Marcus J. Borg
In Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Trinity Press International, 1998: 111-13) Borg makes the following analysis of this saying:
... one of the consequences of the Pharisaic extension of priestly regulations to nonpriests was the insistence that hands be washed before even ordinary meals. At issue here, of course, was not hygiene but holiness. According to both Mark and Q (or Luke), Jesus and his disciples were charged with eating with unwashed hands. Both sources indicate deliberate nonobservance and give no reason to suggest that the behavior was necessitated by special circumstances.
To determine the response of Jesus to this accusation, the complexities of Mark 7:1-23 must serve as a point of departure. As it stands in Mark, it begins with the accusation regarding washing of hands and climaxes with v. 15:There is nothing outside of a person which by going into that person can defile;
but the things which come out of a person are what defile.
There is virtual unanimity among all schools of criticism that this saying is authentic. The major issue is the meaning of the saying. To what did it refer when Jesus spoke it? Since it was spoken to some concrete situation involving controversy with opponents, its primary thrust is to be determined by that controversy rather than in isolation.
In Mark, it has two different thrusts to two different audiences. in public (v. 14), it answered the Pharisaic charge that Jesus' disciples ate with unwashed hands. In private (vv. 17-23), to the disciples, it nullified the Mosaic laws on clean and unclean foods (Deut. 14:3-20; Lev. 11), most explicitly in v. 19b: "Thus he declared all foods clean."
That the second thrust is authentic is unlikely for several reasons. First, there is no indication elsewhere that this was an issue during the ministry. Indeed, had Jesus rejected the food laws of the Pentateuch, most likely an accusation to that effect would have been made and preserved, but no such accusation is reported. Though this is an argument from silence, it has some force since accusations about sabbath observance, washing of hands, eating with tax collectors and sinners, etc., do appear. Of greater weight is a second reason: the indecision of the early Jesus movement after Jesus' death over the continued validity of the Mosaic laws on forbidden foods is virtually inexplicable if Jesus had unambiguously rejected the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Moreover, v. 19b, which is responsible for directing the saying to the question of forbidden foods is in a section (vv. 17-23) commonly viewed as secondary ...
Two possibilities remain: it was addressed to a conflict which can no longer with certainty be identified, or it was directed to the issue of ritual purity of hands at meals. The first is certainly possible, though the second is more probable for two reasons. Concern about ritual purity of hands is a known controversy; and Luke independently of Mark reports a Q saying with similar content as a reply to the same accusation:
Luke 11:38-41: The Pharisee noticed with surprise that Jesus had not begun by washing before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate; but inside you there is nothing but greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside too? But cleanse those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you."
... Taken together, the accusations and replies reported by Mark and Luke lead to very important conclusions. First, the behavior against which the accusations were directed contravened an important aspect of the extension of priestly regulations to daily life: it denied the validity of one of the main requirements for membership in a Pharisaic havurah. Second, the warrant given for the contravention called into question and indeed negated the whole notion of how holiness was to be achieved. The equation between holiness and separation, qadosh and parush, was denied, for holiness had nothing to do with separation from the external sources of defilement ... Denying the equation of qadosh and parush constituted an eminently clear opposition to the main thrust of Pharisaic polity and indeed to much of the postexilic development of Judaism.
The historic meaning of the challenge can be refined by comparing it to two modern ways of stating the significance of Mark 7:15, both of which blunt the cultural and political edge of the controversy. Perrin and Kasemann, both of whom appreciate the radical nature of the saying, argue that here Jesus established the distinction between the sacred and the secular. Though this may finally be quite similar to what is argued above, putting the issue in the form, "Jesus denied the equation of holiness and separation," has the advantage of being cast in the form of a cultural question of the day. Its historical bite as a challenge to the Pharisaic program for Israel can be better appreciated. Its controversial setting is more seriously obscured by a second modern way of stating the point: Jesus replaces the concern about external rectitude with a concern about the inner spiritual health of the individual. Though this is a valid insight, it both generalizes and individualizes what was originally a specific challenge to a collective model of behavior for a society.
Here, then, in the behavior of Jesus and his disciples, we have a specific contravention of a necessary prerequisite for table fellowship as understood by the Pharisees, and of a major element in the program to make Israel a kingdom of priests. Moreover, the warrant which Jesus articulated for such nonobservance denied not only the necessity of ritual washing of hands, but also undercut the understanding of holiness as a separation upon which hinged Israel's course in the present and anticipation of the future.