Matthew 15:1-20 - Clean Hands, Clean Heart?


KNU International English Church
Josh Broward

August 3, 2008

In my home country, the USA, it’s very common to see signs in public bathrooms that say: “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.” I generally feel good about that.

But this week I saw a picture of a different sign. It has detailed instructions on how to wash hands: “1. Wet, 2. Soap, 3. Wash, 4. Rinse, 5. Dry, 6. Turn water off.” This sign does not make me feel good. It makes me wonder what kind of people this restaurant has hired, people who need a step-by-step guide to wash their hands.


Then, I saw this cartoon. I hope you can read it. The first sign says, “Employees must wash hands.” Then, the second sign says, “Non-employees really ought to wash their hands, too.” I like that.

In today’s story, Jesus gets in trouble because his disciples – or his “employees” – don’t wash their hands before sitting down to eat.

Let’s read the story in Matthew 15:1-20.

I like playing poker. I used to have a regular poker night with my friends from university. I think our church should have a charity poker tournament sometime. All we need is someone to plan it. (Talk to me later if you’re interested.) One of the best parts of poker is raising the bet. I love to push in a pile of chips and watch the other players squirm and try to decide whether they should stay in. This conversation is kind of like a poker game, there are several rounds of betting.

The Pharisees start off by making a big bet. They are betting that Jesus won’t openly defy the traditions of the elders. Every good Jew obeyed the elders, and the elder’s said you have to wash your hands before meals.

Eating a meal was a sacred event, and it was important to be ceremonially clean before eating. This whole “clean” and “unclean” thing was huge for Jews. It was all about being separate from everything that was dirty, or sinful, or common, or non-Jewish. Holiness was expressed by separateness.

Before any meal, there were water jars ready for hand washing. The minimum amount of water to use was enough to fill one and a half egg shells. First, you hold your hands together with the fingertips pointing up, and pour water over the hands starting at the fingertips. The water must get all the way to the wrist or you’re still unclean. Then, you turn your hands the other way, and let the water run down to your fingertips. If it doesn’t go all the way, you’re not clean. Then, you rub your hands on your fists. If any of the water from your hands got into the water jar, the whole jar was unclean, and you had to get new water. The super-strict Jews did all of this several times throughout the meal.

The Pharisees start out the betting using the big chips. The big shots came from Jerusalem to confront Jesus about this. Jesus has quarreled with the Pharisees about the rules relating to the Sabbath (the day of rest). But, those were just the local leaders. In this passage, people are coming in from the head office. It would be kind of like the President of KNU stepping into my English classroom to question what I’m teaching the students. This is a BIG deal!

Why is it a big deal? Because Jesus is rocking the boat. Generation after generation have passed down these oral rules, and Jesus is casting them aside. Who does he think he is?! If this rule goes, what’s next? Something had to be done! The Pharisees are betting that Jesus will back down or else be discredited before the people.

Jesus calls their bet and raises the bet. He says: “Hey, get over yourselves. Your traditions aren’t as important as you think they are. And, by the way, your traditions aren’t as good as you think they are. Your traditions actually get in the way of obeying and worshiping God.”

Then, Jesus raises the bet again. He says these religious leaders are actually a bunch of fakes – hypocrites – stage actors, people putting on a show for others. To make it even worse, he quotes Isaiah, saying that their whole system of worship is fake. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce.”

This is HUGE! No wonder they killed him!

But even that isn’t enough for Jesus. He raises the bet again! First, Jesus calls the crowd over and makes sure everyone is listening. Then, he says that what goes in your mouth doesn’t make you dirty (or unclean). What comes out of your mouth makes you dirty (or unclean).

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right. I remember something about clean and unclean foods in the Old Testament.

Let’s read Leviticus 11:1-23.

OK, folks, most bugs are out – no roaches or ants, but you can eat all the locusts you want!

But seriously, you need to get this. Jesus says none of these rules we just read really matter. This is HUGE! Jesus is wiping away a thousand years of traditions. Jesus is basically cutting out almost two whole chapters of the Bible - nearly all of Leviticus 11 and 2/3 of Deuteronomy 14. Eating the right kinds of foods was and still is a big, big deal for Jews.

During all of this, the disciples are sort of standing on the side with their mouths hanging open, cringing at every word: “Oh, I can’t believe he just said that! Did he just call them hypocrites? Oh, no, he didn’t just throw Isaiah at the Pharisees?”

They step into the middle of the poker game and call a time out: “Um … excuse us Jesus … you were maybe getting a little carried away there … Do you realize that you offended the Pharisees?” (And the word for “offended” is “scandalized.”) “Do you know that you just caused a scandal?” The Pharisees were the most religious people around. They were the heroes of the people, but Jesus just stuck his tongue out at them and called them losers.

Jesus “goes all in.” He pushes in all his chips. “Yeah, so what. They are weeds in God’s garden, and God is going to pull them out by the roots.”

What? The Sunday School teachers are weeds? The Bible experts are trash God is going to throw away? Woah!

Jesus keeps going: “They are blind guides. If you follow them, you’re all going to end up in the ditch together, dirty and lost.” Yikes! That’s pretty harsh. Maybe true, but harsh.

