14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
(Mark 7:14-23 NIV)
We come to the end of this section about Jesus and the Pharisees’ confrontation about following God’s Law or the traditions of men. The Pharisees had taken Jesus to task about His disciples not performing the ceremonial hand washing before they ate.
Jesus has addressed the Pharisees’ hardness of heart and their hypocrisy by pointing out the conflict between God’s Law regarding the treatment of their parents (the fifth commandment) vs. their oral traditions which they placed above God’s Law and used as a means of getting around God’s Law.
In today’s passage, Jesus turns His attention from the Pharisees to teach the crowd gathered around them. Jesus teaches the crowd that it is not what goes into a person’s digestive system that defiles them, but what comes out of the heart and mind.
After Jesus had finished His teaching, Jesus’ disciples asked Him the meaning of the parable. Jesus scolds them for not understanding, then proceeds to explain the meaning. Jesus tells His disciples that sin is not an outward issue of what goes into our bodies, but rather, an inward issue of what comes out of us.
By moving the source of the problem (sin) from external (what we do) to internal (who we are), Jesus completely redefines the concept of “clean” and “unclean”. Not even Jesus’ disciples fully grasped the reality and depth of this statement until after His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
Note Mark’s parenthetical declaration in verse 19b. As Peter recalled these events and Mark recorded them, Peter was probably reliving his vision of the sheet coming down and the Lord telling him to “kill and eat” any of the “unclean” animals on the sheet (Acts 10:9-16 and Acts 11:2-18).
Jesus concludes this section by noting that sin comes not from the outside, but from deep within each person (including me and you). The list of sins that Jesus mentions is not inclusive. Jesus uses the list to demonstrate that evil comes from the inside, not the outside.
William Barclay provides a great summary:
“In effect Jesus was saying that things cannot be either unclean or clean in any real religious sense of the term. Only persons can be really defiled; and what defiles a person is his own actions, which are the product of his own heart. This was new doctrine and shatteringly new doctrine. The Jew had, and still has, a whole system of things which are clean and unclean. With one sweeping pronouncement Jesus declared the whole thing irrelevant and that uncleanness has nothing to do with what a man takes into his body but everything to do with what comes out of his heart.”
(William Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark, Revised Edition. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, p. 173).
Dear friend, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, may you remember that this sin condition is who we were before we yielded our life to Christ. Christ has not abolished or set aside God’s Law but fulfilled it on our behalf through His death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus sees us in our redeemed condition through what He did for us on the cross.
May Paul’s words be an encouragement to our hearts today:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
(Romans 8:1-2 NIV)
If you are a follower of Christ but feel overwhelmed by the outward “rules” that you feel you must follow to earn God’s love through performance, may you find your freedom, grace, and peace today.