Everything Jesus said seems radical to us because Jesus is God and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways. Yet it is probably the case that nothing Jesus ever said was as radical in terms of the religion of His day and all human thoughts about religion and true worship as what He told the Pharisees, crowds, and disciples in the first half of Matthew 15.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
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 (VV.1-20).
We can get a sense of how radical this was by remembering that the same issue is treated extensively in Acts in the narrative of God’s preparation of Peter for carrying the Gospel to the Gentiles, and that it is the theme of the longest of the closing application sections of Paul’s great letter to the Romans.
These verses do not seem so startling to us, probably for two reasons. First, we are far removed from the situation of Jesus’ day and do not have much of a feel for what was going on, and second, we think a great deal like the Pharisees and do not really absorb Jesus’ teaching.
These verses contain more teaching than narrative, but the story is the background and needs to be looked at first. Jesus had been searching for rest, first on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and then on the western side in the area of Gennesaret. But he was interrupted by the multitudes of people who were following Him wherever He went and who had now circled the lake again and were pressing Him with renewed demands for healings. While this was going on, some Pharisees and teachers of the law came from Jerusalem to ask about His disciples’ failure to wash their hands before eating. This had nothing to do with whether their hands were free of dirt. It was a matter of the Pharisees’ traditions, their ceremonies. That they came “from Jerusalem” probably indicates they were an official delegation.
Washing one’s hands before meals was not required by the Old Testament, but it had become an important part of the Pharisees’ teaching and was of paramount concern to them since their religion was based primarily on such matters. We can sense how important their laws about “cleanness” were by noticing that they have been preserved in the Mishnah, which deals with such washings (Yadaim).
What we learn in this story is how radically wrong Jesus insisted their position was. Jesus did not reply by some mild attempt to excuse His disciples: “They didn’t have a chance to wash; we’ve been out hiking; I’m sure they’ll do better next time.” Or by mere discussion: “Let’s talk about such washings; why do you think they’re so important?” Instead, He attacked the Pharisees forcefully and directly for fussing about paltry matters while breaking God’s law in essential matters by their traditions. He said that their entire understanding of religion was wrong, that their hearts were “far from” God, and that their worship of God was “vain.”
Even stronger, when His disciples warned Him that the Pharisees were offended by what He said, Jesus called them “blind guides” leading blind men and plants that God had not planted that would eventually be “pulled up by the roots.” In light of the recent parables (ch.13), this can only mean that the Pharisees were plantings of Satan and would be destroyed by fire at the last judgment.
When we remember that the Pharisees were the most highly regarded men of religion of their day, we see how shocking this is. By these words Jesus was not only condemning their system, He was condemning the best of human religion, saying that all human efforts to please God are external and vain, and that the only thing that really matters is a radical change of heart, since it is what comes out of the heart that makes a man “unclean.”
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org