Verses 1 to 9
Today’s passage begins with Matthew telling us that Pharisees and teachers of the law came from Jerusalem.
The Pharisees were the ‘separated ones’. They were Jews who tried to separate themselves from everything which was unclean and which might defile them. And that meant staying away from ‘sinners’ and performing ceremonial washings to cleanse them from any defilement they might have picked up inadvertently. It also meant that they disapproved of the Lord who was willing to mix with unclean sinners. Their attitude was: If Jesus was really from God, he would separate himself from sinners.
The teachers of the law or the scribes were the experts in the law and in the traditions connected with the law.
The traditions connected with the law were all the rules which had been created over the years and which were handed down from one generation to the next to explain the law. So, the law said, ‘Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.’ And the tradition laid down what that meant in practice. The tradition listed all the things you could do and couldn’t do in order to keep that the law. But, as we saw from what the Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount, sometimes the tradition misinterpreted or misapplied the law. In fact, as the Lord goes on to say in today’s passage, often the tradition nullified the law. That is, their traditions cancelled out what the law said.
So, the Pharisees and teachers of the law came from Jerusalem and they asked the Lord a question: ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’ Why do they not observe the tradition? So, they’re complaining to the Lord about his disciples. And they’re complaining to him, because since they are his disciples, then he’s responsible for them. He is their Master. And presumably, what they do has been influenced by what he has taught them. So, their complaint about the Lord’s disciples is really a complaint about him. Why are you teaching them to break the tradition of the elders?
And they mention in particular the fact that his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. This is not a matter of personal hygiene. This is a religious matter. Why don’t they perform the ritual washing which the tradition says everyone must perform before eating?
Now, according to God’s law in the Old Testament, the people could become ceremonially unclean if they touched something unclean. For instance, if they touched a dead body, they would become unclean. And if they were unclean, they couldn’t enter the temple to worship God. However, the law also provided instructions for what to do whenever someone became unclean. However, the law only required the priests to wash their hands before eating. And they were only to wash their hands when eating consecrated food. That is, food which had first been offered to God as a sacrifice. So, only the priests had to wash their hands. Ordinary people did not. There was no requirement in God’s law for ordinary people to perform a ceremonial washing of their hands before eating. And that means the disciples had not broken the law of God by not washing their hands.
But the tradition concerning the law, the extra rules which had been created, said everyone had to wash their hands. So, God’s law did not require it, but the tradition required it. And that’s why the Lord replied to their question as he did. They asked: ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’ The Lord asked: ‘Why do you break the command of God?’ You’re more concerned with keeping your traditions than you are with keeping the law of God. You have put your traditions above the law of God. You have put the word of men above the word of God.
And the Lord went on to give an example of what he meant. What does the word of God say? It says, ‘Honour your father and mother.’ It says, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ He’s quoting from the Ten Commandments and from Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 20:9. God’s word says we’re to honour our parents. And one way in which adult children honour their parents is by caring for them in their old age and by supporting them.
But what does their tradition say? It allowed people to pledge as an offering to the Lord what they might have given their parents. So, here’s a field which I own. I could sell it and give the proceeds to my parents; or I could sell it and give the proceeds to the temple. The tradition allowed them to give the proceeds from the sale to the temple. However, the tradition didn’t obligate me to sell the field immediately. I could keep using the field for years to come; and I could keep benefitting from it myself for years to come. But since I’ve pledged the proceeds to the temple, I don’t have to use that field to help my parents.
And so, they nullified the word of God for the sake of their tradition. Their tradition cancelled out God’s word. It invalidated God’s word. It allowed people to disregard God’s word.
And so, the Lord called the Pharisees and the teachers of the law hypocrites and he says that Isaiah’s prophecy fits them perfectly, because they are people who honour God with their lips and by what they say. So, if you listen to what they say, you’d think they were devoted to God. But their hearts are far from God. Deep down inside, where it matters most, they have no real love for the Lord. They appear to worship God and to be devoted to him. But their worship and devotion is vain. It’s empty. It’s worthless. And instead of teaching others to obey God’s word, they teach others to obey the words of men.
Verses 10 and 11
And having answered the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the Lord turned to the people around him to teach them about what really makes us unclean in the sight of God. What really makes us unclean in the sight of God? It’s not what goes into our body. It’s not what we eat. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were concerned that if you ate food with unclean hands then your unclean hands made the food unclean. And the unclean food would make the whole person unclean. But food doesn’t make us unclean.
What makes us unclean is what comes out of our mouth. What makes us unclean is the things we say. And, as we’ll see in a moment, it’s not just the things we say, but it’s the things we do. And the things we say and the things we do are unclean because they come from an unclean and sinful heart.
Verses 12 to 20
Afterwards, the Lord’s disciples came to him and asked him whether he realised that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were offended by what he said. And it’s not hard to see how they would be offended, because he criticised their traditions and he criticised them, saying their hearts were far from God.
And the Lord responded by comparing them to plants which God the Father has not planted and which will be uprooted. And, of course, what he says here recalls the parable of the wheat and the weeds, doesn’t it? The wheat stands for believers. And the weed stands for unbelievers. And one day, the weeds will be uprooted and destroyed. And so, the Lord was announcing what would happen to those Pharisees and teachers of the law unless they repented and trusted in him for salvation. For now, though, they are only blind guides. And they’re blind guides, because although they believed they could teach others and guide them in the ways of the Lord, they were in fact spiritually blind. They were unable to lead anyone in the right way. And whoever follows them will only end up falling into a pit.
And having warned his disciples away from those blind guides, he went on to explain to them what he meant when he said that what goes into a man’s mouth doesn’t make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth makes him unclean. What goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and then it goes out of the body. We eat some food and it goes into our stomach to be digested and then it’s expelled into the toilet. It doesn’t remain in us and it doesn’t make us unclean in the sight of God.
But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart. And these are the things that makes us unclean in the sight of God. And that’s because, as I’ve said before, the heart is a house of horrors. The heart is a house of horrors and it’s full of monstrous and wicked thoughts and desires and inclinations which leak out and affect what we say and what we do and how we treat one another. And so, from out of the heart, there comes evil thoughts and murder and adultery and sexual immorality and theft and false testimony and slander. These things come out of us, because our hearts are sinful. No one would ever murder or hurt anyone, no one would ever commit adultery and be unfaithful to their spouse, no one would indulge in sexual immorality, no one would ever steal anything, no one would ever lie about someone or ruin their reputation if their hearts were pure and clean and perfect. But because our hearts are full of sin, then we do these things to one another.
This is what makes us unclean in the sight of God. He knows that our hearts are sinful; and that they’re full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations. And God hears the sinful and wicked things we say to one another. And he sees the sinful and wicked things we do to one another. He knows what we’re like inwardly and he knows what we do outwardly.
And, of course, we’re like this because all of us have inherited Adam’s sinful, fallen nature. When we were born, we were born into the world as sinners. And it’s because we’re sinners that we sin against God so easily.
But the good news of the gospel is that God the Son came into the world as one of us; and by the shedding of his blood on the cross, he has established the new covenant in which God promised to cleanse his people from all their uncleanness; and to give them a new heart; and to give them his Spirit to enable us to walk in his ways and to do his will here on earth.
None of us deserves this. None of us has earned this. But God freely and graciously promised to send his Son into the world to save us from our sin and misery and to give us his Spirit to enable us to walk in his ways. And so, we should rejoice in God’s kindness to us in Christ Jesus. And we should pray for his help to live a life that is pleasing in his sight.