Scripture: And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:10-20 ESV
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Observation: In yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read it), we hear about Jesus calling out the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocrisy in judging his disciples for not observing the traditions of the elders. In response to their accusation, Jesus exposes their duplicity in violating the fifth commandment to honor parents by developing the practice called qorban, which diverts a son’s time and resources from the care of his parents to the synagogue to honor God supposedly.
As Matthew’s narrative continues, Jesus orders the people to gather closer and tells them what comes from the mouth defiles a person—not what one digests (vv.10-11 above). The Twelve, having noticed that the spies who had just questioned him had also drawn near (seeking incriminating evidence to warrant Jesus’ arrest), express concern about how their Master offended these theocratic power brokers. Unconcerned, Jesus further speaks forthrightly and refers to Pharisees and scribes as blind guides whom the Father will root up (eventually remove them from the leadership of his people), cautioning that those who continue to follow them will incur the same ill fate of spiritual ruin (vv.13-14).
Peter wisely moves the conversation on and asks Jesus to explain the parable (v.15). Astonished that his disciples could not reason through the metaphor, Christ clarifies the ceremonial washing of hands does nothing toward making one clean before God because he looks to the heart. Indeed, the Father sees the evil thoughts and deeds that flow from the heart (vv.16-19).
Additionally, Jesus declares that unwashed hands do not defile anyone (v.20) and thus pronounces fulfillment of the dietary cleansing laws in his “cleansed” (sinless) life and soon atoning death and resurrection.
Takeaway: These spies of the Pharisees and scribes prove themselves guilty of self-justification through meticulous outward observance of the law that gains the attention and praise of others but will leave them outside the kingdom of God. As theologian Michael Wilkins observes, “They have not repented in the light of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven and received the righteousness that is Spirit-produced. They continue to rely on their own practice of external righteousness, which does not allow them entrance to the kingdom” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.536). And worse, they, the leaders of Israel, are misleading those who look to them for guidance regarding living a right relationship with Yahweh. Sadly, both will be without excuse outside of turning to Christ as their means of righteousness.
Our takeaway? It may seem obvious, and to a certain extent, it is: righteousness is an inside-out transformation. Initiated by the Holy Spirit, who verifies the Word as truth in our hearts and sparks our faith, we begin the journey with repentance and confession that Jesus is Lord. Then comes the long and challenging road of learning obedience to the Word and the provocations of the Holy Spirit over the rest of our lives. He matures our love for the Father and Son, deepens our understanding of Christ’s grace, exposes lingering idols and other obstacles borne in self-deception, and replaces these strongholds with more affection for the Father and Son that inspires us to press on.
The problem for most of us is that we like to know each step and where it will lead. We desire a religion that tells us precisely what to do so that we can take control, tick all the boxes, and feel good about ourselves. (I raise my hand—lol!) But if we fail to walk by faith, relying on Christ’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit for each step, like the Pharisees and scribes, we will become blind guides falling into pits. Consider the disciples and the Apostle Paul. They failed miserably before the risen Lord grabbed hold of their hearts. But Christ used their failures to teach them that they do not have it within them to become righteous, that they would need to become utterly dependent on him (the only righteous One) for the rest of their lives. And so must we if we want to experience inside-out transformation.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who lived the righteous life that we could not come close to obtaining. And we thank you for imputing his righteousness to us who are unworthy. Still, we confess to you that we are prone to take control and try to self-justify ourselves through outward behavior while running from the deeper motivations of our hearts. So would you please help us to submit to your Word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit over the long haul so that we might become transformed from the inside out into the likeness of your Son for your glory? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling