Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
“Keep vigilant watch over your heart;” the Proverb says, “that’s where life starts” (MSG, Proverbs 4:23). It is common to hear (at least in the South) people say things like, “Bless your heart” and to think of the heart as merely our sentimental emotions, a personal Hallmark Channel. However, the Jewish understanding of the heart, indeed Jesus’s meaning, is far more serious. The heart is the central power station of our lives. It is the source that directs and energizes the whole of our lives through our thoughts, emotions, and actions. We do not simply think from our hearts or feel from our hearts—We live from our hearts. The problem is that the human heart is notoriously and unavoidably “off.”
Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to the “godly folks” of his day, “this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” When it comes to matters that really matter, it is possible to talk out of both sides of our mouths. We can say one thing and really live another. The Pharisees believed they were good with God and on the “right side of history” because they remained distinct from non-Jews by their culturally acceptable practices. In first century Jewish culture, all this washing was as normal and expected as getting dressed up to go to church is today. Jesus challenges the belief underneath the norm and says, “What comes out of a person . . . from within, out of the heart” is the real dirt. If the mess is inside of us, then help must come from the outside.
We can have the most beautiful church, sublime music, and powerful preaching, but it is all a wash if we miss the why. The heart of the matter is God—to love Him, to enjoy Him, to celebrate His beautiful-loving-goodness, to show and tell the whole world with the whole of our lives who is really in charge. But this requires cardiac clean-up work only God can do:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
The writer Frederick Buechner tells the story of when he was a young man, not yet a Christian, hearing George Buttrick preach: “Jesus is crowned again and again in the hearts of those who believe in him amidst confession and tears and great laughter.” Buechner says, “When the phrase ‘great laughter’ came out . . . some wall inside me crumbled. I remember I was just bowled over. I remember tears springing from my eyes. . . . Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s all too good to be anything but true that brings with it the laughter of relief and release. Yes, it’s true, and what a difference that makes.” Only God can heal our hearts, but we are personally involved. It is our confession, our tears, our prayer of laughter from a heart set free that is called to participate in Christ’s love going out to heal the heart of world.