Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 15:1-20

by Marc Nelesen

Inside and Out

Preachers as well as parishioners know intuitively that there is much at stake in a text like Matthew 15. What is at stake here, and how high the stakes are becomes obvious as we probe more deeply. In the text, Pharisees are critical of Jesus for allowing his disciples to violate the tradition of washing hands before they eat. Jesus responds in turn and exposes their shallowness. Unlike today, their objection is not about hygiene, but about adherence to human rules and regulations masquerading as a religious issue. Jesus makes clear that his interests are not about keeping appearances but about the heart. He continues by explaining that it is not what goes into a person, or how it goes in that defiles a person or makes him unclean. Instead, it is what emerges from him. While this may sound like it is quickly becoming a lesson on the human digestive system, Jesus surprises us by asserting that defiling waste is not a product of the bowels but of the human heart. Pharisees had it all wrong: they were looking for bad things, bad people, dirty hands, and violated protocols. Jesus turns this way of seeing upside-down. He schools them and calls them to do heart scans instead of wearing rubber gloves and spiritual biohazard suits.

It is easier to pick away at someone’s faults and failures than to practice self-examination. Yet such a strategy not only shortcuts grace, but also puts the wrong subject under the magnifying glass. Spiritual hygiene begins at home. Those who are serious about it let grace touch their own incongruities and inconsistencies. Eventually that practice becomes contagious so that someone else’s failures don’t seem nearly as large as your own. Such learning only can take place when you and I start from the inside and work out. But as long as we are labelling and categorizing others, we are always going to coming out on top while the one(s) we judge will never earn our Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.

The Pharisees orchestrate attention (both their own and that of their people) to the wrong things. They are looking for order rather than the One who orders reality. Because they cannot see the One behind a rule, or principle, or law, they cannot see human beings who reside on the other side of a rule, principle, or law. They are not skilled in seeing persons or life, but principles. In the Kingdom, seeing a rule where you should see a person is like describing a marriage in terms of the County Clerk’s signature on a license. It is like getting to know someone by reading their autopsy. Such things might be forensically right and true, but they miss everything real and personal about our shared lives together. Pharisees flee from personal encounter with God and others by classifying people, practices, and behaviors. Then they monitor the borders of those categories to ensure that they do not infect one another by blurring. For the Pharisees, the categories of “clean” and “unclean” become the vocabulary for sorting and differentiating much of their spiritual and social border patrols.

Disgust Discussion

Disgust Demonstrated