The Smell Test: Studying Mark 7

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The smell test is the quickest way to investigate all kinds of things, from the onset of Alzheimer’s to the missing school lunch spoiling in the back of the van. When a child’s excuse or an adult’s explanation doesn’t quite smell right, we stop to check it out.

I remember when a smell got my attention. I had just finished cleaning the house and was walking through the hall to put the vacuum away when I caught a whiff of it. Phew!

Where was that smell coming from?! And how had I missed it?

My search narrowed to the linen closet. First, I started to empty shelves, spraying my strongest disinfectant and wiping out every surface as I went. Ceiling, walls, shelves, even the carpeted floor. But the smell was still there.

Next, I ran all the sheets and towels through the wash. I fluffed the pillows in the dryer with scented dryer sheets. However, the smell was still there.

Finally, my husband decided to remove the access panel and crawl under the house with a flashlight and face mask. He emerged twenty minutes later, triumphant. “It’s a rat. Yep, he’s dead, and getting stinkier by the day. I’ll get him out of there and things should freshen up quickly.”

Absolutely no amount of cleaning would have taken care of that problem!

Do You Smell a Rat?

We’re resuming our study of the Gospel of Mark after an Advent/Christmas/New Year break. Welcome back.

Because Mark 7 begins with a big shift in the conversation, we need to take a quick look back. From the parables and miracles of Mark 6 , we’ve turned to a debate about the finer matters of Torah. Who changed the subject? In contrast to the needy crowds, we’re faced with the self-satisfied leaders.

A delegation from the Pharisees have come to question Jesus. First, they take issue with his observance of rituals of purity. They’ve noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples aren’t washing their hands in conformity with Rabbinical practice before they eat.

As a result, the Pharisees think they smell a rat.

In their minds, it’s more than an obscure issue of washing hands.  They suspect Jesus is secretly blowing up their entire system of moral cleanliness.

Laws to Remove the Smell

Here’s some background from Dr. Kent Hughes to help us understand the issue they raise:

The Mishnah, a compilation of Jewish oral laws made at the end of the second century A.D., says, “Tradition is a fence around the law”…The biggest concern of the Mishnah was “cleannesses,” and much of the concern here was with ritual washing. This originally rose from the Biblical command that all priests must wash their hands (Exodus 30:19; 40:12). Though this was only a priestly requirement, all pious Jews began to do it about 200 years before Christ. By Jesus’ day, it was firmly entrenched as a requirement for those who wanted to be “clean.”

These oral laws were an addition to God’s law, intended to help people keep the Law of God. But instead, they ended up diverting people’s attention from the spirit of the law (true purity) to an obsession with the letter of the law (have I conformed externally?).

Feeling Unclean

What could these religious debates have to do with us, 21st century Americans? They seem utterly irrelevant.

But they’re not. “How can I feel clean again?”  isn’t just a religious question, it’s an everyday question for many of us. Picture with me:

  • a young woman hiding to binge on favorite foods, and then purging her shame by self-induced vomiting
  • the teenager hiding in her room to cut or abuse herself because she feels so alone
  • a wife who feels shamed by her husband’s demands
  • the mom whose temper has snapped, again, toward the child she has just shaken and slapped

We feel unclean whenever we break the law. Which law? Our own law–the unwritten rules of clean and unclean formed from past guilt. Or God’s law–the written catalogue of Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not revealed to show us his holiness.

The Smell of Grace

Who can deliver us from the stench of sin and shame?

That question is relevant to everyone of us. We want to be clean. We want to feel clean. This chapter will do two things. First, it will educate our conscience so that God’s “smell test” becomes the standard, replacing our own. Second, it will give us good news, first for ourselves, and also to pass along to others.

Here are the questions for the week:

Day 1: Context — Reread Mark 6:53-56 and read Mark 7:1-5.

  1. What was going on in Jesus ministry just before Mark 7?
  2. What did his “many wonders” indicate about the crowd? (compare Mark 6:5-6 to 6:56).
  3. Normally too busy to eat, what do you think Jesus and his disciples may have been discussing at this meal in Mark 7:1-5?
  4. What did the Pharisees choose to focus on? What does this focus reveal about them?

Day 2: Observation — Read Mark 7 as three scenes. Read Matthew 15:21-28.

  1. Who were the three audiences in scene 1 (7:1-23)? What audience occupies scene 2 (see Matthew 15:21-28 for more details)? Who in scene 3?
  2. What was the problem in each scene?
  3. What did Jesus say or do in each scene?
  4. Does anything surprise you in each scene? What?

Day 3: Meaning — Read Mark 7 as a single story with a main point.

  1. Describe the Pharisee’s hypocrisy. What was Jesus’ response to them?
  2. Consider the Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith. What was Jesus’ response to her?
  3. Describe the faith of the deaf man’s friends? How did Jesus respond to them?
  4. How do scenes 2 and 3 comment on scene 1?
  5. What do you think is the theme of this chapter?

Day 4: Application — Read Mark 7 as a personal word to you from God.

  1. First, what makes you feel dirty?
  2. Besides Jesus, what are you tempted to turn to for cleansing? Repent and believe. And rejoice!
  3. Finally, is there someone you know who needs this good news? Ask the Father to help you minister it to them with compassion and clarity.

I’m so glad Jesus knew exactly where the smell was coming from in my life. By his death, he forgave all my sins, removing their stench forever.

I could think about that for the rest of my life.

Find more Gospel of Mark posts here.