Verses 1–23

One great design of Christ’s coming, was, to set aside the ceremonial law which God made, and to put an end to it; to make way for which he begins with the ceremonial law which men had made, and added to the law of God’s making, and discharges his disciples from the obligation of that; which here he doth fully, upon occasion of the offence which the Pharisees took at them for the violation of it. These Pharisees and scribes with whom he had this argument, are said to come from Jerusalem down to Galilee—fourscore or a hundred miles, to pick quarrels with our Saviour there, where they supposed him to have the greatest interest and reputation. Had they come so far to be taught by him, their zeal had been commendable; but to come so far to oppose him, and to check the progress of his gospel, was great wickedness. It should seem that the scribes and Pharisees at Jerusalem pretended not only to a pre-eminence above, but to an authority over, the country clergy, and therefore kept up their visitations and sent inquisitors among them, as they did to John when he appeared, John 1:19.

Now in this passage we may observe,

I. What the tradition of the elders was: by it all were enjoined to wash their hands before meat; a cleanly custom, and no harm in it; and yet as such to be over-nice in it discovers too great a care about the body, which is of the earth; but they placed religion in it, and would not leave it indifferent, as it was in its own nature; people were at their liberty to do it or not to do it; but they interposed their authority, and commanded all to do it upon pain of excommunication; this they kept up as a tradition of the elders. The Papists pretend to a zeal for the authority and antiquity of the church and its canons, and talk much of councils and fathers, when really it is nothing but a zeal for their own wealth, interest, and dominion, that governs them; and so it was with the Pharisees.

We have here an account of the practice of the Pharisees and all the Jews, Mark 7:3, 4. 1. They washed their hands oft; they washed them, pygme; the critics find a great deal of work about that word, some making it to denote the frequency of their washing (so we render it); others think it signifies the pains they took in washing their hands; they washed with great care, they washed their hands to their wrists (so some); they lifted up their hands when they were wet, that the water might run to their elbows. 2. They particularly washed before they ate bread; that is, before they sat down to a solemn meal; for that was the rule; they must be sure to wash before they ate the bread on which they begged a blessing. “Whosoever eats the bread over which they recite the benediction, Blessed be he that produceth bread, must wash his hands before and after,” or else he was thought to be defiled. 3. They took special care, when they came in from the markets, to wash their hands; from the judgment-halls, so some; it signifies any place of concourse where there were people of all sorts, and, it might be supposed, some heathen or Jews under a ceremonial pollution, by coming near to whom they thought themselves polluted; saying, Stand by thyself, come not near me, I am holier than thou, Isa. 65:5. They say, The rule of the rabbies was—That, if they washed their hands well in the morning, the first thing they did, it would serve for all day, provided they kept alone; but, if they went into company, they must not, at their return, either eat or pray till they had washed their hands; thus the elders gained a reputation among the people for sanctity, and thus they exercised and kept up an authority over their consciences. 4. They added to this the washing of cups, and pots, and brazen vessels, which they suspected had been made use of by heathens, or persons polluted; nay, and the very tables on which they ate their meat. There were many cases in which, by the law of Moses, washings were appointed; but they added to them, and enforced the observation of their own impositions as much as of God’s institutions.

II. What the practice of Christ’s disciples was; they knew what the law was, and the common usage; but they understood themselves so well that they would not be bound up by it: they ate bread with defiled, that is, with unwashen, hands, Mark 7:2. Eating with unwashen hands they called eating with defiled hands; thus men keep up their superstitious vanities by putting every thing into an ill name that contradicts them. The disciples knew (it is probable) that the Pharisees had their eye upon them, and yet they would not humour them by a compliance with their traditions, but took their liberty as at other times, and ate bread with unwashen hands; and herein their righteousness, however it might seem to come short, did really exceed, that of the scribes and Pharisees, Matt. 5:20.

III. The offence which the Pharisees took at this; They found fault (Mark 7:2); they censured them as profane, and men of a loose conversation, or rather as men that would not submit to the power of the church, to decree rites and ceremonies, and were therefore rebellious, factious, and schismatical. They brought a complaint against them to their Master, expecting that he should check them, and order them to conform; for they that are fond of their own inventions and impositions, are commonly ready to appeal to Christ, as if he should countenance them, and as if his authority must interpose for the enforcing of them, and the rebuking of those that do not comply with them. They do not ask, Why do not thy disciples do as we do? (Though that was what they meant, coveting to make themselves the standard.) But, Why do not they walk according to the tradition of the elders? Mark 7:5. To which it was easy to answer, that, by receiving the doctrine of Christ, they had more understanding than all their teachers, yea more than the ancients, Ps. 119:99, 100.

