I do not mean to be gross here, but one of the most fascinating aspects of the human mind to me is that we can look at something in our hands or on our plates and think it looks so good, enjoy its smell and its taste, and then, we can be absolutely repulsed by the output of that same food some 24-72 hours later. What changes the food from being so pleasing to be repulsive? The digestive system. And that system is our focus for the next couple of weeks.
One of the most intriguing statistics about the body is that the digestive system is approximately 30 feet long. The system begins with the mouth, then the esophagus, the stomach, the small and large intestines and concludes with the rectum and anus. It is the small intestine that makes up the bulk of the distance. The small intestine itself is approximately 20 feet long!
The digestive system begins by breaking down the food into manageable portions (in the mouth). The acid in the stomach breaks the food down further before it passes into the small intestine. The small intestine has villi which do most of the work in removing the nutrients from the food. These villi are assisted by fluids which come from the liver, gall bladder, and pancreas which are also a part of the digestive system. The large intestine (or colon) then removes any remaining liquid and salt before whatever remains is passed out of the body. (1)
Again, what amazes me is that our minds can so enjoy the food before us, but that joy quickly becomes disgusting and contains what is, in part, considered as germs.
Jesus alluded to this very process in one of His teachings. Jesus was asked why His disciples did not wash their hands before they ate. His answer was that it is not what we eat that defiles us. However, His answer does reveal that our defilement is inside us, and it had to get their somehow. Today, we will review this teaching from Matthew 15.
The passage today talks about being defiled. One definition is dirty or unclean. But a deeper definition, and the one with which the Pharisees were most concerned, relates to being impure for ceremonial purposes (or to be desecrated). We might more simply define the word for our purposes as being contaminated. In Matthew 15, Jesus says it is not what we eat that contaminates us, and thus washing our hands is not really what keep us from being clean.
We Can Wash to be Clean, But That Does Not Make Us So (Matthew 15.1-10)
To gain this perspective, we must go back to the preceding verses for a moment and realize who the audience is. Jesus is speaking to the people who have gathered around Him (v. 10) after the religious leaders of the day have challenged Him regarding tradition. Their question relates to a tradition of washing hands before they eat. But the bigger issue is that they have developed certain customs and made them prominent in the law (as if they were part of the Law of Moses). In their eyes, these customs are meant to allow them to keep God’s law more easily, but their focus in this question was (most likely) to make Jesus look bad in front of the people. (Interestingly, this passage falls right before the one we reviewed a few weeks ago where we see how the people viewed Jesus – as a great prophet – in Matthew 16.13-14).
So, Jesus responds to their question, but wants to make sure the people understand His teaching, thus stating – “Hear and understand” (v. 10). The religious leaders knew that God had given laws about what the people were not to eat because of certain foods being unclean (see Leviticus 11). By clean, the idea is to be ritually clean before God. This idea was not directly tied to being physically clean, although plenty of laws described that part of the process in being ritually clean as well.
Related to food, however, washing and cooking food would not make it clean. Nor does washing hands make a person clean. Sure, a part of what the Pharisees and scribes wanted may have been to prevent germs from entering their bodies, but they had come to equate their ritualistic hand washing as an important part of their being holy (and more specifically, holier than those who didn’t).
Having just returned from Kenya, let me say how much I appreciate clean water and the ability to wash my hands and know they are clean before eating. It is not that hands are not washed, but it is the degree to which they are washed. For instance, before each meal, they rinse hands by pouring water (very similar to what the religious leaders would do), but they do not use soap.
But having clean hands does not make me holier than those who have dirty hands. And that was what Jesus needed to make sure the people understood in this passage.
We Can Do What Seems Good, But That Does Not Make It So (Matthew 15.11)
Notice the words of Jesus as He starts this teaching. He gets straight to the point then expands on it. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person” (v. 11).
This statement proves that the concerns of Jesus and the concerns of the Pharisees are very different. In effect, both the Pharisees and Jesus are concerned about what contaminates the body. But the Pharisees are worried about food and germs while Jesus is worried about what truly impacts our hearts and minds (as we will see momentarily).
Jesus realizes that the real contaminants are not germs that accumulate on our hands; rather, it is the desires that impact our heart.
The Pharisees were doing what they thought was good, but the reality is that their teaching was harmful and deserved correction.
Likewise, we can eat what we think is good, but that does not make it so.
We Can Desire to be Good, But It Is God That Makes It So (Matthew 15.13-14)
In these next set of verses, we see Jesus expanding on His point, in part because the disciples are more worried about the reaction of the Pharisees than they are to the truth of God. But Jesus is not at all concerned about their reaction.
