The Questions Jesus Asked: What Is It That Defiles A Person?
February 28, 2021
Matthew 15:1-2, 10-20
By now, we’re actually a little way into our Lenten sermon series, “The Questions Jesus Asked.” Technically, we started it on Ash Wednesday as we considered Jesus’ question ‘If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Our college students at PCM carried the torch last week as they explored the question “Do you believe I can do this (for you)?” Every week between now and Easter we will be looking at the formative questions that were so much a part of who Jesus is.
After all, Questions are an important part of communication – when you meet somebody for the first time – the basis of conversation is the questions:
Where are you from?
Who are your people?
Where do you work, go to school, etc?
Paying attention to the questions he asks is an interesting way for us to acquaint ourselves with Jesus.
It got me wondering – just how many questions does the average person ask in a day. As you might guess – one study says that depends a great deal on age and gender. Apparently, four-year-old girls are the most inquisitive human beings on the planet, averaging 390 questions per day. That’s a question every one minute and 56 seconds. Though my twin daughters are six years old now and, in theory, that number should have dipped well below a combined 780 questions a day, I’ll just say that in my experience, that research checks out.
Apparently, however, it is mothers who will field the majority of those questions. Among children in the average, heteronormative, two-parent home, a full quarter of children report that they often refrain from asking their Fathers questions – Why? Because your typical Father will say “Ask your Mother!”
I mean, that’s not me, or any of the other Girl Dads in this Church, just those other Fathers who would do something like that….
…Anyway, moving on! The kinds of questions vary widely – but some of the harder ones to answer include “Why is water wet?” and “What are shadows made of?” Perhaps the least dignifying is “Why are you so old?”
I feel confident that Jesus asked some very ordinary questions like “Peter – what’s for breakfast?” or “Hey Judas – what would you do with thirty pieces of silver (or has anybody seen Judas?)?” – but those are not the kinds of questions that made it into Scripture. The questions in the Gospels are anything but ordinary. They are the kinds of questions that cut to the heart of who we are and how we structure our lives. And today we start with a question about what defiles a person…what makes us pure and what makes us unclean? Listen first for the set-up and then to Jesus’ teaching.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”
He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
If you’re at all familiar with the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, you may know that Pooh is a well-intentioned, but often bumbling bear when it comes to executing a plan. In one story, Pooh decides he is going to trap an elephant – which he calls a Heffalump. It’s not an animal you see every day, he reasons, so why not trap one so you always have it around.
After drawing up plan after plan with his trusty side-kick Piglet, they finally decide on digging a great big ditch for the Heffalump to fall into, but they will need to put something tasty in the pit to lure the beast. After Piglet suggests Haycorns, Pooh decides that there is a far more “trappy” food than haycorns, and so he goes home to fetch a jar of his best honey.
At first it feels good and heavy, but to make sure it’s full he pops the lid off and checks – looks like honey, smells like honey. “But you never can tell…” Pooh says, so he takes a lick just to make sure it isn’t something yucky like cheese.
“Most definitely honey,” Pooh says, “and I imagine it’s honey all the way down to the bottom of the jar. Unless, of course, somebody put cheese in the bottom just for a joke. Perhaps I should go down a little bit further.” And so he takes another lick and another and another.
And as his tongue presses down to the very bottom of the jar to get the last bit, he pops his sticky muzzle out and declares “I Was Right! It’s Honey all the way down.”
Of course – his Heffalump trap is completely wrecked now…
Jesus may as well have been a very rare Heffalump for all the traps that were set for him. Of course these traps were less of the pitfall variety and more like public challenges designed to make him look foolish in front of the crowds. In this episode, it’s some indignant Pharisees who ask “why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?”
I’m sure that every child will rejoice that even Jesus didn’t care about washing hands before dinner, but seriously, what is really going on here? Is Jesus promoting poor hygiene? Is he sabotaging public health – and right in the middle of a global pandemic, no less? Not exactly.
In the religious and social world that Jesus occupied – purity and spiritual cleanliness is one of the going concerns. Much of the Old Testament wrestles with that matter – if Jews are chosen and set apart by God, how do you remain that way – how do we keep ourselves pure and distinct from everyone else?
And so Scripture abounds with practices that are designed to promote and protect that purity. Full disclosure – washing hands before eating is actually not one that is mentioned much in Scripture…and that comes through in the Pharisee’s question: Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the Elders? It’s not Scripture, but a long-standing custom was in place that washing before eating was an essential part of not just good hygiene but religious purity.
But Jesus – Jesus is a bit like Pooh bear. The content of the whole jar is what matters to Pooh, if it’s only honey on the top but something yucky like cheese underneath, that will never do.
It’s got to be honey all the way down.
It’s not that Jesus has anything against handwashing. It’s just that he wants to ask a deeper question – What is the point of keeping all the purity laws? Is it not to become the kind of person that God wishes us to be? “And what sort of person did God have in mind? One who was pure, not just on the surface, but [all] the way down, down to the very depths of the [soul.]”
It’s this train of thought that motivates Jesus to ask, “What is it that really defiles a person?” Is it really the food you eat or whether you ate it with unwashed hands? Is that what defiles a person?
No, Jesus says, the thing that truly defiles you is what comes out of your heart, not what goes into your body. You can observe all the right customs, you can perform all the right practices, but if we reduce our faith to a checklist to tick off then we have missed the point entirely.
Did I wash my hands? Check.
Did I read enough Bible verses today? Check
Did I go to church? Check
Did I not smoke, steal, swear or swig anything I was not supposed to? Check.
Jesus did not live and die and rise again so that we might have another to-do list.
No – Jesus came so that what comes out of our hearts might be pleasing in the sight of God and healing for a world that is wounded.
Nancy Myer, our staff associate for Children’s ministry, shared an article with me this past week from the Presbyterian Mission website. The story comes from a sister congregation in the PCUSA – Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. They recently confronted a painful aspect of their church’s history regarding race. A hundred years ago the Church accepted a gift, but even a century later there were still murmurings that it had some conditions to it. The Session decided to investigate and, diving into the historical archives, they located the donor’s will, and this is the story of how they have and are continuing to respond:
Show Clip – to see the clip you can go to this link and watch the whole video but the clip for the sermon is the first 3:40. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/buried-in-the-church-columbarium/
Is it honey all the way down or is there something different underneath…something not so holy at all? Personally, I am inspired by the way that Knox Presbyterian continues to wrestle with that question in some really faithful ways. As Rev. Fronczek indicated, it would be so easy for them to say “let’s just forget about what’s way down there. Let’s not wade into the messy past. Let’s not tarnish our reputation or that of our forebears. Let’s just focus on who we are now.”
But instead, they are attending to the past and the ways that it has likely mis-shaped the present.
And it seems to me that they are using this as an opportunity to cultivate some practices to guard against falling into the traps of yesteryear.
These questions, Y’all.
They are no joke.
They really do cut to the heart of who we are and how we structure our lives.
I pray that when the questions cut deepest,
God may find our holiest efforts the whole way down.
May it be so. Amen.
 This adapted quote and the illustration about Winnie the Pooh comes from NT Wright’s Matthew For Everyone commentary, p. 196