In an honor-based culture, conflict is unavoidable. All males must engage either in public display of honor or in challenges to the honor claims of others.
The Pharisees and their scholars (“scribes”) routinely spy on Jesus and his disciples in order to challenge their growing honorable reputation. In this reading, they challenge Jesus’ disciples’ failure to observe “The Great Tradition.”
The “tradition of the elders” (Mk 7:5) is described by modern anthropologists as “The Great Tradition,” that is, a set of practices defined, maintained, and practiced by elites who lived in the cities. The Pharisees required that everyone observe this urban tradition.
Peasants in the countryside, or itinerants like Jesus and his followers, would have difficulty observing this tradition. Water was scarce and/or not readily available for ablutions, and fishermen routinely came into contact with dead fish, dead animals, and other pollutants.
Peasants therefore developed “The Little Tradition” which adapted requirements of “The Great Tradition” to the realities and deficiencies of peasant life. Jesus the artisan not only sided with “The Little Tradition” but hurled a counterchallenge to the Pharisees for minimizing and ignoring the Law of Moses in preference for their “Great Tradition” (Mk 7:9-13).
The process we can observe in today’s reading is technically called “challenge and riposte.” Few questions in the Mediterranean world are innocuous. Every question is a challenge, if for no other reason than that the addressee might not know the answer and be shamed or forced to lie.
The question the Pharisees direct to Jesus concerns the way in which his disciples eat: they do not ritually purify their hands (wash) before eating (Mk 7:5).
Jesus’ response here is typical of his every response to a challenge. He invariably replies with an insult. In this instance he calls the Pharisees “hypocrites.”
The Greek word hypokrites means “actor.” An appropriate way to render Jesus’ insult in English would be: “You actors! Scripture may be the lines you quote, but is it not the script by which you live.”
Then Jesus typically quotes or refers to Scripture. Here he quotes Isaiah 29:13 against his opponents. It was an especially honorable skill for a male to be able to draw creatively upon tradition in the heat of conflict or a discussion.
The Pharisees hoped to shame Jesus, but Jesus shames them instead by insulting them, quoting Scripture creatively, and hurling a counterchallenge: they value their human tradition much more than the Torah, the Law of Moses.
Next Jesus changes the topic, a strategy he frequently uses in conflict situations. The Pharisees asked about “the way” the disciples ate (with ritually defiled hands). Jesus changes the topic to “what” disciples might eat, that is, defiling and nondefiling foods (Mk 7:15).
At this point in the story, the architects of the Lectionary have manipulated the Gospel text and changed the evangelist’s setting. According to Mark, Jesus’ statement about defiling and nondefiling foods is a “parable.” He meant what he said but also intended something other and something more.
In Mark, the further explanation is given to the disciples and not to the crowd. For some reason, today’s Lectionary reading passes over an element of secrecy which characterizes both Mark’s Gospel and Mediterranean society in general. Unlike the United States, in the Mediterranean world no one has “the right to know” anything. It’s simply none of your business.
Americans are dismayed by Jesus’ preference for confrontation and conflict rather than dialogue and his reliance upon insult instead of tact and diplomacy. By changing the topic of the conflict, Jesus manipulates the situation to his advantage. Does Jesus present a good model to imitate? How might a believer rewrite this scene to fit American values?