Matthew 15:1-20 (part 2): External ceremonies

Sun, 18/02/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Last week, we were thinking about how easily a religion can become a clique. An exclusive club, that leaves you feeling left out if you’re not one of the initiated ones.

Judaism was never meant to be exclusive. God gave his people great privilege, so that they might share this with all the nations. But instead of sharing those privileges, they’d hoarded them.

Matthew chapter 15 is all about the wonderful news that Jesus did not just come for the people of Israel. His mission started there, but will extend to every nation. And last time we looked at a debate Jesus had with the Pharisees. They wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples did not follow the hand-washing rituals before they ate. If you were here, you’ll remember this wasn’t a dig at their hygiene. This was about ceremony.

Jesus replies to them. He hits back hard. He hits back with two key principles about what it means to follow him. Two principles that, when followed through, stop following Jesus from becoming a clique.

First, he launches a counter-attack. We looked at that last time. He showed how the Pharisees were so concerned about their own traditions that what God actually says was being ignored.

And so we learnt that following Jesus is all about the word of God, not human traditions. Many good and helpful traditions have built up:— over the years here; if you’re looking around the world, it’s happened down the centuries.

If the church focusses on those traditions, we become really quite exclusive. But keep our eyes on what God actually says in his word, and following Jesus becomes something we can all do.

Having launched an attack of his own, Jesus replies to his critics. Why don’t they wash their hands in the ceremonial fashion? And here we have the second key principle for following Jesus.

A new heart, not external ceremonies

Jesus is interested in a new heart, not external ceremonies. A new heart, not external ceremonies.

Verse 11 spells out the key principle. Let me read it: “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

The question is about what defiles you.

In the Old Testament, everything could be divided into two categories. It was either clean or it was unclean. Only people who were clean could enter God’s presence to worship him. Anyone who was unclean had to stay outside. God is so pure, so holy, so perfect, that nothing impure or unclean could ever enter his presence.

And God gave his people a whole load of laws around this system of clean and unclean. If something clean came into contact with something unclean, it became unclean too. Certain types of food were off limits, too. God’s people were forbidden from eating certain animals, because they were unclean animals. Certain kinds of illness, especially skin diseases, also defiled you.

You could go the other way as well. If you were unclean, there were various sacrifices you could perform to be restored.

The Problem

Jesus is referring to that whole system of laws about clean and unclean things. And there are two halves to what he says.

The negative first. “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them.” What goes in doesn’t touch you. He explains why in verse 17: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?”

Food doesn’t defile you. Why not? It’s just passing through. Our translators thought they’d protect us here from what Jesus actually says. Literally, he says that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then is expelled into the latrine. Passing through. It doesn’t change what God thinks of you.

The other side of the coin is what comes out of your mouth. Verse 11 goes on: “what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them”. Jesus explains in verse 18: “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.”

In biblical thinking, your heart is not the organ that pumps blood around the human body. It’s the real you. Who you really are when you strip away the layers. When your defences are down, and the real you comes out, who is that real you? That’s what the Bible means by your heart.

And Jesus is saying that the things you say reveal who you really are. That’s when your real colours come out. The angry words reveal the angry heart. The kind words reveal the kind heart. And so on.

In fact, it’s not just words. It’s actions too. Look at how Jesus goes on. Verse 19: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person.”

You’ll see he’s following the ten commandments. Commandments 6 to 9: murder, adultery, theft and false witness. And just as Jesus did in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus widens it to more than just the actual actions. So the commandment not to commit adultery includes all kinds of sexual immorality. The commandment not to bear false witness includes all kinds of slander.

But we mustn’t fall into the trap here. The trap is to think that it’s this kind of behaviour that makes you unclean. But that’s not what Jesus says. He says these are what come out of the heart. When we lie, cheat, steal, we’re not acting out of character. That’s the whole problem. We’re actually revealing our true character.

And it’s that character, that twisted and broken heart, that self-centredness that goes right to the core of our being – it’s that which makes us unclean before God. The problem is our heart.

