I grew up in a family with rules to keep us safe. To keep us from addictions, we didn’t drink, smoke, or gamble. To keep us from sexual temptation, we didn’t dance or go to movies. We were to read our Bibles and pray every day, with no work or sport on Sundays. To be holy meant to be separate from “the world.”
To be honest, I didn’t feel I was missing out. It was a rural setting, already socially isolated. It was a happy home, with parents who genuinely loved God and lived that love in our family. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But as I grew up, I began to understand that, for adults, our rules didn’t live up to what they advertised. The rules tried to shelter us from outside influences, when the problem is within.
This is how Jesus saw it:
Matthew 15:15-20 (my translation, compare NIV)
15 In response, Peter said to him, “Explain to us how the story relates.”
16 He said, “You still don’t get it? 17 Don’t you understand that everything that goes into the mouth makes it way into the gut and ends up excreted in the toilet? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and that’s what defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart rises the rationale for evil: murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, robberies, perjuries, defamations. 20 These are the things that defile a person. Eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
The real danger
It’s easier to blame the devil than to own a twisted heart.
One of the popular books of Jesus’ time was a collection attributed to Enoch. Instead of holding humans responsible for introducing evil into God’s good world (Genesis 3–4), the Book of Enoch blamed demons. They read the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 as angels falling in lust and bedding women to produce giant offspring that were spirit/flesh hybrids. These freaks lost their bodies in the Flood, but lived on as spirits, desperate to possess bodies. These spirits taught the nations to invade the land and possess its people. Blaming evil spirits got humans off the hook. (See Who corrupted God’s world?)
With this framework, Pharisees from Jerusalem could frighten people away from Jesus. His followers were probably full of evil spirits because they didn’t perform the ritual of washing them off before eating.
Jesus pushes back against the rule-makers, insisting that the real danger is not what might come in from the outside, but what’s already in the human heart.
The power problem
Rules suit rulers. They serve the interests of those in power.
God expected adult children to support their parents (Commandment #5). But to serve their own interests, the Jerusalem leaders provided a loophole. If someone didn’t want to support their parents, they could donate the money to the temple instead. Jesus used this example to show what was wrong with their rules: they didn’t care about what God decreed, because they wanted power for themselves (15:3-9).
The reason they came from Jerusalem was to undermine Jesus. Their words revealed what was in their hearts: a desire to sideline Jesus, whom they saw as a threat to their authority.
The real danger for the crowd is not swallowing evil spirits, but swallowing the words of these Jerusalem leaders (15:10-11). No wonder the Pharisees were offended (15:12).
The heart of the problem
Jesus needs no endoscope to see what was going on within them. The problem isn’t evil spirits ingested through the mouth; every potty-trained child knows our bodies naturally dump what we can’t digest. Jesus interest is not what comes out your backside, but what comes out your mouth. He’s breathalysing for toxins in our heart, the smell of death in what we say to each other.
The Pharisees from Jerusalem claimed their rules would protect people from the invasion of evil, but Jesus smelt death in their words. Their rules were just a cover to get people under their power. Jesus isn’t under their control, so they want to get rid of him.
When God established Israel as his kingdom, he gave them Ten Commandments. These foundational regulations did nothing to protect them from outside threats. God legislated against evil from within. What threatened their existence as a community were the toxins within them — their own hearts harbouring murder (commandment #6), adultery and immorality (commandment #7), theft (commandment #8), false testimony and slander (commandment #9).
These are not new charges. Jesus has already levelled these charges publicly (5:21-37). He did so not to condemn his people, but because he, as their king, would fulfil God’s Law for his people (5:17-20). By contrast, the rules of his accusers were only adding to the people’s burdens, lifting no finger to help them (23:4). The evil in their hearts is their desire for power.
In every community, there are people who want to make the rules. Sometimes the rules are for the good of the community, such as which side of the road to drive on. But the power to make the rules — the power to rule — is so beguiling. Every politician understands. Don’t be gullible. Don’t let them twist you with fear.
Don’t waste your energies on exposing their plots either. God is running the world. It’s his garden, and that’s the only plot that matters. You don’t need to uproot the power mongers. Let God do the weeding. He’ll arrange the garden around Jesus.
No, the real threat to the kingdom of God is not external. It’s what exists in us, his people. Only Jesus can be the heart of his holy community.
- Jesus’ relational intelligence (Mt 15:10-20)
- Freed, or in fear? (Mt 15:1-7)
- What about the weeds in God’s world? (Mt 13:24-43)
- Why wasn’t Jesus demanding obedience? (Mt 5:17-20)
- Who corrupted God’s world? (Gen 6:1-6)
Update 2022-04-21: Original translation added (replacing NIV)