Cleanliness and Dirtiness

Matthew 15:10-20


Dutch people are known for their cleanliness. I still remember with astonishment when I heard that some people in our community even wash the walls of their garage! I do not believe I have ever done that in my entire life. I have heard that there are people who will wash and polish their tractors before going out into the field. Cleanliness is a great thing. The old adage is true “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” What I would like to do is to expand that idea so that we are talking about all forms of cleanliness, not just outward cleanliness, and also so that we can make sure that we have them in proper priority. Jesus is going to help us do that in our passage here.

Remember from last time that the Pharisees had accused Jesus of breaking the traditions of the elders by having the disciples eat with unwashed hands. The reasoning went like this: if you ate with unwashed hands, then the food you were eating would become unclean as well. If unclean food goes inside you, then your whole body becomes unclean. The Pharisees hated dirtiness almost as much as Dutch people! So they wanted to avoid that at all costs. Unfortunately for them, they tended to neglect other kinds of cleanliness. This is what Jesus is going to tell them in our passage. There is a more important kind of cleanliness, and that is of the heart.

Verse 10 is really quite remarkable. Jesus is saying that there is a fundamental error of direction in the teaching of the Pharisees. The Pharisees are all concerned about what is going in the mouth. Jesus says that that’s wrong. What makes a person really unclean is not what goes in, but what comes out. It’s a question of direction. It is important to realize just how revolutionary this would have sounded to a Pharisee. What about all the dietary laws of the Old Testament? Didn’t those count anymore? To the Pharisees, Jesus was not just attacking the traditions anymore. Now He was attacking the Old Testament. But of course, Jesus was not attacking the Old Testament. He was saying that the OT food laws no longer apply to Christians today. But the reason for that is that the line of demarcation was changing. The food laws existed in the Old Testament to mark out the people of God from the world. The worldly people ate everything, whereas the people of God ate only what was clean. The purpose of all those kinds of laws in Leviticus particularly was to mark out the people of God as different from the world. Of course, that physical difference was supposed to point to a spiritual difference as well. Circumcision also functioned this way, marking out the Israelite males from the world’s males. But circumcision was not merely a physical sign. Even the Old Testament said that circumcision was always supposed to be a matter of the heart. Circumcise your hearts, and not your flesh, says Deuteronomy. That didn’t mean that they should no longer circumcise. Rather, it meant that the Israelites were always to be thinking about the spiritual reality behind circumcision. The same is true of the food laws. What is really clean? Who may ascend the hill of the Lord, as the Psalm asks? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. When Jesus comes, then, He is saying that the thing that will now mark out the people of God is a clean heart. Jesus is simultaneously saying that what defiles a person comes from inside the person.

In verses 12-14 we have a somewhat humorous little diversion, as the disciples think they have to explain something to Jesus. They think that Jesus didn’t really know that He had offended the Pharisees! Jesus responds with a statement about God the Gardener. God the Gardener is the one Who plants and Who digs up what is planted by someone else. Jesus is saying here, in effect, that the Pharisees are nothing but weeds. If we remember the parable of the wheat and the tares, I think we will see that Jesus is reminding us of that parable here, and that the Pharisees will be uprooted in the day of judgment. Verse 14 tells us to leave alone such teachers. We shouldn’t have any dealings with such people, for they are blind guides. The Pharisees thought of themselves as guides of the blind, but Jesus says here that they themselves are blind. So if one blind man leads another blind man, they will both fall into a pit.

After this short diversion, Peter gets back to the question at hand by asking Jesus to explain. You see, the disciples were having trouble understanding this as well. Is Jesus really saying that we can eat pork now? Interestingly, Peter, who asks Jesus to explain here, still won’t get it until Acts 10, where he sees the sheet with all the supposedly unclean foods on it, and the Lord tells him to eat of those now clean foods. In fact, Mark tells us that that is exactly what Jesus means here. Mark says, “In so saying, Jesus declared all foods clean.” The fulfillment of those dietary laws is at hand in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is a little exasperated with the disciples. He says in effect, “You still don’t get it, do you? Why are you so slow? This isn’t rocket science!” Verse 17 says it all. What you eat does one of two things. Whatever is useful in your food is retained by your body to be used for the cells in your body. Whatever is not useful is expelled into the toilet. Jesus actually uses the word toilet here, and we will shortly see why. The point is that nothing unclean remains in the body! The body already knows what to do with useless materials. It just expels useless materials.

