Yesterday at BBC Pastor George finished preaching on Matthew 15:1-20 with a sermon on verses 15-20:
Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.” So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
The parable Peter asks about has two parts. First, in what is probably a reference to the Wheat and the Tares from Matthew 13, Jesus compares the Pharisees to plants which are not planted by the Father. Second, he describes them as blind guides leading the blind into a pit. In the following verses we see the confusion of the disciples and Jesus’ explanation.
To understand this episode of Jesus’ ministry we have to remember that this is during the time of His greatest popularity. The crowds were at their largest and his reputation was known throughout all of Israel. So well-known, in fact, that leading scribes and pharisees were sent from Jerusalem to challenge Jesus. That is the context of this short parable and explanation. Jesus has responded to their question about ceremonial washing with a scathing critique of their own lack of obedience to the law. When the disciples voiced their concern over Jesus’ offensive remarks to the pharisees, who were some of the most esteemed religious authorities of the day, He responded with the parables just described. Which brings us to the confusion of the disciples.
After all this time and hearing Jesus teach so many parables, Jesus’ frustration with the disciples shows. Though half of the parable has basically already been taught to them, and the other half should be obvious to anyone, they must ask about its meaning. His short explanation cuts to the heart of our sinfulness and shows the chasm between worldly false religion and the true practice of holiness.
The religion of the Jews had come to be about everything but the heart. Keeping ceremonial laws (and the tangle of convoluted applications and extension of them developed in the Talmud and other writings) had become the essence of their religious practice, as evidenced by their questioning of Jesus (v. 2). Jesus shows the disciples in vivid imagery that it can’t be what goes into us that is defiling, but rather what comes from our hearts. In other words, contrary to the popular phrase, we aren’t what we eat. Rather, we are what is in our hearts.
This message contradicts the wisdom of the world in nearly every way. When the evil potential of the human heart shows itself in the world, we hear every kind of excuse imaginable. Some blame a corrupted or imbalanced biology. Some try to explain it on traumatizing experiences or an improper upbringing. But Jesus teaches that we all carry our worst enemy inside us: our depraved hearts. Our hearts are an endless fountain of wickedness and we must be changed from the inside out. This is the folly of trying to become holy by external obedience, ritual, or self-denial. Sanctification comes by keeping the commandments of scripture as we walk in the Spirit.
Jesus demonstrated this reversal in his ministry on Earth. The Mosaic law taught that by touching something unclean one was made unclean. But when Jesus touched the leper, or the bleeding woman, or even dead bodies, he cleansed them of their uncleanness. We can be cleansed too, but not by keeping the traditions of religion. We are sanctified by walking daily in the Spirit and obeying the commands of scripture.