26 October 2019Matthew 15:1-20
Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. (vs. 16-18)
Psalm: Psalm 91
As we approach the end of the week, our last text continues the story of Jesus’ contentious conversation with the Pharisees. After condemning the Pharisees as hypocrites, he asserts (vs. 8-9) that they were the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus then turns his attention to teaching the crowd that what one eats doesn’t cause defilement of the body. Defilement is characterised by what comes out of their mouth.
Defilement isn’t a term we often use in our 21st-century context. We seem quite disconnected from ancient laws of ritual purity. Jewish law prohibited consumption of certain foods, such as shellfish and pork, because they were considered ritually unclean. Although Jewish practice after 70 AD would require hand washing before meals of all Jewish people, Jesus is not concerned that eating with unwashed hands will make the body ritually unclean and in need of ritual purification.
Instead, Jesus teaches that one’s ethics provides the evidence of purity or defilement. The food and drink that people consume go into the mouth and pass through the body's natural processes. How is this defiling to the body? We aren’t what we eat. What makes a person unclean or immoral is what comes from within them. The words we speak and the actions we take provide evidence of what is really in our hearts and minds.
A person close to me once walked out of the Christian Ethics course of a well-known American professor because the professor started his first lecture with a string of swearing expletives. When the professor asked him where he was going, the student responded that he couldn’t take a course about the character of Christian living from someone whose language was so foul. “It is what comes out of the mouths that defiles us,” the student said as a way of expressing the conflict he was experiencing. Jesus says in Matthew 15:19-20, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person . . .” What we say, how we act and the way we treat other people shows what is really in our hearts.
- If words like 'defile' and 'defilement' are a stumbling block to understanding this text, what contemporary words would you use to replace them as you ponder the passage?
- To what extent do you agree or disagree with the passage that what comes out of our mouths (or through our actions) demonstrates our real character? Why does it make how Christians speak and act?