We continue our every-Sunday-celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel. This week, the lectionary gifts us with an episode from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus deals with obstacles to an integrated community.
This episode resumes Mark’s polemic against the Pharisaic movement, begun in Mark 2:15, over the issue of the purity code as it defines the propriety of table fellowship…The issue at hand is maintenance of strict group boundaries, represented here by practices of ritual purity and dietary restriction. The Pharisees defend the purity code as fundamental to the ethnic and national identity of the people; Jesus repudiates these exclusivist definitions by attacking their ideological foundations…
Of particular interest is Mark’s mention of the marketplace (agora) in 6:56 and 7:4. This narrative site represents of course the economic sphere, and Mark later refers to it as the public site of scribal “piety” that oppresses the poor (Mark 12:38ff). The practice of “sprinkling” (hrantissontai) food would appear to refer to Pharisaic concern to guard against consuming produce that may have been rendered unclean at some stage of the production process (it had nothing to do with hygiene). Impurity could have been contracted in one of two ways: the farmer could have sown or harvested in violation of Sabbath or other regulations; or the fruits may have not undergone proper separation for tithes. We have already seen that Pharisaic control over production and distribution were touchy issues for Galilean peasants.
It is also noteworthy that here (unlike in 2:16) Mark twice emphasizes that the disciples are eating bread (tous artous). This is now emerging as a central motif, especially in light of the wilderness feeding of the Jews (6:37) and the disciples misunderstanding in 6:52. Mark here is making narrative preparation for the wilderness feeding of the gentiles, which continues, as we have seen, in the following story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (7:24). The Pharisaic objection to “unwashed hands” may in this case be an allusion to the fact that the disciples are assumed to be contaminated because they have already been eating with gentiles and sharing their unclean foods. This is confirmed by the fact that in 6:14ff Mark returns to the specific issue of kosher. The parable teaching is introduced in a manner meant to call to mind the first sermon: Jesus summons (proskalesamenos) the crowd (7:14 = 3:23), exhorts it to “listen and understand!” (7:15 = 4:2, 12), and finally explains the parable to the disciples in private, with a reproach (7:17 = 4:10-13b).