Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”’
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Jesus locates the heart—specifically, the motivations that arise from the heart—as an indicator of a person’s relationship with God, or alienation from God. He does so in a debate with some Pharisees and scribes who accuse Jesus’s disciples of breaking the law by eating with hands that have not first been ritually purified. Jesus responds this way: the Law commands that one must honour one’s father and mother. Why, then, do some Pharisees allow their members to make a korban vow to assign one’s property to the temple, thereby retaining personal use of the property, but also thereby denying financial support to one’s parents? The Pharisees’ toleration of his korban tradition breaks the Law.
According to Jesus, what we say and do is an outward expression of our inner motivation, and inner motivation is located figuratively in one’s ‘heart’. God does not want from us mere lip service or outward show; God wants wholehearted devotion and service. The Pharisees and scribes believed that scrupulous attention to ritual purification made a person acceptable to God. But Jesus suggests that being pure, or holy, is not a matter of external ritual cleanliness. Being holy is a matter of being faithful to God in one’s inner attitude and thinking, and this ought to inform one’s outer words and actions. It ought to; but honesty might compel us to confess that consistency of inner and outer faithfulness to God sometimes eludes us.
Lest we become downcast due to our lack of consistency, the Apostle Paul brings us a message of grace. God chooses the foolish, the weak, and the lowly to receive his gift of salvation and thereby puts an end to the need to compare. Holiness is not a matter of being ‘holier than thou’; holiness, righteousness, and liberation are God’s gifts to be received and practised as we live in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:27-31).
Holy God, release me from the need to compare. Instead, open my heart and hands to receive and use your gifts beyond compare: holiness, righteousness, and liberation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Julian Templeton, Training and Development Officer, Thames North Synod