Day Twenty-one: Monday, July 6th, 2020
Bible Lesson: Matthew 15:1-20
Reflection from Pastor Wayne Eberly:
“The heart of the matter”
Sometimes conflict helps to clarify. Chapter 15 presents Jesus in yet another conflict with the religious leaders, this time with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. This time the conflict is about the washing of hands. We have found ourselves gaining a deeper understanding of the vital importance of washing our hands as we seek to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. There is an aspect of physical health and hygiene that is addressed simply by washing our hands. But in this instance, the washing of hands does not have to do primarily with physical cleanliness. Instead, the washing of hands that is brought up by the Pharisees and teachers of the law has to do with spiritual cleanliness.
A whole slew of traditions had been established by the spiritual leaders to determine who was maintaining spiritual cleanliness, or spiritual purity, and who was transgressing those traditions…in other words, who was spiritually impure, or spiritually unclean. They had established traditions that said outward activities like the washing of hands before eating determined if you were spiritually clean. Jesus clearly contradicts the Pharisees and teachers of the law by saying it is not the outward activities of a person that determines their spiritual cleanliness or spiritual purity. Rather, it is what is inside a person, what is in their heart, that makes them spiritually clean or pure.
The battle over the traditions of the spiritual leaders was not new to the people of Israel. Jesus justifies his emphasis on the heart over outward actions like the washing of hands by turning to the prophet Isaiah, who also encountered a people focused on outward actions, traditions, or as the prophet says, “Human rules.”
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Isaiah 29:13)
The Apostle Paul was also well acquainted with this passage from Isaiah 29. Paul references the same Isaiah chapter to make a powerful declaration in chapter one of I Corinthians. Surprisingly, Paul speaks in favor of an outward action that will accomplish an inward purity, an inward change of the heart. However, the outward action will not be like the rules established by the religious leaders. The outward action will not involve washing hands. The outward actin will not involve staying away from certain foods that are declared unclean. The outward action will not involve staying away from people who were considered unclean. Most importantly, the outward action will not be an action we will take.
The outward action that will make our hearts clean, that will make our hearts pure, that will make our hearts new, is the outward action Jesus takes by giving up his life on the cross. In I Corinthians 1:18 and following Paul writes, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’” (Quoting from Isaiah 29:14)
The conflict Jesus faces in our reading today does indeed help to clarify. A pure heart, a clean heart, a new heart will not come by external actions like washing our hands. A pure heart will not come from human traditions and rules. But a pure heart will come when the Son of God offers his life as a sacrifice of atonement, when the Son of God dies on the cross, when the Son of God becomes the Passover Lamb for the people of God, and when the Son of God takes our iniquities upon himself. As the Coronavirus continues to present a grave danger to our society, I am all behind washing our hands, frequently and without fail. But when it comes to purity, hope, forgiveness, new life, and a relationship with Jesus Christ, there is only one way to get to the heart of the matter. And that is what Jesus did for us when he gave his life on the cross. Jesus got to the heart of the matter. Thanks be to God.
“This passage (15:1-20 has much to say to modern Christians. It reminds us, in the first place, that we too can be guilty of placing tradition ahead of God’s moral will. Local tradition (We have always done it this way) can impede the work of the kingdom. Ecclesiastical tradition can get in the way of ecumenical cooperation. And, like Jesus’ opponents, we too must be warned not to put the merely legal above the the truly moral. It is a regrettable habit of many Christians to speak disdainfully of ‘Jewish legalism.’ Rabbis sometimes ask ministers, ‘Why is it legalism when we take our tradition seriously, but when you do, it is merely a matter of carefully observing the mandates of your book of order?’” (Douglas Hare, Matthew, p. 175)