Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
Matthew 15:10-11 New Living Translation
The Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus begins to ramp up in Chapter 15 of Matthew’s account. Jesus is still in Galilee but, apparently, leaders in Jerusalem thought it was necessary to send a team to check out what Jesus was teaching and doing. The first thing they observed was that the disciples were not following the ceremonial rituals for proper handwashing as they ate. This wasn’t to say they weren’t cleaning their hands for hygiene purposes but they were not abiding by the interpretations of how to wash hands according to the law as they were taught by the Pharisees. The Pharisees saw this as evidence to deny that Jesus was the Messiah that so many were claiming He would be.
Jesus confronted the attitude of the Pharisees by showing how they had put their own traditions ahead of the purposes of the law God had given Israel many years before. He cites a specific example of how people were avoiding the commandment about honoring parents by designating resources that would go to caring for parents in a time of need as a donation to the Temple. People had gotten into the practice of dishonoring and neglecting their older parents through a loophole the Pharisees had created in their interpretation of the law. He tells his disciples later that the religious teachers of the day have become like blind guides that lead people astray with the way they have created traditions that miss the heart of what God had desired for Israel in giving them the law so many years before that.
Jesus then goes after the heart of what true cleanliness before God means. In front of these investigators from Jerusalem, He tells the crowd that what they take in as food does not defile them before God. It is what comes out of the mouth from the heart that makes a person unclean in God’s eyes. He later explains to His disciples what He means by this. He reminds them that when food enters the body, the body pulls the nutrients it needs out of the food and then the waste is discarded by the body. It never touches the heart. In their culture, the heart was seen as the center of all intellectual and emotional functions in a person. It represented the true identity of a person. What Jesus told His disciples was that this was where all good and evil was originated in people and it produced the good and evil ideas and actions that came out of them. Jesus was pointing them back to the words of the Old Testament prophets that the Messiah would bring change to the hearts of people to live according to the law because of the character He was forming in them and not following a list of manmade requirements.
As followers of Jesus, we inherit this promise of having a new heart created within us that helps us to resist the temptation toward evil and live a life that brings about the love, hope, justice, and goodness that God desires for us. As such, we also learn to give our fellow followers of Jesus space as the Holy Spirit continues to work in them to create a new heart that best represents the image of God in them. If we try to impose our external traditions and rules on others, we run the risk of becoming blind guides who lead others astray by placing our man made traditions ahead of the spirit of God’s law. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for discernment in what we take in intellectually to feed our spirits. If we feed those attitudes of our hearts that are contrary to love, hope, justice, and goodness, the fruit that comes out of our hearts will more likely be bent in that direction. Still, the attitudes were resident in us from the beginning and it is our choice to nourish them or resist them. As we allow the Spirit to produce the good things that God desires within us, though, we are free from the mandates of man made traditions by which others may try to judge the work of the Spirit within us.
Jesus, create new hearts in us that are drawn to the good things that God desires for us and the world around us. Help us to also resist the temptation to substitute external,manmade traditions for the work of the Holy Spirit within us.