Expository Sermon on Matthew 15
Bellevue SDA Church 5/5/2018
©2018 by Maylan Schurch
(Here’s the audio for this sermon.)
Please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 15.
This is another sermon in the series I’ve been preaching since the beginning of the year called “Red Print.” We are looking at the words of Jesus, and who He said them to, and we’re trying to discover what those words might be saying to us today.
When I was a high school sophomore I had my first regular paying job. Every weekday afternoon when my classes were over I would walk five or six blocks west to Sunshine Dairies, where my dad worked. Dad’s job was to make large vats of cottage cheese, which he would later ladle into cottage cheese cartons to be sold all around the county and beyond.
Dad got me a job there, but it wasn’t working alongside him. My job at first was keeping the floor of the bottling room clean, and washing the disassembled parts of the two machines that put milk into cartons, plus the parts of the cream separator. The separator was really hard to wash, because it had lots and lots of conical stainless steel things which for some reason were called discs.
I grew to dislike these discs immensely. And every single one of those disks was covered with a thick layer of cream, almost like rubber. You had to peel off those layers of hardened cream, and after that you had to make sure that each of those disks was as clean as the day it was first delivered to the dairy.
Washing the other machine parts wasn’t as hard as those separator parts. In fact, I actually got to enjoy it. First you had to get all the Petrolgel, a lubricant sort of like Vaseline, off the moving parts, and you did this by blasting them with pure steam from a steam hose. When you got done with that steam hose, there was not only no Petrolgel, there wasn’t a microbe or bacteria within 50 yards of that machine part. But still you had to put the part in the sink and wash it with Diton A, a pink powder whose aroma I can still summon up in my nostrils to this day.
The dairy worked out so well for me that I home-studied my remaining high school classes, and worked full-time at the dairy, from 6:30 in the morning until whatever time in the evening all the milk was finally sealed into the cartons.
As I was reading Matthew 15 this week, I thought back to my work at the dairy. One thing the dairy taught me was how to wash dishes. There were no actual dishes at the dairy – just machine parts – but I learned very clearly the philosophy of washing things that had been in contact with food items, and how to get them absolutely clean. You made sure that the water was as hot as possible, and when you scrubbed away on that part you scrubbed vigorously. Luckily, we wore heavy rubber gloves to do this.
The reason Matthew 15 reminded me of the dairy was that one part of the chapter talks about washing your hands before you eat. But it also talks about how far away our hearts can drift from the God who loves us.
In this chapter there are a couple of important questions. I think they are questions you and I need to answer as we listen to Jesus speak. Let’s take a look at the first one.
Matthew 15:1 – 2 [NKJV]: Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
As an experienced dairy worker, I can nod my head in agreement. You have to maintain good personal hygiene in order to stay healthy, especially where food is concerned.
But if you know anything about this story, you will remember that it really doesn’t have anything to do with getting a bar of soap and some hot water and scrubbing your hands well, even under your fingernails.
If you are reading this from the Andrews Study Bible, you’ll find an excellent footnote right there at the bottom of the page and going on to the next page. I won’t read the whole thing, but just part of it:
“After the Babylonian exile, the Jews, in an attempt to keep the Torah perfectly (so that the exile experience would not be repeated), began developing meticulous rules and regulations that were expansions of the 613 laws found in the books of Moses. These were handed down orally from generation to generation until about A.D. 200, when they were put into writing in a book called the Mishnah. The question of the scribes and Pharisees as to why Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands was not a question of inquiry into their personal hygiene; rather it was about ritual and ceremonial purity. The purpose of hand washing was to remove the defilement that was brought on the pious Jew by contact with ceremonially unclean persons or things.” (Dybdahl, J. L. (Ed.). (2010). Andrews Study Bible Notes (pp. 1270–1271). Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.)