It’s like chicken pox. All our children have had chicken pox, so we’ve done that one. (Hopefully.) Some of you still have this joy to come. First they get one spot, then two, then three. Your first instinct is to think that it’s a rash. A bit of hydrocortisone here, a sticking plaster there. We can contain this thing. But then three turns into twenty three, turns into a hundred and twenty three. It breaks out everywhere. The problem is not the spots. The problem is the virus that is in their blood. The problem is deep.

Two sides to the same coin. Our problem, says Jesus is not the food we eat. The problem is the heart. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

The Solution

Which means we need to get the solution right as well.

The solution is not to be found in preventing the wrong things from going into our body. You can’t solve this problem by dieting. The problem isn’t what you eat, so the solution doesn’t lie in what you eat, either.

Neither can you solve the problem by preventing wrong things from coming out of your body. No amount of foundation can cure chicken pox. You can’t prevent a volcano from erupting by building a concrete cap over the top. The pressure will build and build, and what is inside will eventually erupt. The problem is the magma that’s boiling away beneath the surface.

No, you can’t solve the problem with your diet. And you can’t solve the problem with morality.

The only solution is to have a new clean heart. A heart that isn’t broken, that isn’t dirty, that isn’t twisted, that loves God and his ways rather than hating him.

Discarding the word of God?

We need to apply this solution to us today, which is not hard to do. But before we do, I just want us to look a little more closely at what Jesus is saying. Because if we mishear Jesus here, we might think he’s undermining what we looked at last week.

Here’s how he might be heard to do that. Last week, we saw Jesus telling them not to throw God’s words in the bin. The Old Testament didn’t have rules about washing hands. But it did have rules about what you could eat. The Jews did not eat pork because God told them not to eat pork.

And then, just a few verses later, we get Jesus telling them that it’s OK to eat pork. That you can eat what you like, and it doesn’t defile you in any way. So it looks like he is now the one chucking God’s words in the bin.

Only he isn’t. What the Pharisees were doing was using their traditions to give them an excuse to ignore God’s words. Jesus is doing something quite different.

Cast your mind back to Matthew chapter 5, where Jesus said this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Jesus said two things about the Old Testament. It all still applies today, but it’s all been fulfilled. Or, to put it in the negative: None of it has been abolished, but none of it has been left untouched either.

Jesus fills the Old Testament full. It looked forward to him. With his arrival, everything the Old Testament anticipated had come.

What the Pharisees did to the Old Testament was arbitrary. “This bit doesn’t fit with our traditions, so we’ll find a way to chuck it out.” What Jesus did to the Old Testament was fulfil it, bring out its full meaning.

When the law says not to lie and steal, it still means not to lie and steal. In fact, it means it even more fully than before. Jesus is now the standard by which we assess truth and honesty. So if we are going to be friends of Jesus, it matters all the more that we are true and honest people.

But when the law says not to eat pork, it’s trying to teach us something. It’s trying to teach us that we have a problem deep within our hearts that we cannot solve ourselves. It’s trying to teach us that we need to separate what is and is not fitting for the people of God. And then Jesus came. He died on the cross and rose again, to make it possible for us to have new, clean hearts. He’s solved the problem. We still need to learn the lesson the food laws were there to teach, but we no longer need to restrict what we eat.

Jesus isn’t being guilty of the very thing he warned against. Far from it. He’s upholding the law. He’s fulfilling the law. The law looked forward to him. So he is now bringing out its full meaning. It would be blasphemous if we tried to do the same thing.

And now that Jesus has come, that law says that what you eat can neither defile you nor make you right again. The problem is your heart, which comes out in the things you say and the things you do. And so the solution must lie in having a new heart as well.


So there’s Jesus’ second big principle in what following him is all about. Jesus is interested in a new heart, not external ceremonies. Just like when we said that God’s word is what matters, not human traditions, this is what will stop us becoming a clique. New hearts, not external ceremonies.

