“When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, ‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?’ He responded, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.’ He summoned the crowd again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“’From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.’” Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Saint Mark here reports Jesus’ teaching on moral conduct as delivered in three contexts – exchanges with Pharisees who have come from Jerusalem (vv. 1-13), subsequent teaching given to the crowd (vv. 14-15), and (as happens very frequently: see 4:10-20, 34; 9:28-29) private explanations to his disciples (vv. 17-23).
The scribes from Jerusalem charge Jesus with being responsible for his disciples’ behavior – their neglect of purification rites (v. 5). Conscious that some of his readers will not be familiar with Jewish customs, Saint Mark explains why the Pharisees take issue with Jesus on this point (vv. 3-5).
The Old Law (see Ex 30:17ff) contained certain rules defining the moral purity expected of people when they approached God; Jewish tradition extended those rules to other areas (including diet) in order to give religious significance to everyday actions. However, in Jesus’ time, in some places (probably including those lived in by the scribes mentioned here), rabbinical casuistry had led to the accretion of so many rules that people lost sight of what true worship of God meant. Jesus denounces this trend (he uses Isaiah 29:13 to make his point), and he gives an instance where human tradition has become an excuse for shirking a divine command (vv. 8-13).
Jesus then tells the people what true purity involves. He shows that the source of all defilement is to be found in the human heart: “Some believe that evil thoughts are inspired wholly by the devil and that the human will cannot be held responsible for them. It is true that the devil can inspire and encourage evil thoughts, but he is not their origin” (Saint Bede, In Marci Evangelium, 2, 7, 20-21). See also the note of Mt 15:1-20.
His disciples then ask him to explain “the parable” (v. 17). His main point is made not (v.19): as the true interpreter of the Law, and as its lord (see 2:28), Christ declares all foods to be “clean.” There is profound teaching here: the source of evil and sin should not be assigned to created things, for when God made the world, he saw that all things were good (Gen 1:31): it lies in the heart of man which, after original sin, was changed for the worse and became subject to the corruption of the passions. He does not mean that man cannot cope with temptation (See Gen 4:7), but that it is more difficult now for him to do so (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1707 and also the RSV note a).