What Defiles a Man?
Scripture: Matthew 15:1–15:20
Synopsis: No one likes conflict. But Jesus (the Prince of Peace) was often surrounded by it. In this passage (Matthew 15:1-20) the religious leaders send a delegation from Jerusalem to challenge Jesus. “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” Does that sound like a silly thing to be discussing? As we did deeper, however, we find that some profound spiritual principles are at stake regarding our basis of authority in life and also the fundamental question: WHAT DEFILES A MAN?
No one likes conflict. But sometimes it is unavoidable. Even Jesus, the humble Prince of Peace, was often surrounded by conflict. As we have traced Jesus’ ministry through the Gospel of Matthew, we have seen that there was increasing opposition and hostility toward his ministry from the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem. They complained about his healing on the Sabbath day. They were aghast when he assumed the authority and power to forgive a man’s sins. They even went so far as to accuse him of doing his miracles by the power of Satan.
In the section we read this morning (Matthew 15:1-20), this conflict is once again the central focus. The religious leaders in Jerusalem are becoming increasingly concerned about Jesus’ growing influence. They send a delegation all the way to Galilee to conduct a further investigation. The conflict in this case emerges over what appears to us to be a trivial issue. These Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem observed Jesus’ disciples eating food without first washing their hands. At first glance it appears to be as silly as a childish family argument, as one brother tries to get another brother in trouble: “Mom, Johnny didn’t wash his hands before dinner!”
In fact, there was far more at stake. The issue had nothing to do with hygiene or germs, but rather the practice of ritual or ceremonial cleansing. The concept of “clean” and “unclean” were religious categories and defined a person’s fitness to pray and worship and stand in the presence of God. In the Old Testament law, certain foods and substances and objects were pronounced as unclean. To touch blood, or to come in contact with a dead body, or to eat certain foods rendered a person unclean. The law then prescribed a set of actions or sacrifices whereby the individual could be cleansed and once again be fit to approach God in worship. This was God’s way of teaching the people of Israel the reality of his own holiness and the importance of his people living holy lives, set apart for him.
What happened, however, was that, over time, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law took this concept and began to embellish it and add to it. To the idea of known defilement they added the concept of unknown and accidental defilement. When you went out in public you might have unknowingly touched something or come in contact with someone who was unclean. This unknown contamination, they taught, needed to be removed by certain rituals of washing. They were very detailed in their prescribed methods, describing certain ways to wash, and even stipulating how much water was to be used and so on.
These prescribed rituals became an essential part of Judaism. During Jesus’ days these teachings were in the form of oral tradition. But they continued after Jesus’ days, and were codified and written down in the 2nd century AD in what was known as the Mishnah. This document clearly shows how seriously they took this matter, with a large portion of the writings given over to these rituals of cleansing. One great rabbi was honored because when he was in prison, and part of his daily allotment of water was spilled, he chose to use the remaining water for washing rather than drinking. It was written that one who neglected hand-washing was “as bad as a murderer.”
We need to understand this background and also realize that there is not one word about such ceremonial washing in the Old Testament. It was all an addition by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, thus becoming a “tradition of the elders.” Thus the Pharisees were scandalized by the fact that Jesus’ disciples failed to observe the traditions. We read their accusation in verse 1-2: Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”
To their way of thinking, this was a very serious charge. We must remember that Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind. His readers would have been very familiar with the traditions of the elders. So this would have been a serious charge in their eyes as well.
How did Jesus handle it? In no way did he deny the charge or try to avoid the conflict. Rather he uses the occasion to confront the Pharisees with two fundamental errors in their system of belief and practice. And as we dig a little, we will find that these same two issues or questions are very relevant to us today as well.
The first issue that Jesus confronted was I. The Question of Authority. This is a very important question. What is the final, binding rule of authority by which we determine our actions and what is right and wrong? Jesus accuses the Pharisees of a very serious error in this regard, and he makes the point three different times.
Look at verse 3: He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
In the second part of verse 6 he says: So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
Then he quotes these words from the prophet Isaiah in verses 8-9:
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 commandments of men.
That these accusations were true can be born out in Jewish writings. Here is a direct quote from such a document: “The sayings of the elders have more weight than those of the prophets.” Here is another one: “An offense against the sayings of Scribes is worse than one against those of Scripture.” According to Alfred Edersheim in his classic book: The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Jewish traditionalism placed the oral traditions above the written Law. They worshipped the Law, the Torah, but their real authority in every day practice was their traditions.
This was the first issue that Jesus confronted and condemned in the Pharisees on this occasion. Now, of course, he knew that they would protest that there was no actual conflict between their traditions and the Scripture, so he confronts them with an example.
4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and,‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
What is Jesus referring to here? The clear teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures was the requirement to honor our parents and this included caring for them in their old age. So what was this practice that Jesus refers to? It was something that was not taught in the Old Testament. It was one of their traditions. What they taught was that if someone took a vow to give something to God or to the temple worship, that vow was binding over any other obligation. Now, what people were doing was pledging to God the portion of their resources that should have or could have gone to care for their aging parents.
