Jesus is not acting very Jewish in Mark 7! The Pharisees and teachers of the law come down from Jerusalem on a “fact-finding” mission (Wessel and Strauss). They are keeping their eyes on Jesus and are quick to point out any error or inconsistencies in His teachings. They think they have found something significant in regard to His disciples’ failure to practice ritual hand washing.
Coming out of a pandemic, we’re prone to side with them, aren’t we? Therefore, it’s important to understand these washings weren’t about hygiene, but holiness (i.e., their perception of it). They weren’t about cleansing your hands from dirt and grime, but from contact you might have had with a Gentile or a Samaritan. They even washed their cups, pitchers, and kettles (v. 4).
Their thinking fell along the lines that these washings would keep them from being contaminated and unholy in God’s presence. They weren’t commanded in the law to do this, it was part of “the tradition of the elders” (v. 5). And as you can see from this text and others, they pursued these traditions vigorously and took great offense at anyone who did not.
When they question Jesus about this, He first points to their heart disease in choosing to place their traditions above God’s commands (v. 6-13). Then He “called the crowd to Him” (v. 14) and explained how the real source of impurity and defilement isn’t what goes into us (i.e., food contaminated by being eaten with unwashed hands), but what comes out of our unclean hearts (v. 20-23). In other words, the problem isn’t external, but internal.
By saying this, He was laying the basis for the removal of the Jewish dietary restrictions which divided food into unclean and clean categories and was part of what divided the Jews from the Gentiles. That is why Mark, writing to a non-Jewish audience after the old covenant has been replaced by the new, will say, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (v. 19). This would all be important to Mark’s audience (presumably disciples at Rome) and syncs with the section of Paul’s letter to Rome where he discusses these matters (Romans 14-15).
Furthermore, Mark recording these things sets the stage for Jesus’ interaction with the Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia (v. 24-30). Although she is a Gentile, she has amazing faith as well as great insight into the kingdom of God. Her reply to Jesus about eating the children’s crumbs prefigures the Gentiles’ entrance into the kingdom. In hindsight, its next to impossible to read this chapter without seeing it as a grand forecast of things to come.