Throughout his ministry, we have seen Jesus again and again defying convention in regard to ritual cleanliness and purity. This is especially true in view of his healings. The leper, the woman with the bleeding issue, and the daughter of Jairus who passes away, all of whom are considered ritually unclean, are healed with a touch. Of these, the contact with the leper and Jairus’ daughter were initiated by Jesus himself. In the case of the woman with the bleeding issue, she initiates the contact, but note that she is not rebuked by Jesus for doing so. David Garland remarks, “Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ connection with what is unclean does not render him unclean. Quite the reverse, Jesus purges the impurity.” (David Garland, Mark: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], p. 225) In this, we see the power of Jesus to cleanse without fear of contamination.
In today’s passage we see this theme revisited in a different way. Rather than simply ignoring convention himself by touching untouchables, he redefines purity for everyone else! This is seen in the account of his confrontation with the Pharisees over food laws. The idea being challenged is that eating food designated unclean would render the eater unclean as well. Jesus proposes quite the opposite in arguing, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” Here, he completely turns the tables. Cleanliness is not an issue of avoiding contact with unclean things. Instead, it is an internal issue. In this, we are invited to consider what is “coming out” of us (see Mark 7:20-23). Is it pure or less so? As we consider this, we can be heartened by God’s transforming grace and pray that we might be cleaned from the inside out. And we should of course live in accordance with this prayer by seeking purity in practical ways as well.
Note also that after this scene, Jesus once again challenges sensibilities in this area as he ministers to Gentiles. Garland is again helpful in explaining, “Most Jews in the first century shared without question the prejudice that Gentiles defiled by touch, just like a person with a flux. They regarded their uncleanness as something innate…” (Garland, 288) We now see Jesus in the difficult account of the Syrophonecian woman and then healing a deaf and mute man form the Decapolis, which represents Gentile territory. In the next story, Jesus feeds four thousand, probably in the same region. All of this stands as ministry to “unclean” Gentiles. The issue of uncleanness has ballooned from individuals to an entire swath of people, and we see Jesus once again not shrinking back but engaging these people as well. Jesus is not deterred by prejudice but instead models a radical inclusivity. In the realm of purity and cleanness, we hear Jesus pointing us to self-examination rather than avoidance and challenging us to radical inclusivity. May we heed him well.