The last of the three conversations in Matthew 15.1-20 is between Jesus and His disciples, and it seems to have been private. The disciples come to Jesus to say that the Pharisees were offended by His teaching. Of course, they were offended by His teaching! Self-righteous persons are always offended when we speak of their sin or their inability to please God by their own corrupt and wicked efforts. Truth is resented. The disciples thought they had to clue Jesus in. He knew the situation very well, of course. He replies now with even stronger teaching.
The fact that the Pharisees were offended is proof not only that they were false interpreters of the law but they were outside the kingdom altogether. That is what being “pulled up by the roots” refers to. It is an application of the second parable of the kingdom in which the weeds are separated from the wheat at the last day and are burned.
There are two images for these men. First, they are called plants the “father has not planted.” That is an apt description of many who are involved in Christian work. They pretend to have been called by God, but they have not been called by God. They claim to speak for God, but they do not speak for God. On the contrary, they teach the traditions of men and sometimes even the doctrines of the devil, who is the prince of darkness. What else are we to think of preachers who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, dismiss the value of His atoning sacrifice for sin, ridicule the resurrection, and defend as normal, sins that the Bible says will carry those who persist in them to damnation? We say they are plants the Father has not planted. More than that, they are tares sown in God’s field to hinder God’s work. Their condemnation will be just.
Second, Jesus calls the Pharisees and teachers of the law “blind guides.” They were aspiring to lead others, but the only outcome was that both those who were leading and those who were following would fall into a pit. I do not think Jesus meant only a pit in the ground. He was probably referring to that bottomless pit in which there is an eternal darkness and a weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt.25.30).
“The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’” Jesus states what makes a person unclean. It is not what goes into his mouth or whether he eats with unwashed hands. It is what comes out, for what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and the heart is incorrigibly wicked. Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” What Jesus says here is that all sins come from the heart – “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.’”
Paul, in Romans 14 says, (because of this teaching) that Christians are not to divide over matters of diet or even the observance or non-observance of certain holy days. Why? Because “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.… Anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.” Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit is true religion. It is what Jesus came to teach and establish. Righteousness, peace, and joy are the spiritual opposites of kosher cooking and washed hands.
As we come to the end of Jesus’ radical words about the nature of true religion, which is the only religion God accepts, I ask the necessary question: Do you stand before God with clean hands only, that is, with mere ceremonial religion, or do you come with a new, clean heart?
Washing our hands in a religious way is not the issue today, of course, but the principle applies in other areas. For some this type of ceremonial religion means good works, perhaps giving money to help the poor or donating time to charity. A person like this supposes that he will be accepted by God for these works. Another person thinks in terms of religious observance, so she is faithful to attend Church services. Another person places weight on standing or sitting for prayers, how he holds his prayer book, or whether he crosses himself in entering a Church.
If you have been understanding religion in these or similar ways, you may have discovered that ceremonial things do nothing to change the nature of your heart. Regardless of how often you go to Church, it is still the case that out of your heart come such sins as “evil thoughts, … false testimony, slander, murder, adultery, sexual immorality [and] theft.”
You have two problems. You need forgiveness for your sins, and you need a new heart that will enable you to stop sinning and begin to serve God. Where can forgiveness be found? Where can a new heart be acquired? The Good News is that Jesus came to give you both. He died on the cross so you might have forgiveness, he bore the punishment for your sins in your place, and He rose again to impart the Holy Spirit, who is the source of new life. It is God alone who can give you a heart capable of loving and serving Him.
Do you want a new heart? The only place you will ever get it is from God the Father and from Jesus, who made the gift possible. Come to God. Ask Jesus for it. The Pharisees would not come, which is why they perished in their sins.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org