Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Being born with a name like Mike Pentecost, what else could you do but grow up to become a minister? And in fact he did, and he was a very good one, and I wish he still were, the church would be better for it, but as it turned out, life took him in a different direction. But for some of the years that he was, he served as an Associate Pastor of the Columbus-area church that our family attended, and he had a major influence in my discerning my own call to the ministry. Mike was a bit younger than me, and had an extremely outgoing personality that enabled him to be able to talk and joke with anyone at any time; a skill that I only wish I had. Most importantly though, Mike, along with Phil, the Senior Pastor, helped me to understand that the strict expression of the faith that I’d had the most contact with before we’d come to this church wasn’t the only way to understand things. That whether you were an ordained minister or not, you didn’t have to check your brain at the door when you entered the church, and you didn’t have to check your humanity there, either. You could still enjoy a cold beer, or maybe a good cigar, or any number of other things that my earlier pietistic, quasi-Holiness, near Fundamentalist associates in the faith would have definitely frowned upon as violations of their rigid moralistic code, and that would defile anyone, especially a minister.
Despite these things that my former Fundie-friends would have turned their noses up at, and that they most assuredly would have thought would condemn him to hell, Mike also had one of the most authentic understandings of the true gospel, he real gospel of God’s good news for all people proclaimed by Christ, and how to live that truth out in the world in a concrete way, that I’d ever seen. Based just on the work that he did with the orphanage in Honduras for children with HIV and AIDS that we both eventually ended up being affiliated with, I can say without any exaggeration that there are a number of people alive in this world today who wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Mike’s “Matthew 25” way of understanding and living the gospel.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus talks a bit about people who also would probably have taken a dim view of Mike. People who confused form and symbol for substance; people who got overly concerned with traditions and rigid rules as being more important than being concerned with the Rule of Love, a key point in our Reformed tradition in interpreting scripture: is the interpretation the most loving thing; because God’s way is always the most loving thing.
In this case, people were criticizing Jesus’ disciples because some of them hadn’t engaged in ritual handwashing before eating, and Jesus scolds the critics for being more concerned with the symbolism than about living in ways that are truly compassionate, and therefore, are truly pleasing to God.
I have to say that in recent times, I’ve heard some Christians appeal to this text to justify not needing to take physical precautions for their health and safety, and the health and safety of others. According to them, Jesus is saying here that they don’t need to worry about washing their hands, or, say, wearing a mask, or distancing, or doing any other thing designed to prevent the Covid-19 virus from entering their body; and that if it did, they wouldn’t be defiled, but God would take care of them.
It only takes a little consideration to realize that’s a misinterpretation of what’s going on here, and an ignorant, dangerous, and self-centered one at that. Jesus’ critics weren’t criticizing Jesus’ hygiene practices; they were specifically concerned with the ritualistic cleaning that would keep them from being ritually, religiously, defiled – not physically defiled or compromised. And so Jesus’ reply to them is similarly referring to the issue of ritual, religious, spiritual defilement. His words here have absolutely nothing to do with washing hands, or cups and bowls, or food, in order to maintain health and avoid food poisoning and other illnesses.
As Jesus goes on, he explains that what truly “defiles” us, in this spiritual or moral sense, isn’t, for example, that sublime glass of Elijah Craig 18 bourbon that you managed to get your hands on, or maybe that insanely decadent, high calorie dessert – those things may very definitely be physically unhealthy for you, but they aren’t going to spiritually defile you or put you at risk of the gates of hell. Rather, what truly defiles us is what comes out of our mouths, or more accurately, what comes out of our hearts. So often, the words that we speak – even when we preface it with “Bless their heart” – show an ugly side of us that hurts others, and in the process defiles us in God’s eyes. We’ll speak ill of others, insulting and demeaning them as equally valued and loved by God. The truth is, we don’t need any help from outside sources to harm us; we’re perfectly capable of defiling ourselves from within; all by ourselves. To borrow the phrase from the old comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
In the past handful of years especially, when we’ve been as politically and socially fractured as maybe we’ve ever been at any time in our nation’s history, it’s been all but impossible to avoid falling into the trap of saying things that have hurt others, even others we care a great deal for. I actually think that our society is at a dangerous tipping point, one where we’ve simply got to find a way, where we’ve got to create space – and what better space than here, as the church, to model that to the rest of the country? — for us to be able to be civil, and respectful, and more than just that, to actually be compassionate and caring toward one another, even those we disagree with. We have to find a way to do this if we’re going to survive, and I believe that through Christ, through God’s Wisdom, we can do that.
Jesus mentioned some specific things that can come out of our mouths that defile us. It was a pretty long list, actually. Sometimes though, one of the defiling things that can come out of our mouths is silence. Saying nothing when we should be shouting to the rooftops about some injustice, about the suffering being inflicted on others. There are certainly times when we can speak too much and say the wrong things, but other times, we can cause terrible harm to others and end up defiling ourselves by speaking too little, and in the process, we end up becoming complicit in the harm done.
However our mouth defiles us, though, through speaking or through silence, Jesus says throughout the totality of his teaching in the gospels that while none of us will ever fully avoid that kind of defilement of our relationship with God, the real good news for us is the wisdom, not of our own words, but of the eternal Word – God’s Wisdom, the Word, that has existed eternally; the Wisdom, the Word, that spoke the cosmos into being; the Wisdom, the Word, that dwells in the flesh in Jesus. That Wisdom that tells us that God is always with us, caring for us, supporting us, strengthening us, will never leave us – will always be with us – and that tells us that to be truly, fully human; and to truly give glory to God; and to truly live the kind of eternal life that God designed us for; we need to love one another as God loves us. We need to be compassionate, and merciful, and just, and equitable, to others, especially the ones who are different from us.
The good news for us is that as good and important as rituals and traditions can be at times, our place in the eyes of God, our spiritual well-being, has never depended on rigidity and rituals, not really. And that we’ve never really risked or harmed our eternal souls by laughing at an occasional off-color joke or yelling “Dammit!” when we smacked our thumb with a hammer. Christ teaches us that what God really cares about is whether we’re being the face, the heart, hands, and feet, of Christ in the world to one another; whether we’re offering Christ’s compassion and acceptance to them, and just as importantly, graciously receiving it back from them. That’s real life. That’s real holiness. That’s real Wisdom, the kind of Wisdom for which we can all say
Thanks be to God.