"It's not what goes into your body that defiles you;
you are defiled by what comes from your heart."
One of the many reasons I love Mark's account of Jesus' life is the way Mark depicts Jesus as confrontational. From the very beginning of Mark, Jesus comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In doing so, he confronts our tendency to make ourselves the king of our own little kingdom. He challenges our reality by confronting our misconceptions of who we are, and who we think God is.
One passage in which Jesus does this is in Mark 7:1-23. You see, going all the way back in the Old Testament, there is a big problem. Because humankind fell into sin, we cannot come into the presence of God unless we are clean (spotless, without blemish, blameless, without sin). In fact, this is a very big deal to God. That is why in Leviticus there are extensive rules about cleanliness and purity. That is why there was a day of atonement once a year, and the high priest who was to go before God and atone for the sins of the people had to spend a week preparing himself, washing himself, making sure he was clean.
This may seem odd, but think of it this way. When we go to meet an important person or have an important event, we also prepare for it. We will take a shower, get a haircut, put on make up, wear our nicest clothes, etc... The same goes for how we are supposed to approach God.
Imagine you own a house. It is perfectly white. It is painted white on the outside, the carpet is white, all the couches are white, the walls are white, the tables are white; everything is bright shining white. Now imagine a person covered in mud comes to your door and wants to come in. It's not going to happen. This is also a reality between us and God. This is why there were the Old Testament purity laws.
And this is where Mark 7 comes in. Jesus, interacting with the pharisees, confronts their misconceptions. In this passage, the Pharisees had a problem because Jesus' disciples weren't following the traditional purity laws. For example, they weren't washing their hands before they ate, they don't wash their cups and plates the proper way. For the pharisees, this was how we maintained our purity before God.
I love how Jesus challenges the Pharisees. He doesn't come at them attacking their zeal to be pure. Rather, he gets at the heart of the problem (literally and figuratively). Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says to them,
"These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as the commands from God" Mark 7:6-7
The problem was that the pharisees thought they could make themselves clean by their own actions. They thought they could be pure before God through religious acts. Jesus confronts this by stating the real problem. The real problem isn't that on the outside they are unclean or impure, it's that their hearts are jacked up. The real problem is a heart problem. The pharisees may have performed religious acts of cleanliness, but their hearts were filthy.
At this point, it's easy to point at the pharisees and jeer at their ignorance. However, we are not any different. We may not look to Old Testament laws to save face before God, but in some way, shape, form, or fashion, we are all trying to become clean before God. We all look to 'DO" something in order to make us right, to give us worth, or to give our existence significance.
And this is is where Jesus speaks to us. By confronting the Pharisees, Jesus is telling us that the thing that really makes us unclean is our heart. The problem isn't the externals as much as it is the internal. Further, this is a problem we ALL have. It isn't just the Pharisees. It is us! And as long as we are looking to "DO" something to fix it, it will never work. We could never possibly clean ourselves up enough to be perfectly pure before the eyes of God.
Back to the white house example (not the presidents home, but a house that is purely white). What Jesus is saying is that while we are standing outside the house that is sparkling white, we could never scrub hard enough to make ourselves worthy for entrance. It doesn't matter what we try to use (religion included), it won't work. What we need is a heart transplant from the inside out.
This is where the good news of the gospel comes in. When Jesus came to earth and died, he essentially came and lived the pure, clean life that we should have lived, and he died the death of someone who was impure. He did this is substitution for our uncleanliness. Further, because he was the only one who lived a truly pure life, he offers to us his very life. He sees us sitting outside the white house, scrubbing hard, and says to us, "That will never work. But receive me. I will make you clean from the inside out. I can get you on the VIP guest list into the white house." And with one touch, we are made clean. Further, he stays by our side, continuing to transform our hearts from those of stone, to those who desire to walk with and worship the living God.