Out of the Heart
Passage: Matthew 14:34– 15:20
What defiles a person? Such a question may sound archaic. Wasn’t that a concern for those more primitive religions? Maybe the concern isn’t old as much as it’s limited to less-developed systems—like a remote tribe prohibiting certain practices or contact with outsiders. But more than we’d like to admit, the fear of defilement motivates many across all cultures and times.
Peter Leithart observes this within India’s caste system and the so-called “untouchables.” He also asks, “How do you react when a homeless person walks up to you?” Or “How many of us are willing to hold the hand of an AIDS patient?” He also observes, “The goal of much modern philosophy has been to isolate an area of pure reason, uncontaminated by the uncertainties of language, history, religion…Modern urban design pursues geometric clarity and cleanness, and resists the organic messiness of ancient and medieval cities. We sequester sick and dying people in hospitals, even when they aren’t contagious. Why?” he asks. Because many fear defilement.[i]
The problem is that in our pursuit of purity, we often miss what actually defiles. We miss a careful diagnosis of what causes true defilement. We then seek our own external solutions—rituals, separation, and so on—ways we can make ourselves feel purer. But none of them purify at the deepest level. In today’s passage, Jesus answers this question of what truly defiles a person. In the process, Jesus also reveals that he is the only hope for true and total purification. Read with me, starting in verse 34…
34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. 1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would’ve gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” 10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
In 15:1, we find some Pharisees and scribes. They’ve come all the way from Jerusalem—about three-days journey. Last time we heard about Jerusalem was 4:25, where large crowds were following Jesus—some of them were from Jerusalem. Now their religious leaders are coming to test Jesus and see if he’s up to snuff.
They ask in verse 2, “Why do your disciples [emphasis on your and not our] break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” Now, there are two types of regulations Jesus will address. Some are regulations in the Law of Moses itself—that’ll come at verse 11. But others are regulations that developed over time according to “the tradition of the elders.” That’s the concern here.
The only handwashing laws in the Old Testament are those related to priestly duties. Exodus 30:18-21, for example, requires priests to wash their hands before entering the tent of meeting. Ritually speaking, these washings would set apart the priests for special service. It also taught the people that entry into God’s presence first required cleansing. Well, the tradition of the elders took laws like those and added even further requirements for everyone else to stay ritually pure.
When Mark tells this same story, he further explains how “the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly…and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mark 7:3-4). We’re not talking about mere hygiene here. The Pharisees were known for adding all sorts of rituals that, to their minds, kept people pure.
Jesus questions their authority.
But Jesus sees this for what it is. His initial response questions their authority. They appeal to the “tradition of the elders.” But listen to what Jesus appeals to. Verse 3, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus then explains with an example. Verse 4, “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ [Exodus 20:12], and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die’ [Exodus 21:17]. But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would’ve gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you’ve made void the word of God.”
Jesus will eventually circle back and answer their question about defilement. But he first takes up a question about authority. They have elevated the authority of their tradition above God’s command. He proves that by using the so-called Rule of Corban—Corban means “given to God.” Someone could vow their inheritance to the temple, for example. But should a need arise among family members you were off the hook. Since your estate was “given to God,” there was no need to feel any obligation to support your parents. They found a way to work the system and still look good in the eyes of others.
Jesus uses this example to show how their tradition undermined the authority of God’s word. That should give us great pause. How easy it is to look religious with what you’re doing, all the while excusing yourself from obeying God’s command.
When I was in seminary, I was so fixed on studying “for the Lord,” giving my time “to the kingdom” (at least how I had defined the kingdom), that I put my wife and family in a hard spot both spiritually and financially. Who would’ve questioned what I was doing, especially when there was a whole culture of brothers and sisters doing the same? Weren’t our time and resources “Given to God”? Yet all the while I neglected explicit commands to love my wife as Christ loved the church.
We need to be cautious of how badly we can deceive ourselves here. How easy it is to create acceptable traditions or practices that, while looking good on the outside, beneath is a rejection of God’s authority. The traditions don’t even have to be in writing necessarily. Much of the traditions in Jesus’ day were passed around orally. Whether in writing or in practice, whether it’s in your documents or simply part of your Christian sub-culture, we need to be careful that our traditions do not trump Scripture, that our traditions do not excuse disobedience to God’s revealed will.
We must also be careful not to regulate holiness/purity with more rules than Scripture itself speaks to. For example, Christians condemning others for not practicing total abstinence from alcohol. Christians regulating purity among teens with pledges and rings and modesty lists. Christians requiring others to have as many children as biologically possible, simply because the Scriptures teach that they’re a blessing from the Lord. Christians deeming some music genres (like rap, for instance) as inherently unholy. I’m sure we could list others. The point is that we’re just as vulnerable. If not careful, we’ll find ourselves in the same boat as these Pharisees, creating generations of followers who become very skilled in finding loopholes to excuse their sin. Or even worse, we’ll find our hearts drawn away from God himself.
Jesus exposes their hypocrisy.
