Then he [Jesus] 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. Let 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.” (NRSV)
The Jews had a long history of dietary laws. A whole host of foods were considered unclean, and eating them would make the person “unclean.” Even touching them would make the person ineligible to participate in the rituals of the community until a set period of time and certain rituals had been accomplished.
The Pharisees are all up in arms that Jesus ‘doesn’t take the dietary laws seriously enough’… and if he doesn’t take those seriously, what else will he let slide? It is an accusation in the form of a question. But Jesus implies that the Pharisees are majoring in the minors.
The dietary laws had had their place and time. They set the people of Israel apart. Food and drink is a major social grease, smoothing the way for friendships to form, alliances to be made and relationships to be maintained. Eating together causes a special kind of bonding. Restrictive dietary laws reinforced the taboos against eating with Gentiles because it just became too complicated. If the Jews could not or would not eat the normal things those of the neighboring culture would enjoy, they would just eventually not even mix. It was an effective barrier and isolated the people of Israel so they formed a very tight identity.
But the time for separation had come and gone. Now, Jesus said, it was time for people of faith to come together to receive the blessing of table fellowship, which would grow into mutual service for the poor and downhearted, making a difference, increasing goodness and hope for the world. Jesus was constantly crossing the boundaries; always relating to the outcast, the foreigner, the sinners and the lowly.
The clean vs unclean language can be confusing because some take it to mean sanitation. It is not about that. It is more about what and who is acceptable. Jesus is saying what a person says is more important in making them taboo than what they eat. While unsanitary food can make one ill, in cannot make one unacceptable. Only our speech and actions can do that. Hateful speech, name calling; that is the kind of thing that makes a person an outsider among God’s people. Jesus says to not pay any attention to those who would deny the new reality God was calling them to embrace. He calls them ‘the blind leading the blind’ and indicates they will only hurt themselves by ignoring God’s calling them to this next step.
Unfortunately, with the speed of information and the power of weaponry, a negative power can wreak havoc and destruction in pretty short order and hurt LOTS of people in the process. It would seem Jesus’ advice to ignore them is naive. On the other hand, violence is not the answer. It is tempting to think we must fight violence with violence, but that is exactly the wrong answer. It is not what Jesus did. Jesus went to the cross rather than respond in a violent manner, even though his disciples wanted him to. The only way to counter hatred is with love. The only way to cancel violence is peace, forgiveness and prayer. It takes tremendous self-possession and faith in the power of God to bring transformation to resist the temptation to join into the fray. The power of the resurrection is the only power to truly bring change enough to be able to trust in a new way of doing things.
Our society is in need of transformation right now. The rising racial tensions, the growing drug culture, the permission people feel they have to freely and publicly express hate for the other, the culture that creates an environment where a young man can consider it a good idea to speed his vehicle into a crowd of people; all of it is in need of a good dose of God’s peace. We are the ones called to bring it into the marketplace and the public square. Are we up to the task? Come, Lord Jesus, come.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.