Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 32. Clean and Unclean
Mt 15:10,11 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him `unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.'”
In a day when we are so often being told to take care in the kitchen, to have clean hands and not to touch things like uncooked chicken, talk of clean and unclean in the Biblical context could be confusing to the modern reader, but that is what we have before us now.
This particular little picture package takes its origin from the beginning of the chapter: “Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (15:1,2) It’s the Pharisees again! This reference to the “tradition of the elders” goes back to the time of the post-Babylonian exile, when the Jewish rabbis began to make rules and regulations governing daily life, with interpretations and applications of the law of Moses, which was then handed down from generation to generation and became known as the oral law.
Now the truth is that these laws about being clean or unclean DID have their origin in the Law of Moses but it was about ‘ceremonial uncleanness’ not literally about being dirty. So for instance in the Law we find, “if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean–whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground–even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.” (Lev 5:2) That concept of ‘uncleanness’ was particularly highlighted in respect of food (see Lev 11:1-47). Although it is not spelled out, it is probable that God’s prohibition for not eating certain creatures is almost certainly grounded in the fact that in certain ways some creatures are more likely than others to be disease carriers. Such regulations, therefore, are probably for health reasons as much as anything else, but obedience to these laws would indicate submission to the Lord.
But the Jews had gone over the top with these laws, seeking to be hyper-conscious in respect of obeying God. Thus they developed rules in addition to the written laws found in Scripture, and this became the oral law, but the fact that it was oral somehow seemed to them to make it even more important than the written law. So things like hand washing before meals became a big issue, a very real part of their religion. Jesus first chides them for the way they twisted the Law for their own purposes (v.3-9) but then he moves on with this more general teaching that undermined the very fabric of the ‘add-on religion’ of which this is an illustration.
“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him `unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.’” (v.10,11) Note the two things, referring to the mouth: what goes into a person and what comes out of a person. What comes out must be their words which reveal their heart attitudes. What goes in is simply food. Now it may well be that some foods are less healthy than others (and science and the media shout this at us on a regular basis) but as far as religion, ethics and morals are concerned ‘food’ cannot make a person more or less spiritual or more or less ‘clean’.
The disciples were worried by this for they realised that this would upset the Pharisees even more: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (v.12) When Jesus shrugs this off (v.13,14) it is Peter who speaks up: “Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” (v.15) So Jesus explains: “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man `unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man `unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him `unclean.’” (v.16-20)
Food goes into the body and then the waste is expelled from the body. End of story. Nothing spiritual has happened. But listen to what a person says, listen their words and the way they utter them and realise they reveal the sort of heart that the person has. All sins come out of the heart, out of the inner man; that’s where they start, in a person’s mind. That’s what makes a person ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘righteous’ or ‘unrighteous’ or ‘good’ or ‘not good’.
It all starts with what you are like on the inside and so religious ritual is a mere add-on, church services are a mere add-on, reading the Bible is a mere add-on. All these things may or may not be good in themselves but they are NOT the things that put us right with God, only belief in Jesus does that! These things don’t make us ‘more holy’ we just are holy.
I wonder how many things we ‘do’ as Christians as part of our ‘religious lives’ that we think have any impact on how spiritual we are? From what we’ve just read, the answer has to be, “None!” Spirituality starts in the heart and everything we do is a reflection of what is our heart condition. Now I realise this might be offensive to some because there are whole schools of thought that are based on ‘doing’, on personal discipline and so on, but in the light of Jesus’ teaching we have to say these are NOT the things that put us right with God or reveal how spiritual we are; they simply show that some of us can be more self-disciplined than others and the danger in this sort of assessment is that it breeds pride. These ‘self-help’ approaches might have, as the apostle Paul might have said, an appearance of wisdom (Col 2:23), but they do little to promote a deeper loving relationship with the Lord.
A religion that focuses more on ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ falls short of the Christianity revealed in the New Testament. ‘Doing’ should always follow or come out of ‘being’. It is because I already am a child of God, much loved by the Father, that I ‘go to church’ to worship Him or be taught more about Him. I don’t go to impress Him or get Him on my side. That’s what these Pharisees were trying to do but their focus was all on externals, things we do outwardly, and so Jesus has to bring the balance and point out that it all starts from what is going on, on the inside, and all we do externally is to be a natural expression of what we feel on the inside. It sounds a mundane teaching but the reality of it is life changing.