Inside Out: Reflections on Matthew 15:1-20

by Alyce M. McKenzie on Monday, August 17, 2020

Inside Out

 Reflections on “It’s Not What Goes into the Mouth that Defiles”

 Matthew 15:1-20


At the heart of this passage lies a proverb “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10)  Jesus’ aphorism counters the Pharisees’ criticism of his disciples for not following their rituals pre-meal handwashing, for not following Sabbath restrictions and for associating with those they regarded as unclean...

The spirit of Pharisaic Judaism intended theses external rituals to keep the inward heart focused on the heart of the Torah: mindfulness of one’s duty to God and neighbor while immersed in the details of daily life. Jesus knew that even the best intentioned external observances can become substitutes for devotion to God while our hearts are occupied with thoughts that promote our agendas and whittle others down to size. It is possible to honor God with our lips while our hearts are far removed from God. (Matthew 15:8).

Jesus’ proverbs at times pair something we would normally view as good with ruinous results. “Those who want to save their life will lose it.” “Whoever wants to be first must be last.” He pairs what we would view as negative with positive results. “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Our proverb from today’s passage is one such paradoxical proverb.   

In the movie “As Good as it Gets” Actor Jack Nicholson plays a troubled author of over 60 romance novels named Marvin Udall. He lives alone in an exclusive New York City apartment. He insults everyone with whom he comes in contact, fouling the air with his prejudices, whether they are against his gay neighbor or the Jewish patrons of his favorite restaurant who dare to sit at his favorite table.

He also engages in a daily handwashing ritual, opening his medicine chest to reveal row upon row of gleaming amber bars of antiseptic soap, wrapped in cellophane, never before touched by human hands. He goes through several bars of soap a day.

Verbal garbage that wounds others and hands clean enough to eat off of. Jesus reminds the Mr. Udall in us all that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Jesus invites us to look out over the expanse of our culture, our church community, and our personal lives to see if there are any situations that stand in need of its pithy but powerful challenge.

When I was a child growing up my brothers and I would get into fights when one of us thought we’d been wronged by another. Someone had cheated us at cards or four-square; someone had borrowed someone else’s stilts without asking or committed some other grave injustice. What began as a truth crusade would deteriorate into an insult contest in which words like “liar and cheater” gave way to things that can’t be printed in a sermon. My mother, walking through the room, would say “Do you have any idea how you sound? I wish you could hear yourselves. I’m going to record this next time and play it back for you. I wish you could hear yourselves!”

Thank goodness my mother never made good on her threat and taped my brothers and me at our worst.  But in moments of painful self-evaluation, we all remember hurtful words with which we have defiled others.  In those moments we wish the childhood saying had been true: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We wish we could eat the words that it is too late to take back. 

Jesus in our passage insists that harmful words express evil intentions that lead to harmful deeds. Scripture bears him out with its catalogue of murderous, adulterous, false and thieving words. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

What we eat is processed through our bodies and eliminated. It goes to the sewer.

There is a more complicated kind of waste management, one we often oversee poorly, with the result that lots of verbal sewage flows in our streets. What we say comes straight from our hearts. For Jesus’ listeners the heart was not a faculty separate from the mind, but the seat of emotions, intellect, will and spiritual life. Our words come from our hearts and often, they head straight for the heart of another. If the heart is a poisoned well, it has great potential to defile.

“Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus in the beatitudes, for they will see God” (5:8)The Greek adjective katharos has connotations in the New Testament of clean, as in the clean linen shroud mentioned in Matthew 27:59. It connotes pure, in the sense of unalloyed, as in the pure gold of Rev 21:21. The Old Testament background to the notion of a pure heart is Psalm 24:4 in which access to God’s presence during Temple worship is for the one who has ‘clean hands and a pure heart.’ “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully, They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” Clean hands aren’t enough. The heart must also be pure. The pure in heart are those who are spiritually pure rather than ritually or ceremonially clean. Blessed are those who are innocent of moral failures (deeds) and of evil intentions.

The pure in heart recognize their need for God; they empathize with and extend comfort to others; their lives are graced by daily deeds of compassionate forgiveness to those who wrong them. When our hearts are pure, our words are loving. And when our hearts are pure, and our words are loving, our deeds usually follow. And when our words and deeds are loving, our lives have great power to heal and bring joy to those around us. We forgive, as we lift up, and, as Jesus often did with his words, we challenge injustice.

The flip side of Jesus’ paradoxical proverb about defiling words is a positive insight about the power of purifying words. It is not what goes into the mouth that purifies a person, but it is what comes (from the heart) out of the mouth that purifies. That goes for both the sender and the receiver.

Most people get heart checkups and start watching what goes into their mouths. Jesus recommends that we check out our hearts and then start watching what comes out of them!


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