“But evil words come from an evil heart and defile the person who says them.“ – Vs 18 (NLT)
If you’ve ever had the impression that Jesus was some mild-mannered, wimpy moralist who wandered around the Judean landscape spouting obscure, hard-to-understand riddles, this chapter should change your mind forever. Matthew records with painful honesty the words of Jesus as He lights up the false righteousness of the Pharisees and, by extension, any of us who give Him lip service, but not our hearts. He is talking to men and women who are more concerned about keeping up appearances by keeping a certain set of rules, than having a relationship with Him.
It all started with the Pharisees accusing Jesus’ disciples of eating with unclean hands. This wasn’t about good hygiene. It was about the disciples breaking the rules that the Pharisees had come up with on their own. There was no requirement in the Law that required anyone to wash their hands before eating. Only priests were required to cleanse themselves from any impurity before they could perform their priestly duties. But the Pharisees had expanded this rule to include that everyone be required to wash their hands before eating. And now Jesus’ disciples were breaking their rule.
Jesus doesn’t hold back. He calls them hypocrites. He accuses them of coming up with their own set of laws that would allow them to get around the actual laws of God. That way they could appear righteous without actually having to being so. In verse 11, Jesus cuts to the chase and lays out the real problem: “You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do.” This wasn’t about eating with impure hands. It was about living with impure hearts. Jesus makes this painfully clear when He explains the true source of our words and actions in verse 18: “But evil words come from an evil heart and defile the person who says them” (NLT).
I love the response of the disciples. “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?” Yes, I think Jesus knew He had offended them because that was His obvious intent. Not because He hoped to change them with His searing sarcasm, but I think He was hoping that the disciples would take in what He was saying and no longer idolize these men as icons of religious virtue. Jesus was pulling them down off the pedestal upon which they had been placed by the people. Jesus was exposing their false righteousness and introducing a new form of righteousness that flowed from the heart. A heart that would require the radical transformation that His coming death, burial and resurrection would make possible. To Jesus, the Pharisees were like “blind men leading blind men” (Vs 14) – futile, dangerous, and hopeless in their attempt to provide direction for spiritual transformation. But in some ways, we are a lot like them. In his book, The Wisdom of Tenderness, Brennan Manning describes our similarities this way:
“The violence with which some Christians expound their beliefs makes me think that they are trying to convince themselves. The specter of their well-concealed unbelief frightens them, so they become more militant and strident. When this same fear grips the churches, they disintegrate into lifeless propagators of formal rituals or intolerant agents of repression. Without an intimate, heartfelt knowledge of Jesus, the preachers who staff these churches resemble travel agents handing out brochures to places they’ve never visited.”
So how does Jesus describe these kinds of people? “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man–made teachings” (Vs 8-9). No heart. Just head. No heart transformation. Just behavior modification. More good behavior and less bad behavior MUST equal godliness. But how did that formula work out for the Pharisees? Not so well. And it won’t work for us today. No, Jesus is still all about heart change – change from the inside out. And He is the only one who can bring it about.
Father, I don’t want to worship You in vain. I don’t want my man-made rules and attempts at self-righteousness to keep me from coming to You. I want true heart change, not superficial self-induced behavior modification that never seems to last. Thank You for sending Your Son and making it possible for me to live a new life in a whole new way. Thank You for Your Holy Spirit who provides me with the power I need to live the life I’ve been called to live. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men