“What Comes Out of Your Heart”
January 5, 2014
Jesus calls us to see our fallen hearts as the heart of the problem.
I. Judged for externals (Matthew 15:1-9)
II. Offended by the truth (Matthew 15:10-14)
III. Focused on the heart (Matthew 15:15-20)
Last fall we studied passages from the first 14 chapters of Matthew – not every verse, but a lot of them, with a focus on the harder or less studied passages. This spring we’ll continue that, and I’ve laid it out to reach the resurrection on Easter. So where have we been? The first few chapters of Matthew were preparatory, Jesus’ birth, the beginning of his ministry. In chapters 5 to 7 we were in the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of Jesus’ teaching. Chapters 8 to 10 showed how Jesus begin to compassionately live out his own teaching, and chapters 11 to 14 showed how he responded to a rising tide of opposition.
Now, in Matthew 15, that opposition continues and sharpens, and Jesus uses it to clarify his priorities. In the Sermon on the Mount he said the Old Testament law was really about the heart, not just external conformity. Here he takes that further and calls us to see our fallen hearts as the heart of the problem. We’ll begin in verses 1-9, where the Pharisees challenge Jesus about his disciples’ ceremonial purity, and Jesus challenges them to take God’s intent seriously.
Matthew 15:1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
The teachers of the Law, and the Pharisees, have challenged Jesus before, but the fact that this group is from Jerusalem may give them higher status in the eyes of the people. They ask Jesus “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” This was oral tradition, teaching passed on from one generation to the next. It interpreted the law in detailed rules of conduct, and the Pharisees viewed it as having authority nearly equal to Scripture. It was later written and is known as the Mishnah. The specific complaint they voice sounds a bit petty: “For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” The Mishnah has a whole chapter on ‘hands,’ specifying such details as how much water must be used, and how it must be poured. And their concern was not sanitation. The sanitary value of hand washing was unrecognized. This concern was ceremonial law.
Jesus' words, are less a response than a counterattack: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Notice that he makes a fundamental distinction between the authority of the command of God, as found in Scripture, and the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, he says, were guilty of breaking the former for the sake of the latter.
For God commanded you to ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ The first phrase is from Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments. The second is from Exodus 21 and imposes a death penalty for speaking evil of your parents. Jesus chooses a clear, unambiguous element of God’s law for his counterexample. Verse 5: But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6he need not honor his father.’ The reference here is to a Pharisaic practice of putting all or some of their worldly goods ‘in trust’ to God.
Today we can create a living trust instead of a will; our assets are officially given to our heirs, but we have use of them until we die. In that day they could declare their wealth ‘corban:’ it officially belonged to God but they had use of it until they died. Because giving to God was more righteous than giving to parents, they reasoned that they no longer had an obligation to support their parents out of their wealth, which is what the commandment to honor requires. Verse 6: So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. They used legal mumbo jumbo to avoid the heart level implications of Scripture.
Verse 7: You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Jesus calls his opponents hypocrites, using the Greek word for a play-actor, one who impersonates someone he isn’t. In this case, and the many cases that follow, Jesus is accusing the scribes and Pharisees of pretending to honor God while in fact doing what they want to do. He sees a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in them: they honor God with their words but their hearts are far from God, because they teach their own laws and rules as God’s doctrines.
In applying Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is saying two important things to all of us. First, in keeping with all he’s said in Matthew, he makes it explicit that God’s focus is on the location of our hearts. If our hearts are far from him even words and actions that seem to honor him are of no value in his sight. He wants our hearts to be close to him. One of his key promises in the drama of redemption is ‘I will be with you.’ We just celebrated ‘Immanuel,’ God with Us, the one who will die on a cruel cross so our sins will no longer separate us from our God. But if God is willing to do that, why would we let our hearts be far from Him?
Second, our tendency when our hearts are far from him is to put up rules, especially rules for others. I can’t fully explain this, but Scripture and experience show it to be so: performance religion and heart religion seem mutually exclusive. And if we ourselves focus on the laws, the rules, and earning God’s favor by performance, we naturally feel everyone else should do that too. Jason Gray’s Christmas album has a song by the wise men which says this well: “It’s easier to give a gift of gold than to give my heart for another to hold. It’s easier. It’s easier to give you the things I do than to open my life and let you walk through. It’s easier.” Jesus wants our whole hearts, every thought, feeling and decision, to be offered to him and wants to be close to our hearts in every circumstance.
