When you were growing up, were there words in your family that were forbidden? As a parent, are there words you won’t let your kids use?
The two unacceptable words in our house were hate and stupid. Naturally profanity was never allowed, but we also outlawed these two words because they were often used as weapons. Whoever wrote the ridiculous line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” did not grow up as a child in America. Words hurt.
Jesus was word-sensitive. He chose his words carefully in every situation. Whether he was expressing anger, frustration, love, encouragement, or chastisement, his compassion always came through in his word choices. The rabbi in him brought out a precision of communication that was both loving and instructive.
In today’s passage, Jesus is teaching a crowd of learners a new understanding of “clean and unclean.” Many things were considered unclean in their Jewish tradition. But his arrival was the catalyst for turning those traditions on their heads. He teaches them to think about matters of the heart instead of meaningless practices.
Matthew 15 (Contemporary English Version)
10 Jesus called the crowd together and said, “Pay attention and try to understand what I mean. 11 The food that you put into your mouth doesn’t make you unclean and unfit to worship God. The bad words that come out of your mouth are what make you unclean.”
12 Then his disciples came over to him and asked, “Do you know that you insulted the Pharisees by what you said?”
13 Jesus answered, “Every plant that my Father in heaven did not plant will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Stay away from those Pharisees! They are like blind people leading other blind people, and all of them will fall into a ditch.”
The Pharisees had come along and taken the Ten Commandments and turned them into 613 laws of minutiae. It was exhausting to keep all 613 laws straight, so they missed the two big commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus took issue with this. Their elaborate rituals of eating certain foods, their time-consuming hand and face washing, the way they studied the law while ignoring the plight of the poor, and their practice of judging the sins of others were problematic for Jesus. He ate with the sinners and focused on their needs.
15 Peter replied, “What did you mean when you talked about the things that make people unclean?”
16 Jesus then said:
Don’t any of you know what I am talking about by now? 17 Don’t you know that the food you put into your mouth goes into your stomach and then out of your body? 18 But the words that come out of your mouth come from your heart. And they are what make you unfit to worship God. 19 Out of your heart come evil thoughts, murder, unfaithfulness in marriage, vulgar deeds, stealing, telling lies, and insulting others. 20 These are what make you unclean.
At the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. If your heart is unclean, your words will be unclean, and no amount of ritual hand washing will fix that. But please, for the sake of the world, do wash your hands.
Where is God calling you to account for the uncleanliness of your heart? Where are your words betraying you? Where have you hidden behind a facade of righteousness that is covering up your sin? Choose your words wisely today.
God’s word invites us to truly “come clean.” What can wash away your sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.