The Pharisees wanted to be good (and command others to be good as well), but their wishes did not make them good. Notice also, they commanded others to be good by sharing of their traditions. I will not say that their traditions were wrong as traditions, but any tradition is wrong if it violates God’s Word. Furthermore, it is one thing to show someone a sin and help them to overcome it, it is quite another to simply condemn someone for their sins (which is what it appears the Pharisees often did).
We are similar. We have our pet sins and our pet sins we despise. And we think if we help God to correct others, then we are not only doing good, but we are being good. Now, we should help others overcome their sins. But notice Jesus’ words here. Verses 13 and 14 talk about plants that seems to be a part of the garden, but are really not.
What does Jesus mean? Well, specifically here, He is talking about the religious leaders of His day. But our day has them as well. They preach their own agenda, by asking from others what is not theirs to ask or demanding from others what they themselves do not do. Now, please understand, everything I preach or teach – and I mean everything – is a direct challenge back to me. Do I stand here and say things we should be doing that I myself am not doing or do not do well enough? Yes. But I am not saying that “you” should do them better, I am saying that “we” should do them better – and not because of some desire I have, but because of the sacrifice Jesus made and what that should demand of us!
If I am wrong, then my punishment will be more harsh (see James 3.1). If I am right, then we need to do more. Jesus knew the burdens that the Pharisees were putting on the people were wrong and restrictive. Thus, He also knew that they were not from the Father and that the Father would thus take them away in due time (“be rooted up”).
Besides religious leaders, however, we must also include religious sounding phrases. For instance, consider the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” The phrase is first recorded in history by John Wesley, but the sentiment has existed for millennia. Wesley was a great preacher and inspired many during the 18th Century, but his words are not on par with Jesus. Jesus knew that godliness requires holiness.
Wesley’s words were good, but fall short of the word of Jesus. Likewise, the Pharisees meant well, but their words and actions fell far short of Jesus.
We Can Pretend That We Are Good, But The Heart Will Reveal It So (Matthew 15.15-20)
After Peter asked for an explanation, Jesus provides one. Very simply, Jesus says that the digestive system is designed to process what passes into the mouth, but what enters the heart will pass back out of the mouth and reveal who we really are. (Read Matthew 15.17-19.)
We discussed this teaching from Mark 7 a couple of years ago when I preached through the life of Jesus from that book over the course of a year. But several years ago, we also looked at this passage in Matthew 15. You might remember the little exercise we are going to do right now related to verse 17. First let me read that verse again. (Read Matthew 15.18.)
Here is the exercise. Repeat this phrase aloud a couple of times: “Out of the mouth comes the overflow of the heart.”
Now, what comes from the heart goes far beyond what we say. The list in verse 19 is testimony to that. But the truth is that what enters our heart does create desires within us that do not easily pass away.
What we eat passes through our digestive system within 24-72 hours. But images we see cannot be forgotten. Our sins and mistakes replay in our minds constantly. What passes through our body might have been enjoyed at the time of eating, but it is soon gone. Our thoughts and actions remain with us for a lifetime. What we eat may make us sick, but it cannot defile us. Jesus makes is clear that it is our heart (and our evil desires) that reveal whether or not we are defiled.
Let me tie this back to the digestive system.
Washing to be clean does not make us clean. We can only wash the outside, but it is the inside that truly matters.
Desiring to be good does not make us good. We may pretend to be good. We may fool others and even ourselves into thinking we are good. But only God can truly make us good. The truth is that we are defiled. Paul reminds us in Romans 3 that all have sinned. We are all corrupt on the inside which is why Jesus had to come and die. But He did more than die. He rose to life. And that is why we must learn to live our lives according to His Word. No one else could make a way. And thus,
Our JOURNEY letter for today is: O – OBSERVE.
I struggled with using Observe this week. The reason I hesitate is because in a passage like Matthew 15, we can still dupe ourselves into thinking that doing the right thing (and telling others to do the same) will make us worthy before God. That was the problem with the Pharisees. But even if we cannot earn God’s approval by what we do, we are to not only teach others what Jesus taught…we are also to teach them to observe what is to be done. Thus, a part of keeping our hearts clean is to not only focus on knowing Jesus, but doing what He commanded (Matthew 28.19-20). I suspect if we find ourselves doing that as earnestly as we ought to be, we will find less time to “feed” our hearts with ideas that may corrupt us.
PRINCIPLE: What comes out of our mouths is far more important than what goes into them.
QUESTION: What desires of your heart prevent you from following Jesus as He would have you follow Him?
OPPORTUNITY: Find someone with whom you can share more than a cup of coffee and a snack (digested as food) and speak to them about the matters of the heart.
NEXT STEP(S): LOVE: You may have a desire to take this principle seriously, to answer the question honestly, and to take advantage of the opportunity completely. But you must be willing to love and be loved deeply for all of that to happen. Are you willing to take that next step and be vulnerable with someone and let them be vulnerable with you?