In Matthew 15, the Pharisees confront Jesus about the table manners of his disciples.
By this point in Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisee’s have taken an openly hostile stance toward Jesus. In our passage today (v. 1) the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus from Jerusalem. One commentator says it’s as if they are on “religious patrol.”
(v. 2) They ask Jesus why his disciples “break the tradition of the elders,” and eat without washing their hands. This hand washing rule doesn’t come from God’s law. It is a rule built around God’s law, like a fence which doesn’t let people get close enough to God’s law to break it.
In the law of Moses, if a person touched certain things – a dead body, certain foods, a diseased person, etc….. it made you ceremonially unclean, and you couldn’t enter the temple for worship until you went through the proper cleansing process. This hand washing rule was likely originally created out of a desire to honour God whole heartedly and to ensure holiness. Traditions are not bad per se - they are actually necessary for people to live together in community and to function as a church or family. Kept in their proper place, they can serve ends greater than themselves. But the tradition, the extra rules created around God’s law, became more authoritative than God’s law for the Pharisees. It effectively replaced God’s law for them.
Jesus will have none of it.
(v. 3-6) He pushes back and asks the Pharisees why they break God’s commandments (stronger than in Mark: “law of Moses”) in order to keep their man-made traditions. God commanded to “honour your father and mother” and that “whoever reviles his parents must be put to death.” But the Pharisees have invented a tradition that allows them to neglect their parents.
If they make a vow to God, they can dedicate to him (korban) what they ought to have used to care for their parents. The scribes and Pharisees have circumvented God’s Word with their own traditions.
Jesus calls them on this. “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
(v. 7) He calls them “hypocrites” – religious phonies. The scribes and Pharisees are supposed to be the interpreters of Scripture and the teachers of Israel. But by their human traditions they break God’s commandments and teach others to break them. Ironically, this they do all in the name of holiness.
(v. 8-9) Jesus applies Isaiah 29:13 to the Pharisees. They honour God with their lips – – but their hearts are far from God. Their worship of God is vain; they teach man-made commandments as if they were God’s Word.
Further along, in Isaiah 29:16 it speaks of those who “turn things upside down.” The Pharisees break God’s law and substitute their own rules in its place.
Isaiah 29:18-19 speaks of the Messiah, who will heal the deaf and blind. This is exactly what Jesus has been doing. Isaiah speaks of the meek and poor being blessed by YHWH and by the Holy One of Israel. Recall the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pronounces, “blessed are the meek….blessed are the poor in heart.” The Holy One of Israel is Jesus. In Jesus, YHWH is healing and blessing. But the Pharisees have set themselves against Jesus, and therefore they oppose YHWH.
Isaiah 29:21 speaks of those who “by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right.” That is exactly what the Pharisees are doing to Jesus. They are trying to lay a snare for him, even as he is reproving them and calling all people to repentance - calling Israel to trust in him.
Jesus sees through the Pharisees. He points out their hypocrisy. The scrupulous “holiness” of their traditions is really a way of disobeying and dishonouring God….
Its really a way of rejecting Jesus, God’s Messiah.
**And this is what our passage today is all about. It’s about two contrasting visions of holiness: that of the Pharisees and that of Jesus.
The Pharisees and scribes have a negative application of holiness. The Pharisees think holiness is all about what to avoid. They believe that by washing their hands before eating, they will avoid becoming unclean. They’re not talking about dirt or germs, but about ceremonial uncleanness, religious defilement, about coming in contact with something, or someone, that will prevent them from being able to enter the temple.
Jesus’ application of Isaiah to the Pharisees brings their idea of holiness up short. It is a man-made holiness; it turns true holiness upside-down. The Pharisee’s idea of holiness is idolatrous and false.
Calvin called the sinful human heart an idol factory. We know this to be true, don’t we? We prefer our own ideas and standards of holiness to those of God’s Word.
God’s Word is a mirror, and we look into it and see the reflection of our sinful hearts, and we don’t like what we see. So, we make up our own standards of holiness. Those standards usually look an awful lot like what we already do, and who we already are. Its only others that don’t measure up to the standards we make!
We replace the mirror of God’s Word with a self-portrait of our own making, and we are pleased with how well we measure up. But it’s a false standard; it’s a false vision of holiness, one which we’ve created in our own image.
Our false standards of holiness are nothing more than idols.
But Jesus vision of holiness comes from God’s Word. He calls the people to him (v. 10) and tells them, “its not what goes into your mouth that defiles a person”, but what comes out of your mouth.
