Monday, May 28, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (IV), Week 22: Jesus on Ritual Purity - Jesus on clean and unclean (Mt 15:10-20)



"And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 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.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone." --Matthew 15:10-20, ESV

Last week we heard Jesus teach about a man-made tradition regarding ritual purity, and downplaying the importance of such actions. But one could still have heard this and assume He was discussing only the traditions of mankind, and not ritual purity in general.

Well, this week Jesus takes this assumption away. By dropping a bomb on His listeners.

Jesus says that it is not what we eat but what we say which defiles us. Recall that the Mosaic Covenant had very specific laws regarding ritual purity. What you eat and how you behave determines your purity for approaching God. Jesus had, in the previous verse, said that the cleanliness of your hands (a tradition) was not an issue. Now He goes a big step further, and says that even the explicit food restrictions of the Old Covenant did not make someone defiled before God.

It would be hard, I think, to overestimate how shocking this would be to His listeners. This attacks at the fundamental level of how the Jews were commanded to purify themselves in order to relate to their God. It is shocking because Jesus is opening very wide the potential pathway of coming and meeting with God. Jesus here is saying that God is much more easily approachable than the Jews had previously believed--and that He could be approached while dripping with sin and impurity, and He would love and receive you anyway. Jesus is here saying that we need not put on our "Sunday best" in order to have an audience with our heavenly King. Rather, He says, God is much more concerned with what you say and how you treat people than in what religious activities you have undertaken.

I love the next verse, where the disciples say, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended...". Ha! Is there a bigger understatement in Scripture? Of course they were offended. He was attacking not only their base of power and influence (which has been often argued), but more critically He is attacking their worldview. He is saying that their entire view of their relationship to God is fundamentally wrong. Yeah, I would bet that they were offended.

Jesus' response is nearly flippant (or as close to flippant as the Lord ever gets): the Pharisees are not God's plants, so they will be ripped up. Then (as He so often did) He came up with some a beautiful analogy that it remains a commonly-used phrase all these centuries later: "if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit".

Now think about how this conversation is going, from the disciples' point of view. The disciples have been following Jesus around for years, seeing Him do amazing miracles. And when He has battled with the Pharisees, He has been generally battling them not about Judaism per se, but about their inherent hypocrisy. But here Jesus goes way further than ever before. Here He is flat-out saying that ritual purity portions of the Law are not nearly as important as Jews think. So the disciples tell Him that He is being offensive--and His answer makes it clear that He doesn't care! They had given Him a chance to get out of the extreme stance He had taken, and instead He simply calls the Pharisees blind and says that God does not support them.

So then what did Peter say? "Explain the parable to us." Either Peter is trying to give Jesus a subtle way to clarify His brazen statement, or Peter actually really believes Jesus is just sharing a parable. Peter clearly does not think that Jesus "really" believes what He just said.

But Jesus does not back off from the statement--He reaffirms it, in one of the most groundbreaking ethical statements in history:

"Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone."

Do not forget that the Jews were not the only ones in the ancient Near East with ritual purity laws. Most religions throughout history, in fact, have had them. Men seem inherently to believe that it is necessary to do some work--some cleansing--in order to approach God. The Greeks, Romans, Jews, native Americans, Indians, (and even some mislead Christians) all go through forms of ritual cleansing before presenting themselves before God. Here Jesus--more forcefully than any point in His ministry so far--establishes the concept of grace: that God is best approached with heartfelt sincerity and brokenness, not beautiful religious ceremony. God is about relationships with people, not religious institutions.

Jesus here first rebukes Peter a bit--"Are you still without understanding?" And then He says something which would have been shocking to anyone--Jew or Gentile--in the ancient world (and is shocking to most modern ears, if they really listen). He says that the food you eat (and by implication, the other things you do to achieve ritual purity) are not the things which make us unfit before God. It is the condition of our heart which makes us unfit to approach God. For whatever it is that fills your heart overflows into reality--as evil words, murderous acts, sexual immorality, greed and theft, lying and oathbreaking. These are the things that separate us from God and make us unworthy to be in His presence.

As you consider this passage during the week, I urge you to take stock of your life. How are you attempting to prepare yourself to approach God? Is your plan for becoming pure based around doing religiousy things--going to church and attending Sunday School and being an usher and avoiding alcohol and using the right version of the Bible? Or is it based upon a brokenness of your spirit, a complete surrender to follow His path, and a desire to do nothing but grow closer to Jesus?

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