Matthew 15:1–20 CSB
1 Then Jesus was approached by Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, who asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “Why do you break God’s commandment because of your tradition? 4 For God said: Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death. 5 But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple,” 6 he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have nullified the word of God because of your tradition. 7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: 8 This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 9 They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands.” 10 Summoning the crowd, he told them, “Listen and understand: 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came up and told him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted. 14 Leave them alone! They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 Then Peter said, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 “Do you still lack understanding?” he asked. 17 “Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander. 20 These are the things that defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
Jesus has just been confronted by the Pharisees from Jerusalem. They were indirectly accusing Jesus of neglecting God’s Word. How? Because they, and most of the Jewish world, believed that the traditions of the elders were extensions of God’s law, they believed the disciples were neglecting God’s law. Because Jesus was the “teacher” of these disciples, to question the actions of the disciples would be to indirectly blame the teacher. While their attack on Jesus was subtle, NOTHING Jesus did to respond was subtle!
I believe there are still many in the “service of the church” today that teach doctrines of men for the sake of personal gain. Any of the “prosperity gospel” preachers would easily fit into this mold such as Joel Osteen.
The Pharisees accused the disciples of neglecting the tradition of the elders by not following the practice of ritual hand washing. Jesus accused the Pharisees of neglecting God’s Law by allowing people to dishonor their parents by pledging everything to the temple.
I want us to focus on verses 10-20 this morning:
Matthew 15:10 CSB
10 Summoning the crowd, he told them, “Listen and understand:
Apparently, the crowds backed away during the altercation between the Pharisees and Jesus. Most likely this was out of respect for the high position these religious elite from Jerusalem held. Apparently, they approached Jesus aside from the crowds and not a public display. In many ways it appears as though the words and actions of the Pharisees were very careful and even proper for their time. They confronted, in private, and did not directly make accusations but gave Jesus a chance to respond or defend himself.
NOTE: for all the things we want to slam these religious leaders for, THIS is something that we should be willing to understand and perhaps model in our society. Respectful, quiet, questioning is a great approach to those you disagree with to make sure you respect them and understand where they are coming from before making accusations.
JESUS called the crowds over. What he was going to say was for everyone to hear. This would be the EXACT opposite approach than the Pharisees took! He gets everyone around him, including the Pharisees, and says this:
Matthew 15:11 CSB
11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.”
FIRST, you have to understand that this was a radical statement! But to understand that, we really need to unpack a few of the components of it.
The reason for the ritual cleansing traditions of the elders was the belief that if your hands were impure/unclean, then the food you touched would be unclean/impure, which means that when you eat it you would become unclean/impure.
If you consider the effect of yeast/leaven and how it permeates the entire dough, you can see how this parallel would be made.
Therefore, to keep yourself clean and free from impurity, you would want to wash carefully.
If you think of the pandemic, what was the number one recommendation for avoiding it? WASH YOUR HANDS! A LOT! We understand how our hands can come in contact with things that are not clean, things that are harmful. Washing helps to keep that from entering our body and infecting us. This is similar to the way the Pharisees would have viewed impurity.
But what is this whole idea of defilement?
That is not a word we use a lot these days, is it?
I think we need to start by looking at what it means to be defiled.
SO, how could you become impure or contract it?
The first definition we have of defilement is “to make morally impure”. Let’s unpack that together.
One way to become defiled was to act in an immoral way - according to God’s definition of morality.
Leviticus 18 has many graphic examples of this such as having sex with your neighbors wife. Definitely WRONG!
Other ways to become defiled include bestiality; consulting spiritists; prostitution; or murder:
Numbers 35:33 CSB
33 “Do not defile the land where you live, for bloodshed defiles the land, and there can be no atonement for the land because of the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the person who shed it.
When someone or something was defiled in this way it took more than just washing, it also required a sacrifice to atone for one’s sin. However, the washing was still important.
The second definition we had referred to “ritual impurity” which was a byproduct of natural life events, not sin. For instance:
Leviticus 12 talks about a woman being ceremonially unclean after giving birth.
Leviticus 13 talks about certain skin conditions and diseases rendering someone ceremonially unclean.
Here is a good example excerpt:
Numbers 19:11–13 CSB
11 “The person who touches any human corpse will be unclean for seven days. 12 He is to purify himself with the water on the third day and the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches a body of a person who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord. That person will be cut off from Israel. He remains unclean because the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, and his uncleanness is still on him.
Many of the ceremonial laws were like this. Many of the situations were not wrong, but they represented death and dying and not life. Those things were contrary to God and did not belong in his presence and needed to be cleansed.
When someone became ritually defiled, they were disqualified for religious service or worship.
The third definition was to “become common”.
While I believe our passage is Matthew is primarily addressing moral impurity, as we will see in the explanation later on, I think this third definition helps us understand the greater context.
Remember, Jesus said:
Matthew 5:17 CSB
17 “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
To understand the PURPOSE of the law is important. When they failed to follow God’s commands they ceased being “holy” and become “common”.
It is hard for us to understand “holy” today. It literally means to be “set apart” or NOT common. David gave me a good insight when he mentioned a “wedding dress”. That is a very special item, right ladies? Do any of you have a dress that was passed down from a previous generation? It is a dress that you hopefully only wear one time, and for a specific event. Imagine if you bought one before being married and wore it to change the oil in the car, do chores in the barn, run a tough mudder… what would be the condition of that dress? Would it be the dress you would want to wear on your wedding day? Of course not! It would be stained, and no longer special or set apart, but common.