It’s easy to be ceremonial. Some of us like ceremony, some of us don’t. They’re neutral in and of themselves. But they’re easy.

It would appeal enormously if what God required of us was things like coming to church. Being baptised. Taking communion.

You could make the whole system elaborate if you want. Exactly when to stand, sit or kneel.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. There’s nothing wrong with ceremony. It depends what they are – they can be profoundly helpful. For example, many people find it helps them to kneel to pray. You are less likely to forget who you’re speaking to.

But the danger comes if we start to think of these things as what God requires of us. It’s the allure that our external religious practices have of being tangible. Measurable. Achievable.

We’ve been going into the period of thinking about GCSE options choices. And I can remember that, and choosing my A Levels, when it was my own turn. There is much wisdom in choosing some subjects that you stand a good chance in doing well at. Ones you’re likely to get a decent mark in. By all means set yourself some challenges, but include at least one or two that you should be able to get in the bag fairly easily.

If the religion you’re going to take is one which gives you various ceremonies to take part in, it’s going to be fairly easy to score high marks. Yes, there’s a lot of competition for Sundays. Football, swimming, gymnastics all join shopping, work and the family day out. But at the end of the day, it’s not hard to get to church. And if that’s what’s required to get to heaven, I can chalk that one up fairly easily.

But if the religion you’re going to choose requires you to change your behaviour, well that’s a harder subject to do well in.

If the religion you take requires you to change your heart, well that’s impossible. To change who you are, right to the very core of your being – nobody can do that. The leopard cannot change his spots. It’s impossible for us.

Except it isn’t. The Old Testament prophets promised many things. One recurring promise is of what they called the “new covenant”. There are many parts to this, but here’s Jeremiah, chapter 31, verse 33: “This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Or here’s Ezekiel, chapter 36, verse 26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

The night before he died, Jesus took a cup of wine and passed it round his friends. Here’s what he said. Matthew 26, verses 27 and 28: “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” “… my blood of the new covenant.”

A new heart? That’s impossible. For us. But not for God. And Jesus shed his blood to make this possible. To make possible the new covenant in which God would give us new hearts. In which God would change us from the inside out. Make us new people to the very core of our being.

Sometimes you see an old and tatty building, and think to yourself that it could do with a lick of paint. It looks tired. Other times, the building may look tired, but it needs a complete overhaul.

Jesus doesn’t want to give you a lick of paint. Your problem is not that you’re a bit tired. You don’t need some cosmetic improvements, here or there. You need to be made new, from the inside out.

If he does this, it will touch every area of your life. He will touch all kinds of areas of your life really quite radically. If you give Jesus blanket permission, carte blanche, to do anything, to change anything, then he will.

But this is not scary. It is truly wonderful. This is an act of grace to make you into a whole new person.

If you’ve never invited Jesus in to do this with you, invite him in today. He’ll forgive every mistake that is in your past. He’ll change you, your whole outlook on life. You’ll be a new person. It’s wonderful!

For those of us who have been Christians for some time, it’s so easy to measure our lives by our religion. Maybe your churchgoing, your Bible reading, your praying is all still in place. So things feel OK. But that’s not actually the level God is interested in. He’s interested in our hearts, and maybe the heart of it went out some time ago. Does Jesus still captivate your heart as he did at first? Or have our hearts drifted from the Lord Jesus?


Jesus Christ never wanted his church to be a clique.

Down the years, we’ve developed many wonderful traditions. Beliefs that we pass down. Little practices that are part of the way we practice our religion.

Those things are wonderful to us, but the danger is that they shut out others who don’t know them. The even bigger danger is that they shut out God himself.

This is an invitation to us to let God back in. To let him speak into our lives, so that we build our lives on God’s word. To let him work on our hearts, to renew us from the inside. Do that, and God’s grace and love can permeate every area of life. Do that, and we’re following Jesus as he intended. Do that, and we’re following Jesus in a way that others can readily join us.

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