When the day is closing in
Like the stars in the night I am falling
Into the pull of the earth and its affection
In me, oh lord, can you create
A pure heart cause I’m afraid
That I just might run back to the things I hate
- Tenth Avenue North, Satisfy, from the 2008 album “Over and Underneath”
As Matthew chapter fifteen opens, some Pharisees and teachers of religious law are confronting Jesus over the fact that His disciples are not observing the practice of washing their hands before eating. It’s an age-old tradition and one meant to promote good health. Considering that there wasn’t any hand sanitizer back then, and even my mother would request we wash our hands before dinner, it seems to be a sensible issue; one that Jesus should probably agree with.
“The Pharisees and teachers of religious law came from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish authority, to scrutinize Jesus’ activities. Over the centuries since the Jews’ return from Babylonian captivity, hundreds of religious traditions have been added to God’s laws. The Pharisees and teachers of religious law considered them all equally important” (Study Bible, p. 1573).
But Jesus knows the religious leaders are not concerned with proper health practices but with once again trying to trap Jesus and His crew in a position of breaking religious law. And Jesus is having none of it. He fires back and asks them why they don’t observe their own traditions like honoring their father and mother (one of the original ten commandments). “And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own traditions. You hypocrites!” (v. 6b-7a).
It’s important to note that “[m]any traditions are not bad in themselves. Certain religious traditions can add richness and meaning to life. But we must not assume that because our traditions have been practiced for years, they should be elevated to sacred standing. God’s principles never change, and his law doesn’t need additions. Traditions should help us understand God’s law better, not become laws themselves” (Study Bible, p. 1573).
Jesus then turns His focus to the heart of the matter: inner purity is what matters to God. He uses the example of what a person eats does not defile them, but the words that come out of our mouths can and often do defile us. The disciples are shocked and so are the Pharisees. You see, Jews had strict dietary laws of what they could and could not eat (see Leviticus 11). Jesus is again turning centuries of religious teaching on its head. Then He sums it all up by saying, “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. But the words you speak come from the heart – that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (v. 17-20).
He’s talking about the importance of having a pure heart. “We work hard to keep our outward appearance attractive, but what is deep down in our heart (where others can’t see) is more important to God…When people become Christians, God makes them different on the inside. He will continue the process of change inside them if they only ask. God wants us to have healthy thoughts and motives, not just healthy bodies” (Study Bible, p. 1574).
What am I like on the inside? Am I a better person inside today than I was yesterday? Will I be a better person tomorrow than I am today? God expects progress in our lives. He expects growth. He expects change. If none of those things are happening in our lives, then we must question whether our relationship to Him is genuine. If we are constantly running back to do the things that God hates, we may not truly be His after all. How pure is my heart? Do I mirror the pureness of the Most High? Or am I sitting in the sludge of unholiness?
The word holy means to be set apart for a special purpose. God wants our hearts pure so we can openly reflect His holiness to a world mired in sin. It’s part of the gospel of attraction that surrounds the good news of the Christ. “It is not enough to study about religion of even to study the Bible; it is not enough to act religious. Our actions and our attitudes must be sincere” (Study Bible, p. 1574). I would add they also need to be pure. Otherwise, we are no better than the Pharisees and teachers of religious law.