That’s where Jesus turns next when he exposes their hypocrisy. Verse 7, “You hypocrites!” A hypocrite is a pretender. He puts up a front. But behind the mask is an altogether different person. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
That’s from Isaiah 29:13. In context, the nation of Judah is in a bad place spiritually. They are dull of heart. God warns them of swift destruction for sin. Yet their feasts keep running year-round like nothing is wrong. Then he promises a spectacular future deliverance; and none of that even matters to them. Spiritually speaking, they remain asleep, blind. But if they keep the rituals going, they think everything is okay.
But that’s not true. They were going through the motions of the covenant without the God of the covenant. Ritual replaced a life-transforming relationship with God. Jesus compares the religious leaders of his day to those of Isaiah’s day. They’re even worse. Some of their own rituals weren’t even commanded.
What happens over time when your tradition replaces the word of God? You gradually become followers of men, even though you may say you’re following God. That’s a scary place to be. God’s word is meant to bring our hearts nearer to him. But if we’re adding to it what we think is better, watch out. If we’re adding to it what we think will make us pure, watch out. You’ve just put yourself in the place of God. And we know from Eden where that leads.
We’re also learning what sort of worship pleases the Lord. Outward ritual means nothing if there’s no sincere love for God and a willingness from the heart to obey his commands. It’s like when God rebukes his people in Isaiah 1:13-14, “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me…Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they’ve become a burden to me.” Didn’t God command some of these things? Yes. But the point wasn’t the ritual. The law’s requirements weren’t an end in themselves. The point was having a heart for God, to love God and to love his word.
God’s concern for the heart is the same today. When you gather, when you sing or take the Lord’s Supper; when you pray or read Scripture; when you give and show hospitality—are these just motions you practice with no heart for God? If God removed the blessing of his presence, would we discern his absence and fall on our faces with longing in prayer? Or would the routines just carry on like normal?
Take some time this week and ask the Lord to search your own heart, your own motives and thought patterns. Are there ways you honor God with your lips but then live contrary to that confession? Are there ways you go through the motions of Christianity, but without a sincere love for God? You can’t “Fake it till you make it.” There’s no use pretending. God sees you. There’s no hiding from him. That’s why David cries out in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Ask God to give you clarity about your heart, what you love and value most. Wherever hypocrisy is present, ask him to replace it with a humble and sincere devotion. God says, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa 66:2).
Jesus explains the Law’s truest intent.
Speaking of the heart, we’re beginning to circle back to the original question of what defiles a person. Jesus next gets the attention of the whole crowd, and he explains the Law’s truest intent. What a scene this has become! They came to test Jesus. Jesus questions their authority, exposes their hypocrisy. Now, in front of everybody, he’s going to explain how they’ve missed the Law’s point entirely when it comes to purity.
Verse 11, “Hear and understand,” he says. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Earlier Jesus addressed regulations added to God’s Law. Here Jesus addresses regulations that were part of God’s Law. The Law included stipulations about clean and unclean food. You can find these in Leviticus 11:1-47 and 20:25-26. But these laws always served a greater purpose. They were never an end in themselves.
Jesus is showing the crowd how badly they’ve been misled. The ceremonial laws were never simply a matter of what goes into the mouth. They were always telling a greater story about our need for purity from within—that is, what comes out of the mouth. The need for moral cleansing within was the far greater point. The food laws were always a temporary pointer to the day of true cleansing that comes through Jesus. In fact, Mark’s Gospel tells us plainly that in saying this, “Jesus declared all foods clean.”
A new day had dawned with the arrival of Jesus. He was doing away with the old covenant—a covenant which could expose our defilement and point to the solution, but never actually bring it. Jesus brings a new covenant in his blood that cleanses people from the inside out; and that was the far more important point.
It’s no wonder the Pharisees take offense. In verse 12 Peter asks Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” Of course they were! Jesus was setting aside their whole system. All that they had prided themselves on was vain because they didn’t grasp the Law’s truest intent. Jesus understands the Law’s truest intent. Jesus embodies the Law’s truest intent. All the rituals were pointing to him and his cleansing work. Which also makes Jesus the superior teacher.
In verse 13 Jesus says, “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.” Jesus, on the other hand, is the one who sees. He’s the one guiding the blind away from the pit. He’s like the ideal King of Psalm 1. The one whose “delight is in the Law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields fruit in its season, its leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers.”
Jesus aims for the heart.
Which is why I love the final interaction between Jesus and Peter. In terms of his understanding, Peter is just like the rest of the crowd. He doesn’t get it. But what makes him and the other disciples different is that they keep seeking understanding from Jesus. If you ever find yourself confused by things God says in Scripture, don’t let that confusion push you further away from Jesus. Let it draw you nearer to Jesus. Come to him with your questions. Tell him your ignorance and need for further understanding. He’s such a patient teacher. In teaching the disciples, Jesus aims for the heart.
Peter says, “Explain the parable to us.” Jesus says, “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.”
Here we find our answer to what truly defiles a person. What defiles us are the evil things in our hearts. The Bible will often refer to our inner-most person as “the heart.” When used this way, some have described the heart as “the causal core of our personhood” or “the control center for life.”[ii] Our thoughts, words, actions, reactions, all stem from the heart.[iii] Jesus gives the true diagnosis of what defiles a person—the evil things within one’s own heart. The Pharisees have reduced the pursuit of purity to external ritual. In the process, they’ve misunderstood that the real problem lies within.