This altercation with the Pharisees is about more than just rules to be followed. It is about the fact that the Jews were called to be a holy people - a people set apart from other people. A people that God hand picked to be HIS people. As such they were to live a certain way and treat people a certain way - such as honoring one’s parents. By doing this, they were to be a light to the nations - pointing people to Yahweh.
Exodus 19:5–6 CSB
5 Now if you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession out of all the peoples, although the whole earth is mine, 6 and you will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.’ These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites.”
I think this is also a great reminder of OUR POSITION - that YOU AND I are called to be holy!
1 Peter 1:15–16 CSB
15 But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy.
THINK ABOUT THIS: something must first be holy before it can be defiled. Something that is common does not become more common. Something that is impure does not become more impure. In order to be defiled something must first be pure and holy.
Do not allow yourself to become common - you are UNCOMMON! Choose to live in obedience to the one who called you and purchased your freedom. When you and I live in obedience to God’s word - loving him and loving others - we are being holy in our conduct. We are holy. YOU ARE HOLY if you have been reconciled to God through Jesus.
Matthew 15:11 CSB
11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.”
Jesus was saying that food or germs are not what makes someone unable to worship or unholy or defiled. It is the conduct of that person - what they say and do - that determines if they are defiled.
AFTER Jesus makes this declaration to the crowds, which would have been buzzing about what was just said, there are some reactions recorded:
Matthew 15:12–14 CSB
12 Then the disciples came up and told him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted. 14 Leave them alone! They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Mark does not record this, but Matthew says, “Hey Jesus - you really upset those Pharisees!” This is the word “scandalized” - they were scandalized when you spoke. Of course! He just confronted them publicly in front of the crowd!
Then Jesus used two illustrations to describe them: Plants and blind guides. Both of these are things Jesus has already stated.
The plants being rooted up is very likely a direct reflection back to one of the passages we had about the Kingdom of God. The parable of the Wheat and the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30. In that parable, the enemy planted weeds that grow until the harvest when they are uprooted. Those weeds are the Pharisees.
Then, he compared the enlightened religious leaders to blind guides leading blind people. I believe this is a reflection back to the teaching of the eye being the lamp of the body.
Matthew 6:22–24 CSB
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light within you is darkness, how deep is that darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
When the eye is bad there is darkness or blindness. This is what Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of and in 6:24 he says that the reason some people are like this is because of greed. What did Jesus accuse the Pharisees of? Lining their own pockets with Corban - things dedicated to the temple as opposed to honoring the parents with it. Serving money instead of God.
NOTE: Matthew is great about continuing themes throughout his gospel, with each repetition shedding a bit more light and escalating the story and conflict.
So the Pharisees were scandalized and Jesus declared this is necessary because they are living for their own greed and they are bearing the fruit of the enemy - they are NOT the true children of God.
The second group is the disciples. Peter, the spokesperson for the disciples, asks for an explanation. Jesus gives him one.
Matthew 15:15–20 CSB
15 Then Peter said, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 “Do you still lack understanding?” he asked. 17 “Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander. 20 These are the things that defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
What goes in to the mouth comes out the bottom. In -> Down -> Out -> Gone. It is passed through. What he was basically saying was that contact with uncleanness does NOT necessarily make you unclean. This seems to totally contradict what we read about ceremonial purity!
This reminds me of the importance of Proximity. We were never called to live monastic lives but to be around those that might be considered “unclean”
Perhaps the greatest example of this was Jesus eating with “tax collectors and notorious sinners”. He demonstrated with his life that proximity to uncleaness is not what defiles a person.
CHURCH: you NEED to be around people who are NOT church people!
Verse 18 connects directly back to Matt 12:33-37. In Matthew 12:34 Jesus says, “... How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”
The reality is that defilement comes from within and not from without. If the heart is bad, the actions will be bad. Defilement is an issue of the heart!
To drive the point home, Jesus listed a bunch of ways that a person can defile himself. Verses 19 and 20 are actually references to the Decalogue, or the Ten Words.
Matthew Explanation of the Text
These are murder (sixth), adultery (seventh), stealing (eighth), and false witness (ninth and not in Mark’s list).
Mark records even more sins that come from the heart - 13 in all:
Mark 7:21–22 CSB
21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.
The LIST is important in that it renders Jesus statement back to the Law & Prophets - which he just declared the Pharisees had ignored. The Law says these things… and to do or say the opposite of these things is what defiles a person.
Notice how Jesus emphasized the laws that are specifically related to the way we treat other people? He did not start with the laws about having no other gods - he focused on the way we treat others. Mark does the same thing.
The way we practice our faith is so important. When we treat others the way God desires, it is an act of holiness.
OBEDIENCE to God allows one to remain holy for God.
DISOBEDIENCE to God defiles a person.
Those sins are based upon selfish living and therefore a lack of loving God and others. When we fail to love others we become defiled. When we fail to love God we become defiled.
Matthew 15:20 CSB
20 These are the things that defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
Faithlife Study Bible Chapter 15
15:20 These are the things that defile a person Jews believed that ritual purity protected them from incurring God’s wrath; they would not approach God if they were unclean. Jesus teaches that matters of the heart—not external ceremonial regulations—render people unfit to enter God’s presence.
It is not the outward actions of religiosity that make someone clean or holy. You can dress the right way, say the right things, give money, donate time, read your Bible and serve in a ministry - but if you do not love, it means NOTHING. ( see 1 Corinthians 13)
As we wrap up this section, perhaps we should stop and reflect on a few things from this passage. Remember your:
Don’t give up the amazing calling you have! Perhaps Paul's encouragement to the church is a great way to leave encouraged today”
Colossians 3:12–15 CSB
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. 14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.