The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary & meditation 
 "What proceeds from the heart defiles a man"

Scripture: Matthew 15:1-20

1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat." 3 He answered them, "And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, `Honor your father and your mother,' and, `He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.' 5 But you say, `If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.' 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 `This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'"

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: 11 not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" 13 He answered, "Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit." 15 But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us." 16 And he said, "Are you also still without understanding?17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."

Meditation: What makes a person unclean or unfit to offer God acceptable worship?  The Jews went to great pains to ensure that their worship would conform to the instructions which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. God's call to his people was a call to holiness: "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2).  In their zeal for holiness many elders developed elaborate traditions which became a burden for the people to carry out in their everyday lives. The Scribes and Pharisees were upset with Jesus because he allowed his disciples to break with their ritual traditions by eating with unclean hands.  They sent a delegation all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to bring their accusation in a face-to-face confrontation with Jesus. Jesus dealt with their accusation by going to the heart of the matter -- by looking at God's intention and purpose for the commandments. Jesus gave an example of how their use of ritual tradition excused them from fulfilling the commandment to honor one's father and mother.  If someone wanted to avoid the duty of financially providing for their parents in old age or sickness they could say that their money or goods were an offering "given over to God" and thus exempt from any claim of charity or duty to help others. They broke God's law to fulfull a law of their own making. Jesus explained that they void God's command because they allowed their hearts and minds to be clouded by their own notions of religion.

Jesus accused them specifically of two things. First of hypocrisy. Like actors, who put on a show, they appear to obey God's word in their external practices while they inwardly harbor evil desires and intentions. Secondly, he accused them of abandoning God's word by substituting their own arguments and ingenious interpretations for what God requires. They listened to clever arguments rather than to God's word. Jesus refers them to the prophecy of Isaiah (29:31) where the prophet accuses the people of his day for honoring God with their lips while their hearts went astray because of disobedience to God's laws.

Jesus shocked the religious sensibilities of the Jews by declaring that nothing which "goes into the mouth defiles a person" (Matt. 15:10).  This statement meant that all the ritual food laws of the Old Testament were now canceled. God gave these laws to teach his people of the old covenant the importance of offering right sacrifice and worship to God with a clean conscience.  Ritual purification was intended to show people the necessity of being not just outwardly clean, but inwardly clean and holy in thought as well as in deed. Jesus points his listeners to the source of true defilement -- evil desires which come from inside a person's innermost being. Sin does not just happen. It first springs from the innermost recesses of our thoughts and intentions, from the secret desires which only the individual soul can conceive. This is precisely why Jesus came to free sinful men and women deceived by the glamor of sin and enslaved by its seductive powers.

God in his mercy freely offers us pardon, healing, and grace for overcoming sin and evil in our lives. But to receive God's mercy and help, we must admit our faults and ask for God's pardon. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9). Only God can change our hearts and make them clean and whole through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God through his Word and Spirit first brings our sinful intentions and deeds into the light of our conscience that we may recognize them for what they are and call upon his mercy and grace for pardon and healing.  Ask the Lord to cleanse you with the purifying fire of his Holy Spirit.

"Lord, let the fire of your Holy Spirit cleanse my mind and my heart that I may love you purely and serve you worthily."


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(c) 2002-2006 Don Schwager