Earlier this week, someone pointed me to an interview with Dennis Praeger. Prager is a conservative talk show host. He’s also Jewish and stressed throughout the interview that Judaism was behavior-based. I knew that. But I also don’t think I teased out the implications very well until he said something while they discussed ethical questions surrounding pornography. Praeger says, “You can only commit adultery with one organism and it’s not the heart.” Then, when asked to clarify he says, “I would use evil only with behavior…you didn’t do evil if you thought evil.”
That’s anti-Christ. That flies in the face of what Jesus continues to stress in Matthew’s Gospel. 5:28, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 12:34, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Then today: “From the heart come evil thoughts…”
Our chief problem is that evil things in our hearts defile us. Question is, are you willing to accept Jesus’ words? Or will you be like the Pharisees in verse 12 who take offense at Jesus’ words. It’s the same language we saw the other day in 13:57. They were scandalized by Jesus’ teaching. What about you? If you’re unwilling to accept this about your heart, you will never be able to follow Jesus. But like any good doctor would tell you the truth about your condition, Jesus tells us the truth about our condition. What truly defiles us is the evil within our own hearts.
Jesus reveals his ability to purify.
What can you do to remove that defilement? There’s no list of rituals that will make you clean. There’s nothing you can do to purify your heart. When we assess our hearts according to Jesus, we’re all in need of cleansing. Look back at 14:34-36. I skipped it earlier because I wanted to read those words in this broader context; and here we see our final point today: Jesus reveals his power to purify.
In verse 34, word gets out about Jesus in Gennesaret. People from all over bring him their sick. There was a woman back in 9:20 who suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years. Remember her? Desperately she thinks, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well” (Matt 9:21). Instantly she was healed. Jesus says, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well.”
Now we find not just one person healed this way but many. People from all over come; and verse 36 says, “as many as touched [the fringe of his garment] were made well.” Matthew again summarizes the amazing power in Jesus’ healing ministry.
But is that all he’s doing? I think there’s more to this picture; and it relates to Jesus’ teaching about defilement. Never could an Old Testament priest heal like this. Under the Law, if you had leprosy or a disease that deemed you ritually unclean/defiled, the priest could only tell people what God required, and that was separation outside the camp. But the priest couldn’t heal them. Also, if the priest happened to touch the unclean, they became unclean too and needed to separate.
That’s not what happens with Jesus. The unclean touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment—not only does he not become unclean; he makes them clean. He heals their diseases. But as we’ve seen in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ healing ministry pictures his ability to purify at the much deeper level of moral defilement.
That’s why 8:17 quoted from Isaiah 53—Matthew wants us to interpret Jesus’ healing ministry in light of his atoning death on the cross. “Surely he took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” But the way he does that comes with this statement in Isaiah 53: “Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
Total healing is possible only when God deals with sin. In other words, Jesus’ healing ministry must be viewed with the cross before him. Our greatest problem is the sin behind all that’s broken in us. God sent his Son into the world to deal with that greatest problem. He died for our sins on the cross: to pay the penalty our sin deserved and to carry away all the sorrows that sin causes, including illnesses one day.
The connection happens again in Matthew 9:12-13, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Sick, sinners. What’s the point? We are sick with sin, and we need a healer. Jesus is the healer of our whole person. That’s how we need to read 14:34-36.
In other words, before Matthew shows us Jesus as prophet who exposes true defilement, he’s shows us Jesus as priest who purifies from defilement. Perhaps you were listening earlier to Jesus’ words about the heart and finding yourself repulsed by your own sin—and rightly so. Perhaps the Spirit has confronted you with your own true defilement this morning. Knowing the defilement of your heart doesn’t mean you’re too far gone; it means you’re a perfect candidate for Jesus to purify.
If that’s you, don’t create more rituals to make it right. Come to Jesus—his blood and his blood alone cleanses us from all sin. Everyone desperately reaching for all they can grasp of him—they find themselves made well. He comes for those who know their need of his gracious, saving touch, not for those who attempt to clean themselves up by man-made rituals. He comes to take away your defilement at the deepest level, the level of our sin. Jesus is priest who cleanses sinners (and only sinners!) and makes them whole again. Let’s remember this afresh as we shift now to song and the Lord’s Supper.
[i] Peter Leithart, “What to Do with the Bible’s Purity Laws,” The Gospel Coalition (January 15, 2020), accessed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/purity-laws/.
[ii] Paul Tripp, Getting to the Heart of Parenting Leader’s Guide (Philadelphia: Paul Tripp Ministries, n.d.), 3; Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart (Wapwallopen: Shepherd Press, 1995), 3.
[iii] Prov 4:23; 20:5; cf. Gen 6:5; Lev 19:17; Num 32:7; Ps 14:1; Ezek 14:1-5; Jer 17:6; Matt 15:18-19; Rom 2:5; Eph 4:18; Heb 3:12.