What came next is a little less certain. Some scholars believe that this was like setting up a “trust” fund. You didn’t have to actually give the gift right away. You could keep it, use it to generate more income, or whatever. The one thing you couldn’t do was give it away to anyone else. It was “given to God.” It was the equivalent of a religious tax loophole.
Others take a more charitable view of the Pharisees, indicating that the amount that was pronounced “given to God” was actually expected to be given to God. But the bottom line was that this was giving to God which was not commanded or required in the law. It was over and above the tithe or required offering. It was a way of earning spiritual bonus points, and if done in certain ways, could win human praise for the giver. But in the process, the Biblical responsibility to care for one’s parents was neglected. As Jesus said, man’s traditions and priorities had taken precedence over God’s commands.
The question of authority looms large in every religion and religious system. It is also vitally important in the life of every Christian and every church. It was one of the key battle lines of the Reformation. Along with the principles of “faith alone” and “grace alone”, the Reformers raised a third cry: “Sola Scriptura”; The Scripture alone as the final rule of authority in faith and practice in the church and in the believer’s life.
Let’s be clear. The problem does not lie in tradition itself. God is not anti tradition. There are good traditions and helpful ones. The problem comes when we elevate human tradition to a level of authority equal to or greater than the Scripture, the Word of God. When we do that, error will inevitably replace truth and we will end up living our lives on a false foundation.
Jesus, in this passage, is particularly speaking to the problem of man’s traditions replacing the truth of God in our lives. But tradition is not the only pretender to the throne of authority in our lives and in the life of the church. There are other challengers for the place of authority in our lives. For example the latest, newest, most popular fad or trend sweeping the church can become our authority. If everyone is doing it, it must be right. The teaching of a powerful, dynamic leader (either living, or long dead) can become our final authority. Our own experience of dreams or visions or revelations can become our basis of authority. I could go on. They all have one thing in common. They take something that is of human origin or man-based, and place it on a level of authority higher than the Scripture.
What happens when we do that? Jesus describes the outcome in verses 13-14, and in so doing points out that there are consequences, both for the false teachers who set themselves up as authorities as well as for those who follow them:
13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
So we must be very careful on this question of authority – both in what we teach and in what and whom we follow.
Apart from these broad categories I have already mentioned, I am deliberately not going to give any present day examples of this principle in operation. The reason for that is that we are all quite good at spotting the errors in other people’s traditions and faith systems and then feeling smug. But we find it remarkably difficult to spot our own errors. Rather I want to challenge each one of us to honestly ask the question: Is there anything or anyone that I have set up in my life as a source of authority equal to or greater than Scripture? Is there any area of life in which I am nullifying the word of God to follow my traditions or another man-based authority source? I am not saying that we must abandon all tradition. Nor are we required to ignore contemporary church trends, or turn a deaf ear to effective human teachers, or ignore the more mystical leadings of the Spirit. But what we are required to do is to subject all of them to the scrutiny of the Scripture as our final authority.
It is important to consider the theoretical basis of authority in our lives. We need to get that right. But it is even more important to dig a little deeper. What is the actual basis of authority by which we determine our actions on a daily basis? I mean, for real. It is easy for us as evangelical Christians to pay lip service to this important doctrine and glibly say, “The Bible is the final word of authority in faith and practice.” But on a daily basis – how do we determine our actions? What part does the Bible play in contrast to things like our emotions, or peer pressure, or the expediency of the moment?
Well, that is the Question of Authority which was so relevant in Jesus’ day and still so important for us to resolve correctly today. But there is another issue that Jesus confronted in the Pharisees world view and belief system that day. That was II. The Question of Defilement. What defiles us? What makes us unclean? What makes us unfit to stand in the presence of the holy God of the universe?
The Pharisees took the Old Testament teaching on holiness and the rituals of cleansing in the Law and drew wrong conclusions. They objectified sin and uncleanness as something external, something “out there.” The very word “Pharisee” came from a root meaning separate. If they could just build up a wall of separation between themselves and that corrupt world, they would be clean and holy to stand in the presence of God. So their whole system of laws and traditions became an elaborate scheme to separate themselves from sinful people and unclean objects. This led to the heavy emphasis on washing of hands and other cleansing rituals.
Now Jesus lays a bomb at the base of their entire religious system and world view. We find it in verse 10-11:
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
This saying not only upset the Pharisees, but it also puzzled Jesus’ disciples who had been raised in that same world view, so when they get a chance in private, they ask Jesus to explain.
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 is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
You see, the Pharisees’ view was that they were basically good people. It was what came to them from the outside that contaminated them. So if they could just cut themselves off from those external sources of contamination, they were qualified to stand in God’s presence.
Jesus said, “No. These external things can’t really defile you because they simply pass right through the body. What defiles us, what makes us unclean and unacceptable in God’s sight is what comes out of our hearts.”
This is a fundamental difference in world view and understanding. It affected the world in which Jesus lived and it is a debate that still rages today. Is man basically good or basically corrupt? If we are basically good, then the key strategy is to separate ourselves and our families from contaminating influences and let our basic goodness emerge. But if man is basically corrupt, that strategy will never work. Why not? Because when we have cut ourselves off from those external, corrupting influences, when we have cleaned up our environment, the fundamental problem remains; the sin and corruption in our own hearts. And that is the corruption that makes us unacceptable to God.
