Matthew 15:10-20

THE REAL GOODNESS AND THE REAL EVIL

Matt. 15:10-20

Jesus called the crowd and said to them: “Listen and understand. It is not that which goes into the mouth which defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, that defiles a man.” Then his disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard your saying, they were shocked by it?” He answered: “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant will be rooted up. Let them be. They are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both of them will fall into the ditch.” Peter said to him, “Tell us what this dark saying means.” He said, “Are you even yet without understanding? Do you not know that everything which goes into a man’s mouth goes down into the stomach, and is evacuated out into the drain? But that which comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and it is these things which defile a man. For from the heart come pernicious thoughts, acts of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, slander. It is these things which defile a man. To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”

It may well be held that for a Jew this was the most startling thing Jesus ever said. For in this saying he does not only condemn Scribal and Pharisaic ritual and ceremonial religion; he actually wipes out large sections of the book of Leviticus. This is not a contradiction of the tradition of the elders alone; this is a contradiction of scripture itself. This saying of Jesus cancels all the food laws of the Old Testament. Quite possibly these laws might still stand as matters of health and hygiene and common-sense and medical wisdom; but they could never again stand as matters of religion. Once and for all Jesus lays it down that what matters is not the state of a man’s ritual observance, but the state of a man’s heart.

No wonder the Scribes and Pharisees were shocked. The very ground of their religion was cut from beneath their feet. This statement was not simply alarming; it was revolutionary. If Jesus was right, their whole theory of religion was wrong. They identified religion and pleasing God with the observing of rules and regulations which had to do with cleanness and with uncleanness, with what a man ate and with how he washed his hands before he ate it; Jesus identified religion with the state of a man’s heart, and said bluntly that these Pharisaic and Scribal regulations had nothing to do with religion. Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind guides who had no idea of the way to God, and that, if people followed them, all they could expect was to stray off the road and to fall into the ditch. And Jesus was profoundly right.

(i) If religion consists in external regulations and observances it is two things. It is far too easy. It is very much easier to abstain from certain foods and to wash the hands in a certain way than it is to love the unlovely and the unlovable, and to help the needy at the cost of one’s own time and money and comfort and pleasure.

We have still not fully learned this lesson. To go to church regularly, to give liberally to the church, to be a member of a Bible reading circle are all external things. They are means towards religion; but they are not religion. We can never too often remind ourselves that religion consists in personal relationships and in an attitude to God and our fellow-men.

Further, if religion consists in external observances, it is quite misleading. Many a man has a faultless life in externals but has the bitterest and the most evil thoughts within his heart. The teaching of Jesus is that not all the outward observances in the world can atone for a heart where pride and bitterness and lust hold sway.

(ii) It is Jesus’ teaching that the part of a man that matters is his heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). As Burns had it in the Epistle to Davie:

“The heart aye’s the part aye
That makes us right or wrang.”

What matters to God is not so much how we act, but why we act; not so much what we actually do, but what we wish in our heart of hearts to do. “Man,” as Aquinas had it, “sees the deed, but God sees the intention.”

It is Jesus’ teaching–and it is a teaching which condemns every one of us–that no man can call himself good because he observes external rules and regulations; he can call himself good only when his heart is pure. That very fact is the end of pride, and the reason why every one of us can say only, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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