What Makes Us Clean: Jesus and the Question of Purity

Summoning the crowd, He told them, “Listen and understand: It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”

Then the disciples came up and told Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard this statement?”

He replied, “Every plant that My heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted. Leave them alone! They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Then Peter replied to Him, “Explain this parable to us.”

“Are even you still lacking in understanding?” He asked. “Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15:10-20)

Having answered the Pharisees’ challenge with a counterchallenge, Jesus returned to their original accusation.

They had demanded to know why his disciples ate with unwashed hands (and by implication, so did Jesus, the one the disciples were imitating).

In the Pharisees’ minds, this behavior showed a lack of concern for purity and a general carelessness when it came to the things of God.

Jesus’s answer, simple though it was, was also shocking to his hearers. What goes into the mouth does not defile, he told them; but what comes out of it does.

The Pharisees were offended by this statement, and his disciples were confused by it — so much so that they called it a “parable” and asked Jesus to explain it to them privately.

For us, this reaction probably feels counterintuitive. Culturally removed as we are from purity codes in the practice of our religion, what Jesus said feels obvious. Not so for the people he was speaking to.

In the context of his countercharge, Jesus’s answer had two thrusts.

First, About Tradition

First, by giving his countercharge, Jesus reminded people that the rule about washing hands wasn’t part of God’s law at all but was a manmade tradition.

We need to understand this in its larger context: the law did include extensive purity codes. Coming into contact with certain substances and items made people ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to enter the presence of God in the temple, and the law prescribed ceremonial washings and purification rituals to make them clean again.

But this particular rule, washing one’s hands before eating, wasn’t one of God’s laws. Like many of the pharisaic rules, it may have been a “fence” around God’s commands, meant to keep practitioners from getting anywhere close to breaking a command — “staying on the safe side.”

For example, touching a dead body made someone unclean, and if you came into contact with a dead thing, you needed to undergo ritual purification. But what if you touched something that unbeknownst to you had touched a dead body at some earlier time? Maybe you got dust on your hands that had previously blown over some animal carcass in the desert. Washing your hands could have been a way of covering your bases, just in case.

(It was also a way of appearing very conscientious in front of others, which, as we know from other stories in the New Testament, was a goal near and dear to the pharisaic heart.)

The rule’s intention was probably originally good. But it had all the problems that come when we elevate tradition to the status of divine command. Like the practice of Corban, it could cause people to violate God’s commands in favor of their tradition — in this case, slandering men of God, failing to honor them, and charging them with sin when in fact they were innocent.

In going beyond the law of God, the Pharisees condemned people who did not deserve condemnation and congratulated themselves for actions that had no actual value in God’s eyes. Tradition can blind us, and often does.

Second, About the Law

Second, however, Jesus went beyond this in a way that everyone listening may have had difficulty reckoning with. His statement, which seems so simple and clear to us, struck them as counterintuitive and “deep,” so much so that his own disciples called it a parable and asked him to explain it to them in private.

This was because Jesus said whatever goes into the mouth cannot defile, while the law of Moses clearly taught that certain foods were unclean and made their eaters unclean.

Let me repeat that: in the law of God, not the traditions of men, it had been clearly stated that certain things, going into the mouth, did make people unclean. It’s important to state that Jesus did not tell anyone to break the kosher laws or suggest that they didn’t matter, but he did contradict the assumption about purity that underlay them.

And although he did not directly apply his statement to the laws regarding kosher and unkosher foods here, his disciples later understood that it did apply in such a way. In the parallel passage in the gospel of Mark, Mark adds an interpretive note: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19, ESV).

We get a glimpse here of how Jesus handled the law, and why he said back in the Sermon on the Mount that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He wouldn’t have needed to assure anyone of that if his statements hadn’t, at times, contradicted parts of the law.

In fact, Jesus let us know that he would change elements of the law indeed, but the changes would not amount to abolishment. Instead, they would be a transformation.

Just as a seed that grows into a tree has not been abolished but has reached the fulfilment of its purpose, so the Mosaic law would be transformed. In the process its old form would fall away, just as the seed, having grown into a tree, no longer exists as a seed.

In his person, Jesus fulfilled and so elevated the commandments of the law. The new light he shone through them was so bright that the “shadow” of the old laws seemed to disappear entirely (Colossians 2:16-17).

Although the disciples didn’t fully realize it at the time, Jesus’s statement about purity in this passage was one of the places he effected this transformation. That is why Paul could later say that he was “persuaded by the Lord Jesus” that no food is unclean in and of itself, and that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:14, 17).

Under the Old Testament law, to eat unclean animals would truly have defiled any Jewish person, because it would have been an act of disobedience against God. But Jesus indicates that this was never because the animal itself was defiling — rather, God gave these laws in the first place to set a boundary between his people and the Gentiles, and as a prophetic action* that taught them how to approach a holy God.

This is why the same God could give all animals for food to the human race in the time of Noah (Genesis 9:3), but not be contradicting himself when he later restricted the Jewish people to only eating some of them; and also why Paul could say that “every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).

It was never the created things, made by God, that were the problem. It was the sinfulness within the people that needed to be exposed.

A Plant Not Planted by God

Thrown off by this unexpected declaration, the disciples approached Jesus to ask if he realized he had offended the Pharisees. There’s a suggestion of offense in the question itself; the disciples, who definitely didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, were perhaps a little offended themselves — but who wants to come out and admit that openly?

Jesus’s answer, then, was to warn his disciples against following people whose lives and teachings were not “planted by God.”

“Every plant that My heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted.” Both the Pharisees and their manmade traditions would ultimately be removed from the soil, not because their teachings proved to be sterile, but precisely because they would grow. Customs like Corban ultimately led people into disobedience and dismissal of God’s words, bringing forth bad fruit. In his justice, God would ultimately have to pull these “plants” up.

“Guide to the blind” seems to be a title that Pharisees and other religious leaders gave themselves; Paul references it in Romans 2:19: “You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness.” But Jesus insists that these guides are themselves blind, and that to follow them can only lead to disaster.

If the Pharisees are offended by Jesus’s teaching, it only shows how deeply in darkness they truly are.

The Real Problem of Purity

Humanity’s problems are not a matter of externals and can’t be fixed by means of externals.

Instead, humanity’s problems — for humanity truly is defiled and unable to come into the presence of a holy God — come from within. Not only that, but they don’t cease to be defiling after they pass through the mouth and go out into the world.

When evil thoughts, murderous anger, sexual immorality, theft, falsehood, and blasphemy come out of us, they don’t decompose and disappear the way material substances do. Rather, they make the pollution in the world around us even worse than it was before, even as the pollution on the inside deepens.

To purify the people of God, the Messiah would have to do more than impose washings with water and other purity rituals.

He would have to purify their hearts: forgiving their sins, purging their iniquities, washing them clean by his own blood, filling them with the Holy Spirit, and transforming them in the likeness of his own holiness.

Only when God cleanses us can we truly be clean. Only when we are freed by his grace, not only from sin’s penalty but also from its power, are we truly free.

Only when we are washed by the blood of the Lamb can the word of our testimony be one of righteousness, peace, and joy as we overcome that which once filled and overcame us.

* Augustine of Hippo: “For that was a time when it behoved not in words only, but in deeds, to prophesy those things which hereafter were to be revealed. When these had been revealed through Christ, and in Christ, the burdens of observances were not imposed on the faith of the Gentiles; but the authority of the prophecy was yet confirmed.”

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This is Part 235 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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