So, is this passage about food? Or more specifically, is it about eating food without washing up first? Well, in a small way, but not really. It is true that what we take in (food-wise) is not seriously going to damage us simply because of a little dirt (just ask a boy scout). As the expression goes, “this too shall pass.” But that cannot be the message here because it is too obvious. Everyone realistically knows this.
So is this passage about rituals (traditions) then? Is it about how we human beings have a tendency to fall into ritualism or traditionalism? I use these terms to make the point that generations down the road we so often utterly forget what the ritual or tradition is supposed to be about, as the Pharisees did. We eventually reach the point where we keep the tradition for the tradition’s sake, and most often by then it has become twisted or distorted to where it is sometimes the opposite of where it started. Of course, like the Pharisees, we don’t generally see this unless confronted – and that tends not to go well. People don’t like to be confronted. I am sure the Pharisees were not happy here.
I don’t recall who first pointed this out, but as you may know in the Middle Ages, the church was all hyped on outlining the seven deadly sins. We have moved on from those days. Sin is no longer a problem in the minds of many church goers. We don’t see sin any longer as standing in the way of our being good Christian people. But it does not mean we have grown out of the problem. These days, the thing that stands in the way of most church people (church growth, personal—spiritual growth, living good Christian lives) is ritualism and traditionalism as expressed in what has been called the seven deadly words: “We never did it that way before.” Nothing can kill a church program faster.
So, is this passage then about ritualism standing in the way of God and the work of God? Again no, not really. While the problem of traditionalism might not be as obvious as the eating with dirty hands bit, and you might have to ask more than a boy scout to get at the root of this idea, it honestly is only a side issue.
No. As is God’s way, the outward issue, in this case keeping or not keeping certain traditions is not what God is concerned about. The real concern that Jesus is addressing here is the inward thing which we might call the attitude of the heart. You see, to be honest in our reading of the gospels – or any scripture passage – we have to keep in mind that it is God’s intention to drive the crucifixion spike down deep into our hearts. Most of what God, and specifically Jesus talks about, and clearly what God is concerned about is us, each of us, personally. If we read the gospels honestly, they will make us uncomfortable. Jesus is speaking to us in order to deliberately shake us out of our comfort zones, to make us squirm a bit in our seats, to make us realize that maybe we are not such good Christian people as we thought we were. God wants to show us how unclean and defiled we really are. It is necessary for the Cross of Christ to be truly effective in our lives, but who wants to hear about it?
I am certain on this Sunday there will be plenty of sermons and Sunday school lessons on empty rituals and traditions, and maybe how we should not be so quick to judge those who keep traditions differently or perhaps even keep different traditions. Sad. That is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking about this, starting in verse 20:
20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”(NIV)
Don’t blame what you have taken in. There are people who were born and raised in the worst, poorest, most depraved conditions and managed to work their way out and made themselves into respectable citizens. There are people who lived in totalitarian regimes who did not give into the propaganda and did not become converts to the corrupt ideology. There were people in German concentration camps, in the Soviet Gulag, or who are dissidents in China and elsewhere to this day, who have never participated in the evil. So don’t blame what you have taken in or how you have been influenced. It is not what goes into a person that ultimately matters.
All that really matters is what comes out of a person – out of the heart. That is where the seven deadly sins as well as the seven deadly words reside. That, in our words and actions, is where we show ourselves to be clean or unclean and defiled. The question Jesus is asking here has nothing really to do with rituals, traditions or eating with unclean hands. It has to do with the attitude of the heart. Jesus is asking, what is in your heart? What is likely to come out? That is what he is getting at because that is where we are broken and in need of healing and repair, and that is all that ultimately matters to God and for us and our salvation.