In recent Bible studies in Skagit County Jail and in our Tierra Nueva worshipping community I have been struck by Jesus’ unusual approach regarding substances, whether they be food, drink or drugs. In substance abuse and recovery circles (and vegan and other religious circles too) there is often intense scrutiny around what goes into the body—via stomach, lungs or veins. Jesus’ words to the crowd in Mark 7:14-16 are counter-cultural to twelve-step and religious communities.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand!” Jesus insists, inviting his audience to pay particular attention to what follows-- Jesus’ underlined and bold-faced message. But will we understand?
“There is nothing outside the person which can defile him/her if it goes into her/him; but the things which proceed out of the person are what defile the person” (7:16), states Jesus, followed by an emphatic “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.
At this point I define “defile” as “to make unclean.” I add that back in Jesus’ time most religious leaders considered someone becoming unclean through the contagion of direct contact with the dead, lepers, the disabled, blood and through eating certain foods prohibited by the Old Testament law, like pork. Being unclean was seen as keeping people from God’s presence, and from religiously “clean” people or places.
“What kinds of substances are viewed as making someone unclean today?” I ask.
People mention drugs and alcohol, and more specifically meth, heroine, and weed. Some also mention cigarettes. I bring up our local Skagit County District Court Drug Court, and ask what substances could show up in someone’s urine that would get them in trouble should a person under drug court supervision be suddenly subjected to a mandatory “UA” (urine analysis)?
People mention how the presence of THC, methamphetamines, opiates, and alcohol would make someone legally “not clean,” unleashing penalties including banishment from drug court and incarceration.
“So what exactly does Jesus say again about what makes someone not clean?” I ask, inviting someone to re-read the first half of Mark 7:16.
A man in the jail recovery program haltingly reads, “there is nothing outside the person which can defile him.”
“So what substances make us unclean according to Jesus?”
People seem almost afraid to admit the obvious—“nothing!” They give me confused smiles, wondering where this is going.
I remind people that Jesus has just introduced these words with a strong call to attention: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand!” So according to Jesus, it is really important that we get that we are not made unclean by external substances—even illegal ones.
“So if substances, including food, drink and drugs don’t make us unclean, what does?” I ask, inviting someone to read the second half of Mark 7:16.
“But the things which proceed out of the person are what defile the person,” someone reads.
Let’s see what those things might be?” I ask, inviting someone to read Mark 7:17-19. There Jesus’ answers his disciples’ question about the meaning of this in a frank and clear manner, really getting down on his people for being so narrow minded.
“Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” Thus he declared all foods clean.”
Before going further in interpreting this verse I remind people what I often hear from addicts about their drug use— they say they use because of the pain of traumas, and losses-- “heart wounds.” Others use because of regrets or guilt due to their misdeeds.
“So do drugs and alcohol heal those heart wounds or take away guilt and shame?” I ask.
People are emphatic about how substances do not heal, but only comfort, or numb-- permitting temporary and costly relief. I show them that Jesus is in full agreement with them. Drugs, alcohol and food do not penetrate the heart, but only go into our stomachs, lungs or veins. So according to Jesus they cannot make you unclean—because it is what comes out of the heart that makes you unclean. We read the next verses to see how Jesus invites still deeper analysis.
“That which proceeds out of the person, that is what defiles the person. “For from within, out of the heart of people, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the person.”
We talk about how substances do not make us unclean. Nor do they heal or in any way address all these evils mentioned. Rather they can remove inhibitions or weaken our wills, so we don’t hold back from acting on these destructive thoughts in our hearts. Men in jail admit that most are there for crimes committed under the influence.
“So how can our hearts be effectively healed? I ask, inviting people to turn to Psalm 51 for some ideas.
We use the remaining time to read through the Psalmist’s lines, identifying what he is doing and what we think about it.
We see that the offender King David, fresh from an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband Uriah, is not kept from God’s presence, but speaks to God asking for mercy.
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according to the greatness of your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin (51:1-2).
David’s concrete actions of asking God to show him grace and forgiveness, to wash him and make him clean are attractive as they are possible for people here and now.
This Psalm models confession of sin, repentance and turning to God in ways that inspire people when they know substance abuse, denial and running just get them into deeper trouble.
I suggest that the only remedy for healing the heart is God’s forgiveness applied directly when we acknowledge and renounce sin.
We read verse 6 about how God desires full-on transformation of our deepest selves, and people seem truly inspired.
“Behold, you desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part you will make me know wisdom.”
The Psalmist shows us the way forward, asking God to do what only God (not drugs, alcohol or religious striving) can accomplish, crying out:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
People are especially moved by the Psalmist’s strong words about God not wanting sacrifice but true contrition and deep change.
“For you do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Everyone is game to pray, and we take time to ask for God’s mercy, to confess and turn away from the sins the Spirit reveals, to ask for forgiveness, and to also forgive ourselves. I exercise my pastoral authority and declare all of our sins forgiven in Jesus’ name. There’s a palpable relief in the air, a feeling of lightness and even joy that comes in these times… and I’m ready to repeat this Bible study again and again.
Order Bob's new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus' Global Liberation Movement here.