Peter seems a little lost. He says, “Um, Jesus, could you explain to us that ‘parable’ again? What were you trying to say when you said ‘people aren’t made unclean by what they eat’?” For Jews this was a basic fact. Unclean food makes you unclean. Peter seems to think this is another one of Jesus’ difficult parables. He can’t be saying what it sounds like he’s saying.

Jesus says, “Oy vay! Look guys, food just becomes poop. Your body gets what it needs and flushes it away. It doesn’t change who you are. It doesn’t change what God thinks of you. It doesn’t say anything about your heart.

“On the other hand, what you say and do is important. What you say and do reveals who you really are. What you say and do flows out from your heart. Worry about the big stuff, the 10 Commandments kind of stuff. Don’t get all tied up in the little nit-picky rules. They don’t change anything.”

The disciples still didn’t get it. An angel had to appear to Peter in a dream years later, for Jesus’ disciples to really get this message.

Read Acts 10:9-36

The rules about unclean foods and unclean people were roadblocks in the path of God. Some of the very rules of the Bible had become barriers to God. God’s people were so worried about being contaminated, becoming unclean, that they couldn’t really function as God’s people. They couldn’t go out into the world and tell people about God’s love and grace because they were always worried that their clean, nicely pressed religious clothes would get stained and dirty. They couldn’t help the people who needed it most because they were too afraid to offend God by breaking the rules. God had to take drastic action to set his people on the right path again.

What’s the point? What’s the point of all this? God wants our hearts not our rules. God cares about our hearts. What matters most to God? Love God. Love people. Are we loving God and loving people? If not, then nothing else really matters. It doesn’t matter how good you are at keeping the rules. It does matter how good you are at loving people.

Jesus is saying that holiness – or godliness – is not being separate from sinners and from the dirt of our world. Holiness is being so full of love that loving actions flow out of our hearts. God wants our hearts, so that our lives will put God’s love into action.

What about us? How do we fit in here? How does this story apply to our lives?

First of all, we need to slow down and consider the possibility that we are on the wrong side of the line here. There was once a Sunday School class that studied Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14). The Pharisee said, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like that sinful tax collector.” The tax collector said, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” After a long discussion, the teacher closed in prayer: “Lord thank you that we are not like this Pharisee.”[1]

It is easy for us to point our fingers at those judgmental legalists over there. It’s easy to forget that we have our own sets of rules that we expect people to follow if they are “good Christians.” We have spoken and unspoken rules about lots of things that aren’t so clear: membership, giving, quiet time, the right kind of music (inside and outside of church), alcohol, tobacco, beliefs, clothes, church attendance.

Let me tell you a story about one of those. About 10 years ago, I started attending a new church, and one of the greeters there was named Bob. Bob was a great guy. He had a heart of gold, but he was pretty rough looking. He was overweight. His hair was curly and kind of went every-which-way, except where he was balding. He chewed tobacco, so his teeth were yellow, in addition to being crooked. Bob often wore a hat supporting NASCAR, a t-shirt, and blue jean shorts – even in the winter. And Bob was a mechanic, so his clothes often had grease stains on them.

But every Sunday, Bob would be standing outside the school where our church met. As soon as we got out of our cars, Bob would wave to us and smile his big, yellow smile. Rain or shine, hot or cold, Bob was always there, welcoming people to come and worship together.

At first, I wasn’t too happy about this. I thought surely they could find somebody better to be the first person we met every Sunday morning. Surely there was somebody who was cleaner or more attractive.

After a year or so, I invited my cousins to come to church with me, but they said they couldn’t come because they didn’t have anything nice to wear. Our little social rule of dressing up for church had become a barrier for my cousins to come to God.

That’s when I started appreciating Bob. As soon as my cousins saw Bob, they would know that they could fit in at this church. Bob was like a walking billboard: “Everyone is welcome here!”

It’s so easy for us to look at the outside. It’s so easy for us to focus on the little things people do or don’t do. But for Jesus, it’s all about the heart. Keeping the rules, and doing everything by the book, won’t get us very far with God. God wants our heart not our rules.

Focus on the basics: Love God and love people. This week (today if possible) do ONE thing to show love to someone you wouldn’t normally show love to. Maybe there’s someone around you who breaks your rules, someone you would normally count out and stay away from. This week, one way you can follow Jesus is to do something real and practical to show that person God’s love.

Maybe this song will help us understand what Jesus is talking about. It’s called, “Enough.”

I’ve had enough of

Playing church

Just pretending

Singing without living

Arrogance and elegance

Pushing people out

Forgetting what life’s all about.

I’ve had enough.

I want no more.

More than enough.

We’ve had enough.

We want no more.

But I’ll never get enough of

Total honesty

Sacrificial love

True humility

Laughter and grace

Joy that’s real

Friendship that heals.

I’ll never get enough

Of the Father’s love

Of Jesus’ life

Of the Spirit’s power

Every minute, every hour,

I’ll never get enough of You.

God, give us more of You.

Make us real.

Make us true.

Make us free.

God, give us more of you.

I can’t get enough.

I want more.

More than enough.

We can’t get enough.

We want more.

God, give us more of you.

God, we’ll never get enough of You.

God, give us more of you.


[1] Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY, USA: John Knox, 1993), 175.