus made it clear that unholiness does not come from skipping rituals and rules. Evil intent in our actions is what  stains us, defiles us, makes us unholy.  Jesus explained it like this:

“‘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, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”

That’s how Jesus explains it– and at the time this was revolutionary. 2.  Apparently it still is today.

What we eat does not defile us. Whether we pray or not does not defile us. Whether we dress nice at church does not defile us. How God makes us does not defile us. In fact, the Bible tells us God has declared all of creation good. Which means how we are made – be it our skin color, gender, sexual orientation, age, or other physical make-up–  we are goodly, Godly made.  That includes all of humanity.

We ALL start off as holy beings.  What corrupts and defiles our holiness – the only things, according to Jesus– are what we choose to do, how we behave from our heart on the outside. What comes out of us matters. Where are heart is matters. What our heart intends matters. Evil intentions CAN come from the heart . . .  and when they do,  we defile our Holy state. That’s when unholiness happens.  It does not matter what holiness rituals or rules we follow, if our heart has evil intentions, those intentions are our unholiness.

In the lesson Jesus points out the duplicity of honoring God with our lips, but having our hearts far from God.  The things Jesus lists as evil-intent-in-the-heart all come out of actions that hurt others. It’s not an exhaustive list but covers a lot of ground.  He lists  “fornication, theft, murder,  adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’” Not one of those things has to do with failing to perform a ritual or having a certain belief. Not one of them has to do with whether we pray or not. Not one of them has to do with how a person is created by God.

If religious folks want to criticize Jesus Followers or others they ought to start with the list he provided. They ought to do an inventory on themselves first– not to reject one another but to stop defiling their own holiness. A Jesus put in Matthew (7:9) we need to “first take the log out of []our own eye, and then [we] will see clearly to take the speck out of []our neighbor’s eye.”  And we need to make sure it’s really a speck, and not confuse religious or physical or orientation differences with purity or impurity, profanity or holiness.  Because we are not to call anyone profane or unclean. As Jesus points out “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . .”

May we all keep our heartfelt intentions clear of evil and remain the Holy, goodly, Godly made creations that we are. And may we know that everyone else is a Holy, goodly, Godly made creation too . . . and act like it from our heart.  AMEN





  1. Borg, Marcus, Conversations with Scripture the Gospel of Mark, p 64-65
  2. Ibid at 65