So we’ve seen that the religious leaders were judging externals; ‘they don’t wash their hands.’ But Jesus knows they’re using the rules as a hypocritical excuse to avoid the deeper intent of the law because their hearts are far from God. So they find the truth offensive, verses 10 to 14: And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Jesus’ previous words about the Pharisees and teachers of the law had been private. Now he teaches the crowd the same things. He also answers the Pharisees' question of verse 2 directly, not just by countercharge. The disciples call this answer a parable, but it is not one that is meant to be obscure: he urges the crowd to hear and understand. Nonetheless, few seem to have grasped it, and even the disciples had trouble with it, as we will see in verses 15 and16.
So, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” The word defiles means to make someone unclean or common, someone has broken the law and become impure in the eyes of God and excluded from fellowship with him. Jesus says this state of separation does not happen because of the violation of ceremonial laws or the traditions of the elders, but because of what comes out of a person’s mouth; in this case hypocrisy and judgment and evident lack of heart religion. It is the outward working of the inward hardness that makes us unclean in God’s sight.
So Jesus establishes a principle much wider than the narrow case of unwashed hands: nothing that goes into the mouth makes a person unclean. Mark, in his Gospel add a phrase “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods `clean.'" Matthew doesn’t give this explanation: the principle itself, he seems to feel, makes it clear.
This bold confrontation of his opponents worries the disciples: “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” Jesus deflects them from this concern with two images: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” The first image predicts the rooting up of any plant the heavenly Father has not planted. Israel rightly saw herself as planted by God. Isaiah 60:21 “Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified.” But often the prophets used the image against them: “Isaiah 5:5 “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.” Jesus is saying that many of the leaders of the Jewish people, not truly part of God's planting, will be rooted up.
The second image reflects a title some Jewish leaders apparently took on themselves. They knew the law, they reasoned, and thus were "guides of the blind." Jesus says "blind guides of the blind." They had the law, they interpreted it every week in the synagogues, but they didn’t understand the Scripture they claimed to follow. Jesus' consistent expectation is that anyone who understands the "word of God" will discern who he is and follow him. The Pharisees did not.
So to the person who has the outward form of religion but not heart reality, Jesus has strong words; you are a plant without fruit, a weed in God’s garden, a blind guide leading the blind into a pit. Earlier this year I connected with an album called ‘Land of the Living.’ The songwriter, Matthew Perryman Jones, sings several of the Indelible Grace songs we enjoy. But his own album is more contemporary and in his song ‘Poisoning the Well’ he critiques the church in our generations not too different than Jesus pointed at his: “A dead man walks a crowded street; into the place the grand assembly meets; Guilty hands stitched on their mouths; narrow fingers aimed to point you out; Oh, strain to tell; Sound the mission bell; The magistrate is poisoning the well.” If we recognize the well as God’s truth, then the Pharisees, and not a few of their descendants in our day have poisoned the well for many by their hypocrisy.
In the last few verses Jesus explains the underlying truth, the heart of the matter, the state of our hearts. Verses 15-20: But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
The disciples' request to have the parable explained does not reveal them as having less understanding than the Pharisees but shows that, in common with most Jews at the time, they held the Pharisees in high regard and therefore wanted to be certain of exactly what Jesus had said that had offended them so badly. Nonetheless, their failure to understand distresses Jesus: ‘are you also, still, without understanding? All right, let me explain this to you plainly: whatever goes into a man’s mouth passes through the stomach and is expelled.’ Despite the fact that God’s law said a lot about foods that were unclean, and despite the fact that the scribes and Pharisees had multiplied this teaching a hundred times, the whole food thing is not what makes us clean or unclean in the sight of God. Our keeping of these laws cannot make us acceptable to him, and our failure to keep these laws is not what causes us to be distanced from him.