IV. Christ’s vindication of them; in which,

1. He argues with the Pharisees concerning the authority by which this ceremony was imposed; and they were the fittest to be discoursed with concerning that, who were the great sticklers for it: but this he did not speak of publicly to the multitude (as appears by his calling the people to him, Mark 7:14) lest he should have seemed to stir them up to faction and discontent at their governors; but addressed it as a reproof to the persons concerned: for the rule is, Suum cuique—Let every one have his own.

(1.) He reproves them for their hypocrisy in pretending to honour God, when really they had no such design in their religious observances (Mark 7:6, 7); They honour me with their lips, they pretend it is for the glory of God that they impose those things, to distinguish themselves from the heathen; but really their heart is far from God, and is governed by nothing but ambition and covetousness. They would be thought hereby to appropriate themselves as a holy people to the Lord their God, when really it is the furthest thing in their thought. They rested in the outside of all their religious exercises, and their hearts were not right with God in them, and this was worshipping God in vain; for neither was he pleased with such sham-devotions, nor were they profited by them.

(2.) He reproves them for placing religion in the inventions and injunctions of their elders and rulers; They taught for doctrines the traditions of men. When they should have been pressing upon people the great principles of religion, they were enforcing the canons of their church, and judged of people’s being Jews or no, according as they did, or did not, conform to them, without any consideration had, whether they lived in obedience to God’s laws or no. It was true, there were divers washings imposed by the law of Moses (Heb. 9:10), which were intended to signify that inward purification of the heart from worldly fleshly lusts, which God requires as absolutely necessary to our communion with him; but, instead of providing the substance, they presumptuously added to the ceremony, and were very nice in washing pots and cups; and observe, he adds, Many other such like things ye do, Mark 7:8. Note, Superstition is an endless thing. If one human invention and institution be admitted, though seemingly ever so innocent, as this of washing hands, behold, a troop comes, a door is opened for many other such things.

(3.) He reproves them for laying aside the commandment of God, and overlooking that, not urging that in their preaching, and in their discipline conniving at the violation of that, as if that were no longer of force, Mark 7:8. Note, It is the mischief of impositions, that too often they who are zealous for them, have little zeal for the essential duties of religion, but can contentedly see them laid aside. Nay, they rejected the commandment of God, Mark 7:9. He do fairly disannul and abolish the commandment of God; and even by your traditions make the word of God of no effect, Mark 7:13. God’s statutes shall not only lie forgotten, as antiquated obsolete laws, but they shall, in effect, stand repealed, that their traditions may take place. They were entrusted to expound the law, and to enforce it; and, under pretence of using that power, they violated the law, and dissolved the bonds of it; destroying the text with the comment.

This he gives them a particular instance of, and a flagrant one—God commanded children to honour their parents, not only by the law of Moses, but, antecedent to that, by the law of nature; and whoso revileth, or speaketh evil of, father or mother, let him die the death, Mark 7:10. Hence it is easy to infer, that it is the duty of children, if their parents be poor, to relieve them, according to their ability; and if those children are worthy to die, that curse their parents, much more those that starve them. But if a man will but conform himself in all points to the tradition of the elders, they will find him out an expedient by which he may be discharged from this obligation, Mark 7:11. If his parents be in want and he has wherewithal to help them, but has no mind to do it, let him swear by the Corban, that is, by the gold of the temple, and the gift upon the altar, that his parents shall not be profited by him, that he will not relieve them; and, if they ask any thing of him, let him tell them this, and it is enough; as if by the obligation of this wicked vow he had discharged himself from the obligation of God’s holy law; thus Dr. Hammond understands it: and it is said to be an ancient canon of the rabbin, That vows take place in things commanded by the law, as well as in things indifferent; so that, if a man make a vow which cannot be ratified without breaking a commandment, the vow must be ratified, and the commandment violated; so Dr. Whitby. Such doctrine as this the Papists teach, discharging children from all obligation to their parents by their monastic vows, and their entrance into religion, as they call it. He concludes, Any many such like things do ye. Where will men stop, when once they have made the word of God give way to their tradition? These eager imposers of such ceremonies, at first only made light of God’s commandments in comparison with their traditions, but afterward made void God’s commandments, if they stood in competition with them. All this, in effect, Isaiah prophesied of them; what he said of the hypocrites of his own day, was applicable to the scribes and Pharisees, Mark 7:6. Note, When we see, and complain of, the wickedness of the present times, yet we do not enquire wisely of that matter, if we say that all the former days were better than these, Eccl. 7:10. The worst of hypocrites and evil doers have had their predecessors.