I have used this illustration before, but I believe it is worth repeating. When I was young, we lived on a mission station in Tanzania. It was a rather remote location, and we had a fair population of snakes in the area; Puff adders, mambas, pythons and the occasional cobra visited us from time to time. I was never terribly afraid of snakes in the yard. I learned to treat them with healthy respect, take precautions and avoid the obvious hiding places. The ground around our house was cleared, so we could spot them, avoid them and kill them when necessary. But there was one thing I dreaded. That was the cry, “There is a snake in the house!” Suddenly, my whole security system was breached. There was no place safe. I was afraid to go to bed. I was afraid to open a drawer, or sit in a chair, because the snake could be lurking there. The Pharisees treated sin like it was snake in the yard. It was something “out there” that could be identified, defended against and defeated by rigorous precautions. But the reality is far different. Jesus gives us the bad news. We’ve got snakes in the house! And they are breeding there! The evil is inside us.
In this confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus is actually repeating one of the main points in his Sermon on the Mount which we studied in Matthew 5-7. In that sermon, Jesus made this very strong statement in Matthew 5:20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What did he mean by that? What he was saying is that the righteousness that God requires for entrance into his kingdom is more than an external righteousness. It is not clean hands that impresses God. It is pure hearts. Jesus then went on in that sermon to give numerous examples of what he means by this “greater righteousness.” He spoke of the sin of murder and used it to probe the anger in our hearts. He spoke of the sin of adultery and used it to convict us of the lust in our hearts. Sin starts in our hearts. It is what comes out of us that defiles us.
I remember hearing a testimony many years ago that powerfully illustrated this reality. I was working in a youth ministry in the inner city of Newark, New Jersey in the U.S. I had the privilege of being a part of a vibrant church that was reaching many young people for Christ. At an open air meeting one evening, one of these young people gave his testimony. I still remember his words. After describing his years growing up in a rough neighborhood he said this. “I used to think that my problems were caused by the fact that I lived in the slums. But when I read the Bible, I realized that my real problem was that I had a slum in my heart.”
So what can we do about the evil inside of us which makes us unclean before God? Well, let’s realize what won’t work. Washing our hands won’t work. Running away to a monastery won’t help us. Separating ourselves from so called sinful objects or people won’t get to the root of our problem. Have you ever bought a tube of medicine at the Chemist/Drug store that said “For external use only”? External medicines only solve external problems. We have to admit that we have an internal problem. We have a heart problem.
Let me tell you something else that won’t work. Trying harder won’t work. More effort, more self-discipline, more rules to keep won’t do it. The Scripture is clear about that as we read in Romans: For by works of the law, no human being will be justified in his (God’s) sight…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3, 20,23)
External medicine and do-it-yourself, self-improvement efforts cannot solve the real problem of our defilement. The problem lies too deep. What makes us unclean and unacceptable to God are the evil thoughts and desires in our hearts. We need heart medicine. We need medicine that can cleanse our hearts.
There is only one remedy. It is the blood of Jesus. In the words of the Apostle John: The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin...He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 1:7, 2:2, NIV)
Let me close with two applications. Maybe you are here and you have never come to Jesus for that soul-cleansing bath in his blood that is available only by faith. That must be the first step. It requires you to acknowledge the sin in your heart that has separated you from God. You must desire to be cleansed from that sin. You must believe that Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sin. And you must call out to Jesus in prayer for that cleansing. This is a once for all act of saving faith in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for your sins.
The second application is for those of us who have trusted in Jesus as our Savior from sin. We have been cleansed by his blood and declared judicially clean before God’s throne. But we have allowed the sinful impulses that still indwell our hearts to raise their ugly heads. And out of our hearts have come sinful thoughts, words and actions even this week. And these have defiled us and disrupted our walk of fellowship with God. For us too, there is a remedy.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
As we go to prayer, let me offer these words from David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23-24:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting!”
Whatever the Lord brings to your mind in answer to this prayer, bring it to him in confession.
The hymn writer asks the question: “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow, no other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
- Read Matthew 15:1-20 together.
- The question of authority is a critical one in every religion, church and individual’s life. Why is it so significant?
- The Pharisees elevated “the tradition of the elders” as their authority. Do we do the same thing? If so, in what ways?
- What other base of authority are we prone to elevate to a place equal to or greater than Scripture? Is there a difference between our stated base of authority and our actual one? Give examples. What are the risks of “getting it wrong”?
- The question of defilement was the second issue that Jesus debated with the Pharisees. Why were Jesus’ words in verse10-11 so troubling to them? Do we make the same error (seeing defilement as an external issue) and if so, in what ways?
- Are human beings basically good or basically sinful? Why is the answer to this question such a critical faith question? Discuss the relevance of this question to someone who does not yet know Christ. Discuss its relevance to the disciple of Christ who is seeking to walk in fellowship with God.