This offends the Pharisees (v. 12) – but Jesus doesn’t care. (v. 13) He says the Pharisees are like plants that are not planted by the heavenly Father. This echoes Matt. 13, the parable of the wheat and the tares. The Pharisees are weeds sown in the wheat field of the kingdom. They will be rooted up eventually, separated, and cast out. Jesus says, don’t have anything to do with the Pharisees and their version of holiness (v. 14). They are blind and whoever follows them will be blind too, and will come to disaster.
Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable (v.15-20) and Jesus replies, “are you still so thick?”
Clean and unclean, holiness and defilement – these are not about what you put into your mouth. Holiness is not about avoiding particular things that we decide are unclean. Holiness is not about keeping a set of rules or traditions we ourselves have created. Holiness and defilement is based on God’s Word.
Jesus is the measure of holiness. This is a positive view of holiness.
The Pharisees’ tradition of washing their hands before eating so they won’t be defiled is a farce. You can put a gold ring in a filthy pig’s snout, but it won’t make it beautiful. You can paint a tomb white, but it still has rotting bodies inside. Jesus knows the Pharisees’ hearts are far from God.
And that’s what holiness is all about: nearness to God. Holiness is about what is inside you.
Defilement comes from what is inside us; its in the sinful human heart. What you put into your mouth doesn’t much matter, Jesus says (Mark’s gospel notes that in this teaching Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’). Its what comes out of our mouths that defiles us; that proves we are unholy.
That’s because “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” It is what is in our hearts that determines whether we are clean or unclean; whether we are holy or defiled.
Back in Matt. 12, Jesus had a confrontation with the Pharisees. They accused him of casting out demons by the prince of demons. In response Jesus called them a “brood of vipers.” He said (12:34) that a tree is known by its fruit: a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
That is what Jesus is teaching here as well. We produce fruit in keeping with what is in our hearts. Jesus says that out of the heart comes “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” just as we read in Ephesians 5:1-6 this morning.
These are things that God’s Word calls sin.
And in case you or I feel good about ourselves -- -- Jesus reminds us, as he did in the Sermon on the Mount, that evil thoughts also defile us. Evil thoughts are the seeds of all those other sins.
It is out of the abundance of the heart that we speak and act.
Let’s think about the Pharisees actions. Jesus says they refused to care for their parents under the pretense of dedication to God. In this they were breaking God’s Word. The Pharisees were claiming to love God by failing to love their parents.
1 John tells us that this cannot be. We can’t claim to love God and hate our neighbour. If we truly love God, we will love others.
And this is the kind of holiness Jesus shows us all through the gospel of Matthew – the holiness of love.
(Matt 9:20-22) A woman with a flow of blood – something that would have made her ceremonially unclean – touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and it doesn’t defile Jesus, it makes her well.
Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors and it doesn’t defile him. Instead, they repent and believe in him.
(Matt. 8:5ff; 15:21ff) Gentiles come to Jesus for healing – a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Jesus heals his servant and casts a demon out of her daughter.
Jesus touches lepers – but he doesn’t become unclean; the leper is healed – made clean.
(Matt 8:28-34) In a Gentile region, in a grave yard, among a herd of swine, Jesus casts “unclean spirits” out of two men. This scene can’t get any more defiled for a Pharisee: unclean 4 times over. And what happens? Jesus doesn’t become defiled >> the demon-possessed men are made clean, restored.
Again and again Jesus reaches out in love, restores broken people. Over and over Jesus forgives people’s sins. He is not defiled by sinful or broken people. Instead, those who come to him in faith are made clean, restored, healed, forgiven.
This is true holiness. It comes from Jesus. It can only dwell in us when Jesus dwells in us. Jesus’ love and grace and forgiveness makes people holy. He must graciously replace our sinful heart with a new heart full of his own love, full of his own Spirit. Holiness comes when Jesus makes his home in us /// when he writes his own law on our hearts.
Jesus is the one who takes the defilement from our hearts upon himself, and takes the penalty for our unholiness, for our sin. He takes that on himself on the cross. And in exchange, he gives us his own righteousness; he gives us himself.
We come to him like the crippled, or the lepers, or the tax collectors, and in faith we ask Jesus to forgive us, to make us well….
….And he enters in. When Jesus dwells in us, then our hearts are filled with him, with his Holy Spirit.
He takes away our sin and defilement and he gives us a heart after his own heart. Only then, in the new life he gives, out of our mouths, and through our actions, proceeds his love and his holiness through us.
Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, dwelling in us >>> that is the only true holiness.