A man relied upon an experienced guide while crossing a dangerous African swamp. The two stepped from one clump of grass to another as they crossed. The clumps all looked alike to the man, but the guide repeatedly warned about certain clumps. They all appeared to be secure…but, while some of the clumps were fastened to rocks, others were free-floating. The native had learned by experience how to tell the difference between the two. What the guide knew that his follower did not could very possibly save his life. He had learned wisdom through his experience. He knew that if he did not take care to attend to the things that truly mattered, that all could be lost.
This is, in essence, what Jesus is saying in this section of Matthew 15 (vv.1-20). Jesus is dealing with Jewish leaders who had become not only distracted, but corrupt -- their hearts were not right with God. They had indiscriminately stepped, religiously, where they were not supposed to, and this led them down a path away from God. What they needed was a right religion -- one based upon a genuine relationship with God -- that would help them not to please themselves, but to seek God with all their hearts. At times, we believers can say the right things, do the right things, keep all of the correct regulations, traditions…and still be far from God. Unlike the Pharisees, we have every opportunity to make good, spiritual decisions for our lives, and this will ultimately be the difference between whether we sink or swim. As I shared from John’s gospel recently, the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and Helper that we need. God, through the Holy Spirit, is the guide that helps His people to know where to step.
Meanwhile, in an unsurprising development, some Scribes and Pharisees come to test Jesus. They accuse His disciples of breaking “the traditions of the elders.” These traditions (or Mishnah) were a significant number of extra rituals and regulations that the Scribes and Pharisees thought the Jewish people should do as a part of their belief system. Jesus’ disciples were not adhering to the ritual purification cleansings before eating bread. (The stone jars at the wedding at Cana in John 2 were those that were used for such washings). To the Pharisees and Scribes question, Jesus asks a question of His own…and by so doing, tells them that they are violating the Word of God for the sake of their traditions. In a similar situation (Luke 11:37-39), Jesus tells the Pharisees and Scribes that “they clean the outside of the cup, but the inside is dirty”…that is, that they look good on the outside, but that they are full of wickedness. They looked good, sounded good, probably even used their Axe body spray, but they were corrupt in their hearts.
Jesus tells them, in essence, that they know that a Jew is not to speak evil of his father or mother (as seen in the Ten Commandments), yet they neglect their parents by taking their Corban, “retirement money” (similar to social security) “committed” to them and give it to God (as a contribution). In so doing these Jews were claiming to be doing “the righteous thing.” But, they were taking away from their parents, thereby making void God’s Word. (It is what we call “straining for gnats and swallowing camels”…or nonsense). Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 and plainly tells these Jews – “you are of two minds” (hypocrites). Their hearts are “far, far away” from God, and because of this, their worship is in vain. Jesus goes even further to explain His words (vv.10-11). "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth…that is what makes him 'unclean.'" The disciples see it as a parable (v.15), but it is a critical statement. The key thought is that…it is an inner, spiritual religion that matters, not an outer “going through the motions” religion.
Now the disciples come back and tell Jesus…in one of the great “duh” moments in the New Testament…saying – “Do you know that you offended the Scribes and Pharisees?” Yes, He knows. In fact it was possibly a shock value statement for a purpose -- He wants them “to hear and understand.” And not just the religious folks, He wants His disciples to understand that these religious leaders are not reliable as “spiritual” guides. Jesus presents two more images --”plants without roots”, and “blind guides,” in order to cement what He is saying. Peter, speaking for the others (nothing unusual there) expresses confusion concerning what Jesus has been saying. And for His part, Jesus is amazed at His disciples’ lack of understanding. So, He makes one final spiritual application – what goes in the mouth (food, drink) is not as important (in a spiritual sense) as what comes out of the mouth. What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. The point is -- everyone has a heart condition (spiritual), and it is either good or bad. Jesus goes back to the beginning of the discussion to make His final point…it is not the washing of hands that defiles, but an unclean heart, life, which is the condition of the religious leaders. If our life and religion keep us from seeing Jesus…and more than this, having His heart, mind, living like Him…then something has to change. God is not going to be impressed with our worship on Sunday or any other day of the week (Romans 12:1-2) if it is not from the heart. We must consider Jesus’ admonition to keep the proper perspective and strive to be spiritually focused.
I know that some have seen the following video, but I think it illustrates well…especially concerning those in our fellowship…what Jesus is talking about in this message.