At home I actually have a copy of the Mishnah, which has a whole section on how to make sure your hands are ceremonially clean. There was no mention of soap or hot water. Instead you took a certain amount of room temperature water and poured it onto your hand and let it run down your wrist. You did that twice, and you were now ceremonially clean from any defilement a Samaritan or Gentile would’ve put on that food object, or that dish, or whatever, by touching it.
So those Pharisees must have kept watching the disciples with eagle eyes to see if they were breaking any of the man-made rabbinic traditions. And sure enough, these disciples were not going through the hand washing ritual.
So the Pharisees ask their question. And let’s watch how Jesus responds. Let’s pick it up at verse 2. The Pharisees speak first: “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?”
Remember that those “elders,” that long string of rabbis who had been doing their absolute best to make sure that the Jewish nation didn’t come within 500 yards of breaking any of God’s laws, these elders had painstakingly worked out some specific handwashing rules. Why weren’t the disciples following them?
Here’s what’s so unsettling about what’s happening here.
You see, when the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of doing what they did, they were using the rabbinic elders as their source of authority. They were totally skipping anything the Bible might’ve had to say about this. And in addition, the Pharisees in this scene with Jesus were not humbly trying to guide fellow believers toward greater truth. Instead, they were trying to gather evidence against Jesus which they could eventually use at a trial, if it came to that.
Okay. What does all this have to do with me? I think that you and I need to be very careful to make sure that we are not allowing other idea-sources to take the place of the Bible. Some people like to go back to the early church fathers, such as Ignatius and Augustine, and Martin Luther and John Calvin, and spend a lot of their time burrowing through those authors’ writing. I knew a fellow student at seminary who got his masters’ degree on some aspect of Martin Luther, and to hear him tell it, gospel learning stopped right there. Anybody later than Martin Luther was not worth that much to him. This man eventually left the Adventist church and began to pastor in a mainline denomination.
And these days there are many wonderful Christian authors producing material these days, such as devotionals, Bible study series, blogs, and so on. And the temptation is to turn our attention away from the Bible print, and use ideas from our current spiritual heroes and heroines without going directly back to the Bible itself.
But now let’s allow Jesus to have something to say about this. How does He answer the Pharisees’ question? What will His “red print” have to say to us?
Verses 2 – 3: “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He [Jesus] answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?
You see what’s happening? In His answer to the Pharisees, Jesus asked them a question which turns the tables. They have ignored the Bible in favor of the rabbis’ man-made rules, and He is showing that in this case, they are actually teaching people to disobey God’s commands. Watch how He explains this:
Verses 4 – 9: For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”—then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me . . . .’ ”
So here we see that, standing there in front of Jesus and staring at Him, are a group of supposedly religious people with faraway hearts.
And talking about faraway hearts – think of a greedy, callous person in those days who was deciding what to do with his money. There was no Social Security in those days, no pensions, which meant that mom and dad were totally dependent on their children for support.
But here is some utterly callous son who knows that he needs to support his parents, but who has discovered this crafty little loophole in the rabbinic law which implies that rather than support your parents, you can dedicate the money in the future to the temple – and you can use it now for your own purposes – and thus leave your parents to barely scrape by.
It’s a terrible thing to be so greedy that you ignore your parents’ needs. But it’s even more horrible to do this and to claim that God allows it. Just think of how badly this must have damaged God’s reputation in the eyes of people who thought this blood-curdling cruelty was all right with Him.
Let’s stay tuned here, because now Jesus is going to make this very practical and personal to anybody who reads this, not only people acquainted with rabbinic laws, but also people all the way down through the centuries to you and me. Watch what He says.
Verses 10 – 11: When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
Jesus is of course speaking about spiritual defilement, not physical defilement. There are a lot of things which can be put into the mouth and physically defile us. Unsanitary dairy products can do this. Parents are always chasing after their toddlers making sure they don’t put certain things into their mouths. Ever since the Industrial Revolution made it possible to process the health out of flour, and made it possible to inject large quantities of sugar into lots of things, the list of physically defiling foods has grown. And even people who don’t think much, or care much, about God are figuring this out and eating in more healthy ways.
