Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark gives the disciples a pretty hard time, portraying them – in contrast to Luke, for instance – as pretty dim, never quite picking up on what Jesus is trying to get across. But whatever other reasons Mark may have had for doing this, he uses those slow-witted disciples to provide an excellent excuse for Jesus to explain his teaching for the rest of us.
In this case, though Jesus is in the middle of disagreements with the Pharisees, he turns his attention suddenly and far more broadly to the question of evil. And note the source – it is certainly not the Pharisees, or strict adherence to (or ignorance of) the law, or unclean spirits. No, it is the human heart.
How does Jesus get here? Well, in the controversy over clean and unclean foods, Jesus says that finally it is not what goes into us that makes us impure or unclean, because whatever goes in will eventually come out. Rather, it is what is already inside of us – in, that is, our hearts – that makes us unclean. And, indeed, from our hearts and out of our mouths comes all kinds of harmful things.
Two things to be clear about: 1) Jesus isn’t saying that the only thing that comes from our hearts is evil, so let’s not jump from this verse too quickly to conclusions about the wickedness or total depravity of humanity. We are still God’s good, if also fallen, creatures. 2) Whatever disagreements Jesus had with the Pharisees, when he makes his sharpest pronouncement he speaks not of them but of humanity – that is, all of us.
We need to be saved, that is, not from our opponents or adversaries, much less from those who simply disagree with us or believe differently than we do. Rather, we need to be saved from ourselves. For deep in the human heart rests sources of great good and great evil, caught in an endless and ultimately hopeless struggle. For as history and our own experience has pointed out too many times to count, left to our own devices and bereft of the Spirit of God, we will eventually and inevitably achieve only our own ruin.
And so the prayer of the ancient church rings true as it comes down to us even today: Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus, and save us from ourselves.
Prayer: Dear God, keep us from accusing others and excusing ourselves; keep us from pointing out the faults of others while passing over our own; keep us from blaming others and ignoring our own deep need. For you love and came for all of us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.