Jesus and Food Regulations

Food 2 - Photo by Somi Jaiswal on Unsplash
 – In his response to criticism from the Pharisees, Jesus overturned the logic behind religious-based dietary restrictions - Mark 7:20-23. - [
Photo by Somi Jaiswal on Unsplash].

On one occasion, Jesus came into conflict with certain Jews from Jerusalem about eating food with unwashed hands. Their sect believed that doing so rendered a person “common” or “unclean,” - ritually impure.  In contrast, the pronouncement of Jesus in response to the Pharisees continues to undermine the religious logic behind such food laws - (Matthew 15:1-20, Mark 7:1-23).

The “Pharisees and Scribes” objected to the disciples for “eating with unwashed hands,” and confronted Jesus about the matter. In their minds, his disciples had rendered themselves ceremonially unclean.

The Jews from Jerusalem raised two issues - First, the disciples were not “walking” according to the “traditions of the elders.”  Second, they were eating with “unwashed hands”:
  • (Mark 7:1-5) - “And the Pharisees and certain of the Scribes who have come from Jerusalem gathered themselves together to him; and observing certain of his disciples that ate with defiled hands, for the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless with care they wash their hands, eat not, holding fast the tradition of the elders; and coming from market, unless they sprinkle themselves they eat not, and many other things there are which they have accepted to hold fast, immersions of cups and measures and copper vessels, and so the Pharisees and the Scribes questioned him, For what cause do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but with defiled hands eat bread?
Rather than cite a passage from the Mosaic Law, the Pharisees and Scribes complained the disciples were violating the “tradition of the elders.” Some groups in Second Temple Judaism had developed a comprehensive system of oral traditions, many of which concerned ritual purity. But the law did not require what the opponents of Jesus were demanding.

Priests were commanded by Moses to wash before entering the Tabernacle. For a common Israelite, the washing of hands was necessary only if he or she had touched a bodily discharge - (Exodus 30:19, 40:13, Leviticus 22:1-6, Leviticus 15:11).

Previously, Jesus had pushed the boundaries of Pharisaic scruples over ritual purity when he had contact with lepers, tax collectors, Gentiles, a menstruating woman, and corpses. Here, he pushed their rules to the breaking point by claiming that it was not food that defiled a person.

Christ rejected the “tradition” or halakah of the elders when he responded - “Wherefore do you also transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition,” then he cited a passage from Isaiah and accused his opponents of hypocrisy. Jesus provided a real-life example of how their traditions nullified the commandments and evaded the Law’s intent.
  • (Isaiah 29:13-14) – “Wherefore My Lord said, Because this people has drawn near with their mouth, and with their lips have honored me, but their heart have they moved far from me, and so their reverence of me has become a commandment of men in which they have been schooled; therefore, behold me, again dealing wonderfully with this people, doing wonderfully a wonderful thing. So shall perish the wisdom of their wise men, and the intelligence of their intelligent men shall vanish!
The custom of ‘Corban’ was a practice that enabled a man to earmark property as a gift to God for redemption later. In the interim, the man was free to do as he wished with his property, including denying access to it to his parents. In this way, he would deprive them of financial support.  This violated the Law’s intention for Israelites to “honor their fathers and mothers” - (Exodus 20:12).

Jesus appeared to reaffirm the eternal validity and immutability of the letter of the law, but he went beyond it by getting to the heart of the matter. He declared - “Not that which enters into the mouth defiles the man, but that which proceeds out of the mouth, the same defiles the man.” Later, he explained this saying to his disciples:
  • (Mark 7:20-23) - “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”
It is not food that renders a man unfit for service to God, but sinful acts and self-serving motives. Thus, the words of Jesus undermine the religious rationale behind food restrictions, including the regulations from Leviticus that governed “clean” and “unclean” meats.  Effectively, he removed the religious logic for dietary restrictions.



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