SynopsisThis passage continues on from the last passage. The Pharisees and scribes had been talking about the disciples not washing their hands, so Jesus gathers the people around and explains to them that it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that “defiles” them (or makes them “unclean”), but rather what comes out of the mouth.
The disciples then approach Jesus in private to inquire if he is aware that what he’s said has offended the Pharisees, but Jesus isn’t worried about what the Pharisees think:
He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (verses 13–14 (ESV) )At this Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable to them, and Jesus seems to get a bit exasperated with them, asking in verse 16 (ESV) , “Are you also still without understanding?”
But he explains to them that what goes into a person doesn’t make that person unclean; it eventually ends up passing right on through. However, what comes out of a person comes from the heart, and therefore that defiles a person. The sinful things that come out of the heart—“evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (verse 19 (ESV) )—are what defiles someone, but eating with unwashed hands does not.
ThoughtsI find it interesting that the disciples are worried about offending the Pharisees. That seems almost silly to us; we all know that the Pharisees were legalistic and missed the point of the Gospel (not to mention the point of the Old Testament Scriptures, which they knew so well). And we see Jesus on numerous occasions showing their logic to be flawed, along with their understanding of God and religion. But at the time, the Pharisees were considered to be the religious leaders of the day; it’s not surprising that even Jesus’ disciples would be uncomfortable, from time to time, when Jesus would disagree with the Pharisees, or openly offend them.
I can’t remember if we’ve seen Jesus getting exasperated with the disciples so far in Matthew—there was a long period of inactivity on the blog, and my memory doesn’t go back that far (I’ve been in Matthew for over a year now)—but it’s not something that’s unheard of in the Gospels; the disciples didn’t always understand what Jesus was trying to teach them, and sometimes it seems that they should have understood. There were times when they would ask Jesus clarifying questions and he would patiently answer them, and other times when they would ask and he’d berate them for being slow to understand. Since Jesus was without sin we know that his exasperation with them wasn’t sinful; he wasn’t just getting impatient because he was tired, for example. It seems that there were times when the disciples had enough information that they should have understood what Jesus was saying, but for whatever reason (having to do with being fallen, sinful humans), they didn’t, and Jesus had to explain things that he clearly felt he shouldn’t have had to explain.
This is one of the cases where Jesus is trying to explain to his listeners that the Old Covenant laws and religious rules handed down by God only go so far; there are deeper issues at play. The Pharisees took a rule which was aimed at God’s priests before performing their religious duties and (as mentioned in the last post) tried to generalize it and apply it to all Israelites, at all times. (Well… not at all times, but every time they ate.) But as clean as you can make yourself physically, the cleanliness that God had ordained for His priests before performing their duties was only symbolic; they weren’t actually clean before Him. They were still sinful. They still had ‘evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander” (verse 19 (ESV) ) in their hearts, regardless of how many times they washed their hands and their feet.
The Pharisees took the Old Covenant laws and regulations, which were impossible for any sinful person to perfectly keep, and added their own rules on top making it even harder to keep all of the rules perfectly. The problem is that they didn’t realize this; they thought they were keeping the rules. When Jesus told them that regardless of how many times they washed their hands their evil hearts were still making them unclean, it’s not surprising that they’d get offended.
The key for us, as modern-day Christians, is to remember that we’re just as sinful, and wouldn’t be any better at keeping the Law than the Pharisees were; probably worse. Especially when we take into account Jesus’ New Testament teachings, indicating that it’s even worse than disobedience of the law because even evil thoughts make us guilty before God. But because of Jesus’ work on the cross, I won’t be punished for my transgressions, and neither will anyone else who believes in Him.