At first Matthew 15:1-23 ( NIV ESV ) may seem an irrelevant debate about obscure traditions and laws. Yet as we look more closely we find the issue Jesus is talking about gets to the heart of why we behave the way we do. Let’s notice three things:
1. We all have a sense of being unclean
The Pharisees accuse Jesus in v2 of teaching his disciples to break the tradition of the elders related to hand washing.
When you visit someone in a hospital Intensive Care Unit, they always have signs telling you to wash your hands, using the soap provided. You can’t just walk in, you need to prepare yourself by cleaning. In a similar way the Old Testament had cleanliness laws to show that humans can’t just walk into the presence of a holy God, we are spiritually unclean.
One such law was Exodus 30:17-21 which commanded a bronze basin to be placed outside the tabernacle for priests to wash their hands and feet before they went in. The Pharisees’ tradition went further than this law of God. They reasoned that anyone may come in hand contact with something unclean at anytime, and if one then touched their food, it would become unclean. They developed a ritual to remove defilement each time before you ate, which involved pouring water on the hands up to the wrist.
As modern people we’re encouraged to wash our hands before we eat, yet even for us this scrupulous ceremonial water pouring every time before you eat, not to get rid of germs, but for religious purposes seems excessive. Yet as we look across our very religious planet, we see rituals like this happening everywhere. Millions of Hindus wash in the River Ganges in India, every year. Billions of others try to follow the paths of various religions, going on pilgrimages, fasting, praying or observing a variety of rituals and ceremonies. Why? It’s because we all have in us this sense that we need to be made clean.
The recent science fiction movie Avatar takes place on the imaginary planet Pandora. The inhabitants practice a kind of pantheism, worshipping a fictional goddess they call Eywa. At one point one of the characters dies, and is brought to Eywa to see if she can be brought back to life. This turns out to be not possible – too many wrongs have been done. Even in many modern movies we see this idea of uncleanness, or wrongs that have been done, that somehow need to be made right.
Even people who’ve never read God’s word have this sense of uncleanness: They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 1:15)
Even if we don’t see ourselves as religious, our consciences often accuse us. We all have this sense of defilement, a sense that we need to be purified.
2. Our own attempts to deal with our uncleanness ultimately fail
The Pharisees’ traditions were an attempt to deal with their uncleanness. They were supposed to help people be more holy, but Jesus accused them (v3) of breaking God’s commandments for the sake of their tradition. He gives the example of their tradition that you could set aside property and say it was a gift devoted to God. They taught that in some cases you might say to your aging parents – I’d love to be able to care for you, but the money that I would have helped you with I’ve now set aside as a gift to God. It sounds very pious but they were hiding a lack of parental love behind a religious tradition. As Jesus says in v7 – you nullify the word of God for the sake of a tradition.
One of the problems with a detailed set of rules is they give you a false sense of security. They can give you a sense that you’re doing well, while taking you away from God’s ways. Rules can make you feel smug and self-righteous about your spiritual position. The Pharisees here look down on Jesus because he’s not living by their traditions.
There’s a sense in which every religion does this. Yet you can live by a set of rules, and still be horrible. You can follow the outward rules of your religion, saying prayers, going to worship, giving, and still be self-absorbed, stingy, uncaring, rude and proud. Our ways of making ourselves clean or right ultimately fail.
One of the saddest verses in this section is v14 where Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides. He says if the blind lead the blind they will both fall into a pit.
There’s a story often circulated by email about a plane that had to stop at an airport on it’s flight. The passengers were told there would be a delay, and if they wanted to get off the aircraft for a break, the plane would re-board in 50 minutes. Everybody got off the plane except one man who was blind. The pilot obviously knew him because he came over to him, and spoke to him by name: He said, “Bill, we’re here for almost an hour. Would you like to get off and stretch your legs?”
The blind man said, “No thanks, but maybe my dog would like to stretch his legs.”
You can imagine what happened when the passengers who had just got off the plane looked around and saw the pilot coming towards them wearing sunglasses and walking a seeing-eye-dog: they tried not only to change planes, they tried to change airlines!
That story is an urban myth, but you could understand people not wanting to be in a plane flown by a blind pilot. Yet sadly there are many blind guides in our world – people who do not know how we can be truly clean confidently telling others to follow their way.
Rabindranath Maharaj spoke of his frustration as a Hindu Guru: I had been born into the highest caste, into a wealthy family, the son of a Yogi, given all the advantages of education and religious training, and yet I had failed…Each New Year like everyone else, I would make my New Year’s resolutions. Always at the top of the list was the resolve to stop smoking. My cough had gotten worse, yet I couldn’t quit…And it wouldn’t be many more days before my ungovernable temper had exploded anew – often just after I had spent an hour or two seeking peace in meditation. There was something wrong with me….
He came from a long line of priests, years of training in meditation, many looked to him as a spiritual guru. Yet he came to realise he was a blind guide, his meditation could not change his explosive temper. His own efforts at changing or getting rid of his sense of uncleanness were failing.
Martin Luther expressed a similar frustration. He said Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. He’d fasted, he’d prayed, he’d meditated, he’d done all sorts of penance, he’d become a monk, he’d taught theology, yet none of this was helping him with the strong sense of uncleanness that he had.
It’s not just religion that makes rules, you can be non-religious, and have rules you live by that are an attempt for you to purify yourself. Our own attempts to deal with our sense of uncleanness ultimately fail.
3. Our only hope is to understand the true source and solution for our uncleanness.
In v8 Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
A religious man spoke of how he used to say the prayers of his religions five times each day. He came to realise he was just going through the motions of reciting them. His heart was not in it. The same issue could apply to you, even if you call yourself a Christian. You can be at church, going through the motions of singing, praying and having your Bible open, yet not really love God or be wanting to know him more.
Jesus shows us that the real source of our uncleanness is internal, it’s with our heart – our spiritual centre. Look at v18-19 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.
What Jesus says is profound: it’s not what goes into you that make you unclean. It’s your heart that makes you unclean. No one other than Jesus, says the solution to the world’s problems are ultimately internal.
Some say the solution to the world’s problems is education. Yet crime rates don’t disappear when people become better educated. We often just end up with smarter criminals! Educated people will still lie, steal, even murder. Christians have always been involved in education, yet we know education by itself will not solve the world’s problems.
Even the religions of the world ultimately see our problems as external. In various ways all religions tell us our only hope is self-effort – work hard to follow their rules if you want to be OK. They see our problems as external. Jesus sees our problem as much bigger.
In v12 Jesus asks his disciples – Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this? Of course Jesus knew he was offending the Pharisees. We too may be offended as we hear Jesus diagnose all of us with this same internal anti-God uncleanness. Yet Jesus’ offensive diagnosis is made while he was lovingly doing something about our problem. As Jesus speaks, he’s on his way to Jerusalem. He tells us why in the next chapter: From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matthew 16:21).
Jesus says he must die, then be raised. Jesus is the only person who was truly clean. He perfectly obeyed God’s law. Yet he was going to Jerusalem to be made ‘unclean’ by dying on the cross. Jesus went to the cross to take on himself the sin of all those who would trust in him. It is only through Jesus death for us that we can be made truly clean. It is through Jesus death and resurrection that we can be given new hearts that want to follow God.
(Summary of sermon on Matthew 15:1-23 preached at EHBC on 7 February 2010)
 Tim Keller (see the Gospel of Mark, Leaders guide,74-81)
 Rabindranath Maharaj, Death of a Guru, 119.