But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He makes this clear a few verses later when His disciples ask Him to explain it to them.
Verses 17 – 20: Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
So what’s truly spiritually defiling is what comes out of the heart, out of the heart and then out of the mouth. We all have “faraway hearts.”
How does a faraway heart happen? I think the classic case is those ancient rabbis who were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish nation just after they returned from Babylon. God would’ve preferred that they humble their hearts, and pray that He would renew those hearts.
Because the idea of heart-renewal was not just a New Testament idea. Way back in Deuteronomy 5, after Moses had challenged the Israelites to serve the Lord, and Israel had promised to do this, God said wistfully to Moses (in Deuteronmy 5 starting with verse 28):
. . . ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!”
The word “heart” shows up in Deuteronomy alone more than 40 times, more than once per chapter. Any reader of the Old Testament – including these Pharisees and scribes standing in front of Jesus – would have known this. They would’ve known David’s Psalm 51 prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” They would have known Jeremiah 31:33, where God says, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
Last night as I was putting the final touches on the sermon, I pulled out my copy of the Mishnah, and just started to read it, from the part where it talks about how to ceremonially clean your hands. I read several pages, and not once did I ever read anything about humbly turning your heart to God. Instead, I read how Rabbi Hillel said one thing about a certain issue, but Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai said something else.
On and on these stories went. And there were some good parts. Some of the rabbis spoke in ways that showed mercy to the people involved in the issues they were discussing. All of them seem to be trying to do their best.
But as Jesus gazed into the eyes of those Pharisees, and gazed through them and back to those traditions, those “commandments of men,” He must have been deeply grieved at how those ancient hard-working scholars pretty much missed the point.
After all, as a prairie farm kid, I would play outside in the summer until there wasn’t any more light to play in. My brother and I would play catch with an old baseball, and the darker it got harder it would be to find that ball, and finally it just got lost in the weeds and we couldn’t find it.
And when we walked through the deep twilight toward the golden light coming from our farmhouse, we knew there were good things to eat inside. We would come in the door, and Mom would tell us to wash our hands, and we would go to the sink and sometimes we would wash too quickly, and we wouldn’t get our hands clean. And Mom would tell us to go wash them again.
But my brother and I knew something about our mom that perhaps many of those rule-writing rabbis didn’t know about God. We knew that Mom loved us with dirty hands as much as she loved us with clean hands. Washing our hands correctly was not the way to earn mom’s love. Mom loved us already, more than we ever could know. And she wanted us to stay healthy.
We never had to go up in our rooms with little notebooks and spend half the night trying to figure out rules for handwashing, and sub-rules under those main rules, in order to stay on Mom’s good side. We never had to argue about these rules, and finally write in our notebooks that Rabbi Maylan’s opinion was this, and Rabbi Chester’s opinion was slightly different.
No, Mom loved us. If she had come upstairs and seen us writing rabbinic rules in our notebooks, she would’ve been extremely puzzled. “What are you doing that for?” She would have asked.
This is what God is like. We can’t talk with Him face-to-face right now. But we can read His letters to us. The Bible is a complicated book, but only because we are complicated people. We have made life very difficult for God, and He used a great deal of patience in meeting us where we are, and then inviting us closer to Him.
But He has been with us this morning, through the “red print” words of His Son Jesus. He’s been lovingly reminding us of our faraway hearts, and has been longing for us to open those hearts to Him.
Through everything His Son has ever said in the four Gospels, God has been saying to us, “Relax. It’s simple. I’m your Parent. I love you, and I want to be close to you forever. I created your heart, and I know exactly what is inside it. And I stand at its door, and knock. And if you open to me and let Me come in, I will change your heart for the better, and make it more like Mine. Would you like me to do that?”
How about you? Would you like Him to do that? Why don’t you let Him see your upraised hand if that’s your desire?