2. He instructs the people concerning the principles upon which this ceremony was grounded. It was requisite that this part of his discourse should be public, for it related to daily practice, and was designed to rectify a great mistake which the people were led into by their elders; he therefore called the people unto him (Mark 7:14), and bid them hear and understand. Note, It is not enough for the common people to hear, but they must understand what they hear. When Christ would run down the tradition of the Pharisees about washing before meat, he strikes at the opinion which was the root of it. Note, Corrupt customs are best cured by rectifying corrupt notions.

Now that which he goes about to set them right in, is, what the pollution is, which we are in danger of being damaged by, Mark 7:15. (1.) Not by the meat we eat, though it be eaten with unwashen hands; that is but from without, and goes through a man. But, (2.) It is by the breaking out of the corruption that is in our hearts; the mind and conscience are defiled, guilt is contracted, and we become odious in the sight of God by that which comes out of us; our wicked thoughts and affections, words and actions, these defile us, and these only. Our care must therefore be, to wash our heart from wickedness.

3. He gives his disciples, in private, an explication of the instructions he gave the people. They asked him, when they had him by himself, concerning the parable (Mark 7:17); for to them, it seems, it was a parable. Now, in answer to their enquiry, (1.) He reproves their dulness; “Are ye so without understanding also? Are ye dull also, as dull as the people that cannot understand, as dull as the Pharisees that will not? Are ye so dull?” He doth not expect they should understand every thing; “But are ye so weak as not to understand this?” (2.) He explains this truth to them, that they might perceive it, and then they would believe it, for it carried its own evidence along with it. Some truths prove themselves, if they be but rightly explained and apprehended. If we understand the spiritual nature of God and of his law, and what it is that is offensive to him, and disfits us for communion with him, we shall soon perceive, [1.] That that which we eat and drink cannot defile us, so as to call for any religious washing; it goes into the stomach, and passes the several digestions and secretions that nature has appointed, and what there may be in it that is defiling is voided and gone; meats for the belly, and the belly for meats, but God shall destroy both it and them. But, [2.] It is that which comes out from the heart, the corrupt heart, that defiles us. As by the ceremonial law, whatsoever (almost) comes out of a man, defiles him (Lev. 15:2; Deut. 23:13), so what comes out from the mind of a man is that which defiles him before God, and calls for a religious washing (Mark 7:21); From within, out of the heart of men, which they boast of the goodness of, and think is the best part of them, thence that which defiles proceeds, thence comes all the mischief. As a corrupt fountain sends forth corrupt streams, so doth a corrupt heart send forth corrupt reasonings, corrupt appetites and passions, and all those wicked words and actions which are produced by them. Divers particulars are specified, as in Matthew; we had one there, which is not here, and that is, false witness-bearing; but seven are mentioned here, to be added to those we had there. First, Covetousnesses, for it is plural; pleonexiaiimmoderate desires of more of the wealth of the world, and the gratifications of sense, and still more, still crying, Give, give. Hence we read of a heart exercised with covetous practices, 2 Pet. 2:14. Secondly, Wickednessponeriai; malice, hatred, and ill-will, a desire to do mischief, and a delight in mischief done. Thirdly, Deceit; which is wickedness covered and disguised, that it may be the more securely and effectually committed. Fourthly, Lasciviousness; that filthiness and foolish talking which the apostle condemns; the eye full of adultery, and all wanton dalliances. Fifthly, The evil eye; the envious eye, and the covetous eye, grudging others the good we give them, or do for them (Prov. 23:6), or grieving at the good they do or enjoy. Sixthly, Pridehyperephania; exalting ourselves in our own conceit above others, and looking down with scorn and contempt upon others. Seventhly, Foolishnessaphrosyne; imprudence, inconsideration; some understand it especially of vainglorious boasting, which St. Paul calls foolishness (2 Cor. 11:1, 19), because it is here joined with pride; I rather take it for that rashness in speaking and acting, which is the cause of so much evil. Ill-thinking is put first, as that which is the spring of all our commissions, and unthinking put last, as that which is the spring of all our omissions. Of all these he concludes (Mark 7:23), 1. That they come from within, from the corrupt nature, the carnal mind, the evil treasure in the heart; justly is it said, that the inward part is very wickedness, it must needs be so, when all this comes from within. 2. That they defile the man; they render a man unfit for communion with God, they bring a stain upon the conscience; and, if not mortified and rooted out, will shut men out of the new Jerusalem, into which no unclean thing shall enter.