It was during our poverty years (well, sorta poor … when in grad school in Texas) that Diana and I went out to a very nice Dallas restaurant called “Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine” (not making that up – check it out online). Thinking about the timing of it, I’m guessing it might have been for our third wedding anniversary(?).
I ordered some sort of shrimp item, which tasted really great, as I recall. But even before leaving the restaurant, I was noticing some tightening of my throat and a queasy feeling. By the time we got home, I had swelling and hives. This clearly called for a trip to the emergency room.
Arriving at the ER, I was greeted by one of my fellow students – a friend from my neighborhood who often commuted to the seminary with a group of us who lived in the same neighborhood. He worked in the ER as a sort of greeter/assistant. By this point, I was REALLY sick, and I expressed this sadly by barfing all over my buddy. I was diagnosed with a shellfish allergy, given some Benadryl and was good as new in a short time (apart from being terribly embarrassed). I’ve only had a couple mild reactions since them, but I’m always cautious with shrimp particularly.
What we take into our bodies can make us sick, no doubt. But most of the time we find that experience to be so unpleasant that we take strides and precautions to not have that happen again. So yes, what goes in can defile us; but what comes out of our mouths in words, and beyond that in attitudes and actions of life, represents a greater defilement, according to Jesus (this might even be called “counterintuitive”). And we may not find ourselves as likely to correct that pattern.
The occasion of Jesus making this counterintuitive statement relates to an episode with the Pharisees – a delegation of them sent to check up on this Jesus character and entrap him in some condemnatory violation of law. Here is the best they could come up with …
Matthew 15:1 – Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Wow! That’s it? That’s all you got… not washing hands?
This was a big deal ritual. However, it was not something that went back to Moses at all. Rather, it was what would be called “Rabbinic” teachings – specific applications of more general Mosaic writings, usually magnifying something by multiplied amounts and coming up with an elaborate law that was overbearing. This washing involved not only hands, but utensils, plates and cups and everything else imaginable. There was no need to do these things, hence Jesus and the disciples did not.
Jesus goes to the heart of their hypocrisy …
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’[from Isaiah 29:13]”
It was a very big deal in Jewish teaching to honor and care for parents. But these Pharisees were intentionally not getting the job done by the means of a trick device – calling something that would be beneficial to carry out the honoring parents command, but was rather kept to themselves by declaring it as “devoted to God.” It was a way to hold onto material things by giving a false spiritual pretext. They were therefore breaking the Law in a way that was far beyond some silly washing of hands.
Jesus turns to talk to his crowd of followers, and he utters the key phrase of our title today …
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
Pharisees, then and now, don’t like to be confronted with their own “stuff.” They were offended, with the disciples amusingly not sure that Jesus had picked up on the irritation of the religious leadership crowd …
13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
God did not plant faith and life in the Pharisees, and the time would come when they would be pulled up like weeds. There is no more helpless mental picture imaginable than that of a blind person leading another blind person. And speaking of those who did not understand things clearly, Peter speaks up on behalf of the 12 …
15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Food is (to put it delicately) here today and gone tomorrow. But what someone says and ultimately does reveals the condition of a person’s heart. When it lacks God’s truth and true faith, it is what condemns the lost soul by giving visible evidence of what resides truly within.
When a person who claims to be a follower of Christ does not speak and act in accord with such, it demonstrates defilement. When an alleged follower does not have time for things of an eternal nature, it reveals an emptiness and inner vacuum. But when a person looks away from serving self to serving others, this is evidence of the life of Christ within.
Yet it should all be consistent, as James would write not too many years after the time of Jesus …
James 3:9-12 — With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.