Instead, Jesus says, it is what comes out of the mouth, from the heart, that defiles a person. Separation from God is a heart issue, because, Jesus says, the heart of fallen man is evil. Verse 19: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” It’s interesting that only the last two of these sins are directly related to our speech: false witness and slander – both of which can cause deep loss to the person targeted. The first item, evil thoughts, is essentially a bridge between the evil of the heart and the expression of that evil in words and deeds. It seems to me that James, in his analysis, covers the same ground: ‘But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.’ That I think is the evil inherent in our fallen hearts. Then, he says, ‘desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.’ The conceiving is the part where the evil desire takes hold of our thoughts, and the birth of sin is when the thought become words and actions.
So out of the heart come evil thoughts, and the evil thought lead to words and deeds: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. This is obviously not intended to be a comprehensive list. In fact the list in Mark’s record of this incident has five more of these characteristic sins: coveting, deceit, sensuality, pride and foolishness. But whether the list is short or long, we each need to recognize that without radical purification of our hearts, nothing good comes out of us, only varied sins and weaknesses reflecting the unique way that God created us and our fallenness.
One of the lies told about the Gospels over many years is that Jesus was just a gentle teacher of an enlightened ethic. There is truth in that, but a passage like this teaches us that Jesus agreed with the Bible’s diagnosis of humanity’s fallen condition, agreed with the awfulness of sin and its impact, and if anything deepened a biblical understanding of the helplessness of men and women without God.
Just as the books of Moses taught us that men will not keep God’s good law, just as the sacrifices taught us that sin has a price, just as the history of Israel taught us that men will not follow God, just as the prophets told us that there is no justice among men, so Jesus affirms that at a heart level, we are hopeless producers of sin. And yet this whole second half of Matthew that we begin today is pointed like an arrow toward the cross and toward his blood that was poured out for many, Jesus says, for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus does not have a solution to our heart problem, Jesus is the solution to our heart problem.
Even here in Matthew, as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists that the true direction in which the Old Testament law points is toward what he is, and what he inaugurates. He has fulfilled the law; therefore whatever force it continues to have is determined by its relationship to him. Jesus not only rejected the Pharisees and teachers of the law as authentic interpreters of Scripture but assigned that role finally and absolutely to himself. Historically the conflict between Jesus and the traditional interpreters of Scripture would wax fierce and would ultimately bring him to the Cross; theologically the fundamental distinction between a Christian and a Jewish reading of Scripture must be traced to Jesus himself. What concerned Jesus was not so much the form of religion as human nature. He wanted to see people transformed and their hearts renewed because he came to save his people from their sins.
So the key application of this truth is at the heart level; we’ll address that in a minute in communion. But there is an important secondary application and that is to examine ourselves to see if we are anything like the scribes and the Pharisees, who through an unwillingness to face their own hearts begin to substitute an external and hypocritical form of religion. If we do that, we grieve Jesus. We need to examine ourselves not only so that we will accept the cure for our fallen hearts, but to repent of any behavior and words that perpetuate the myth that salvation comes through performance. We can’t meet that standard: it is hypocritical and cruel to tell others that that is the path to salvation and life.
A third album I’ve listened to recently is ‘Beyond the Frame’ by Andy Gullahorn. One of the songs, “A Line in the Sand” tells a story of Andy’s own journey toward a grace-filled-truth. The title reflects on the fact that when Jesus stood between the woman caught in adultery and the Pharisees with their stones, he was rewriting their understanding of the sin in their own hearts. The middle verse goes like this “There was a time I was on fire. I had a love for a Word I thought I knew but didn’t understand. ‘Cause I used it as a weapon to judge from on high, with no love or grace for any who were struggling. But struggles of my own I could not hide, and I found myself among the least of men; So you might imagine my surprise as I came to recognize myself in them.
What I thought was true, what I thought was right, sure looks a little different after all this time. No the truth won’t change, but perspective can. So much for the line in the sand; So much for the line in the sand. Nobody knows what he wrote on the ground, between the men with the stones and the one left to die. But there in the sand in front of that crowd, was the sweep of a hand erasing a line.” That’s what today’s text is; it’s a hand erasing the line we have drawn that keeps us on the side of expected externals and prevents honest self-examination of the brokenness in our hearts. My prayer is that we will do that self-examination today, and see our fallen hearts as the heart of the problem.