But physical uncleanness is not really Jesus’ top priority here. He is more concerned about spiritual uncleanness. Verse 18 says it very clearly: what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. The Pharisees were making the same mistake that my professor once made. His wife looked outside at their apple trees, and there wasn’t any delicious-looking fruit on it. The fruit was all ugly and rotten. His wife asked my professor if there was anything he could do about it. One week later, she looked out of the kitchen window to see her husband with a ladder, a stapler, and a bushel basket of apples! He then proceeded to staple these apples on to the tree. Looked great for a while. But those apples were not part of the tree. The heart of the tree was still bad. This is the problem with much of modern counseling, by the way. We are frantically trying to change outward behavior. We just want the person to behave. And yet, no attention is paid to the root (pun intended!) of the problem: our hearts! If no change happens in the heart, then no permanent change will occur in the behavior. We must recognize this fact about ourselves, or there is no hope, because we will look for solutions in all the wrong places.

Jesus tells us in this passage that we should be more bothered by what comes out of our heart than we should be by what happens in the toilet. This is because our hearts are dirtier than any toilet. And we cannot be cleansed until we realize this fact. Jesus tells us in verse 19 how this happens: every sin that we can imagine starts in the heart. Even our outward behavior stems from the heart. This is the point of mentioned murder and adultery, theft and slander. Those are all supposedly outward sins: but Jesus here tells us that they all start in the heart. And a sin that starts in the heart will eventually come out. You know, the Bible tells us that drunkenness is a sin. Sometimes we like to think that a person who is drunk sort of becomes a different person. But this same professor once told me that there is nothing that comes out of the mouth of a drunkard that wasn’t in his heart when he was sober. All drunkenness does is remove the restraints so that what is in the heart comes out without any hindrance at all. Sin always starts in the heart, and moves outward from there.

What can cleanse such hearts! Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse our hearts. This is what baptism represents. Baptism is a sign of water that points to a spiritual reality of Christ’s cleansing blood. When God gives us faith in Christ, then, our sins are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, and that makes our baptism complete. It happens when we have faith. It is not the mere outward sign of water, as we ought to know. Outward water cannot wash away sins, anymore than having clean hands means that you have a pure heart. The one who can enter the presence of the Lord must have clean hands AND a pure heart. Only God can make that heart pure. Psalm 51 is so important in this regard. It says “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Pure me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” You see, that Psalm was written after Nathan had confronted David with David’s sin concerning Bathsheba and Uriah. David understood that it was not just the outward sin that was the problem. It was the inner heart that was the problem. So, when he prays, he does not pray for the outside to be clean only. He prays for his whole person to be cleansed from sin. Most importantly, he prays for a clean heart.

We all need to pray for clean hearts. We are cleansed once and for all when we come to faith in Jesus’ cleansing blood. However, there is also a sense in which we need daily cleansing as well, in order to keep our relationship with God clean. How often do we repent of our mental sins? How often do we think about how we have offended God in our hearts? I would challenge us this week to consider the sins of the heart. Ask the Lord to show them to us. Be limp and malleable under God’s searching gaze, knowing that when the truth comes into the open, cleansing can happen. When we don’t confess, then our bones rot away, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 38. But when we confess our sins to our God, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. As David says, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The Lord despises hypocrisy. It seems that the more a person is focused on merely outward things, the more he ignores his inward heart condition. The Lord is telling us to reverse that priority.

There is, of course, a danger in all this. When you look too much inside yourself, you can become lost in the maze of your own heart. The point here is not to lose yourself inside yourself, but rather to acknowledge the sin that is there, and then immediately to look to your Savior. For the strength of our salvation does not depend on how strong our faith is, but on how strong our Savior is. Look to Him for cleansing! And you will be healed.

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