Matthew 15:1-20

When I was a child my mother would say, “It’s time to eat. Go wash your hands and come to the table.”

Washing our hands before we ate was as much a part of our mealtime ritual as praying, or eating what was set before us without complaining, or no dessert unless we ate what was on our plates.

All of these were my parents’ rules.  They all had some purpose.  

Some rules were better than others, though. For example, making us eat foods we didn’t like still doesn’t seem like the best of rules to me.

Most of the children I grew up with had plenty to eat.  I’d say I was among those children who would rather go without something to eat for a little while than put something bad tasting in my mouth.  

I used to hate butterbeans.  The taste of them would make me gag. But my father believed it was his duty to make me eat them.  I think he stunted my growth because mealtimes could be filled with fear.  Every time I saw butterbeans on the table, I knew it was going to be an unpleasurable meal. I’d drop a butterbean on the floor, hide one under a biscuit, anything to keep from eating them.  

I’m reminded of the man who watched his friend’s dog eat cabbage.  He said, “My dog won’t eat cabbage.”  His friend said, “Mine wouldn’t either for the first six days.”

I think that’s how my dad felt about butterbeans.  He must have figured I’d eventually get hungry enough that I’d eat them.

I don’t think we are going to wait that long for a child to change his or her mind about “the eating what’s in front of you rule.”  You can enforce the rule, but is the win really worth the payoff?

How about the “No dessert until you’ve cleaned your plate rule”?  Now should we really be teaching our children that sugar is always the reward for eating a well-balanced meal or that they have to endure meat and vegetables because the only fun part of the meal is the dessert?


While our intentions are good, sometimes rules can become more important than their purpose and a mealtime can become a standoff between a four-year-old child and a parent who made the rules.  

A much better rule might be, “the adult decides what goes on the plate and children decide what they eat.”

With such a rule, children should still reach adulthood just fine, healthy and strong, and meals can be so much more peaceful.

During Jesus’ day, the religious leaders were the ones making mealtime rules.  

Before every meal the Pharisees believed in an elaborate form of hand washing before meals. This had nothing to do with sanitation, although it likely achieved that.  

Their goal was to make the common act of eating into a holy event.  It was a reminder that God was a part of all they did, so they added a religious dimension to common things. The intention was good, but like many rules, it eventually lost its purpose and took on a life of its own.

Many Christians have done the same thing with prayer. Since we believe God is everywhere and since we want God to be a part of all we do, we invite God into our lives and acknowledge God by praying before we eat, at civic events, sporting events, and public gatherings.  

People in some places find this tradition strange, but many in the South don’t think you can start a car race, a court proceeding, or mealtime without a prayer.  The intention is good but sometimes, no sooner than the prayer is said, the fighting and the unpleasant exchanges start, revealing that the prayer isn’t much than window-dressing.  

Like the Pharisees, we say we want God to be in the ordinary events of our lives, which is good, but we haven’t really made Him a part; He’s just a token.

So our prayers become mere habit, insincere, and only a traditional exercise.  Words might come from our mouths but not from our hearts.  So this isn’t really prayer.  It’s religious habit.

I’ve been to some church softball games that began with prayer but everything that took place after that was anything but Christlike.

When we live only by religious tradition, we can carry around an inflated sense of self-righteousness because we do the outward things that Christian people are supposed to do.  We can maintain the tradition of the faith without keeping the faith, which is something God is not interested in.

One of the marks of faith established by the Law of Moses was for people to take care of their parents.  Honoring one’s father and mother meant caring for them in their old age.

However, many of the Pharisees were ignoring the Law, all in the name of their faith, by saying that the money they had was dedicated to God so they didn’t have any money to use to take care of their parents.  Even though they said it was dedicated to God, it didn’t keep them from using it for themselves.

Jesus said that Isaiah was right when he said the people would honor God with their lips only and not by the way they lived their lives.

While we lament the decline of church attendance across our nation, what God laments more is that the actions of those who attend church do not match the words they profess while they are at church.

Jesus wouldn’t have had any trouble with the tradition of hand washing if their stated reason for washing their hands matched the way they were living.  

But it wasn’t the case, so when the Pharisees poked Jesus and his disciples for not observing these outward signs of the faith, Jesus was not bashful about striking back with a charge of his own: that the external religion of the Pharisees did not match the religion of their hearts.

Furthermore, he accused them of elevating their tradition to the level of scripture.

I’m convinced that if Jesus were a pastor today he would offend people in long-standing churches.  When tradition ceases to help us connect to Jesus or achieve the mission and vision of the church, then it becomes a barrier.  The tradition becomes about us, not about God.  Jesus would be compelled to bring this to people’s attention and many would find his words offensive.

God wants us to remove barriers that inhibit people from coming to the faith.  

That does not mean that churches shouldn’t have rules.  It does mean that the tail should not wag the dog.  When rules become more important than the Bible, more important than sharing the Gospel, and barriers to bringing people into the church and discipling them, then it’s time to call rules what they are: a hindrance and unnecessary.

All that elaborate hand washing wasn’t a necessary part of the faith according to Jesus, because it didn’t do anything to connect the Pharisees’ words of faith with their actions.  

These people were honoring God with their lips but their hearts were far from God.  

Jesus used this as a teachable moment with the crowd.  He told them a parable.  He said what goes into the mouth doesn’t defile a person, but rather what comes out of the mouth defiles a person.

The disciples came to Jesus and told him he’d offended the Pharisees.  Here, we learn something interesting about Jesus.  He wasn’t opposed to offending people if in offending them there was hope they might hear truth.

Perhaps you have noticed, the Word of God is offensive to some people.  All you have to do is share it with them and because it reveals areas of their lives that are in opposition to the ways of God, people are offended.

Jesus wasn’t trying to pick a fight with these religious leaders.  They came out to Galilee to place his religion under a microscope.  Only after they criticized the way that he and his disciples conducted themselves, did Jesus make these points.  

Peter, being a little slow to hear the point, asked Jesus for an explanation, so Jesus has to be a little crude.

“Look, Peter, what you eat goes in the stomach and in the toilet. But what comes out of your mouth comes from your heart: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. This is what defiles a person, not washing your hands before you eat” (paraphrase).

So, we must be careful how we judge people.    While we all have our standards for what’s appropriate and what isn’t, it’s easy to judge people because of what they wear to church.

It’s easy to judge someone because he or she never walked the aisle to join the church, a rule we’ve made up for becoming a member of the church.

What is not so easy to do is to judge ourselves and recognize when our religious rituals and our actions are not lining up with God’s standards.  We can be easily offended if someone points it out to us.

Jesus said that we should pay more attention to what comes out of our mouths, because that reveals what’s in our hearts.

On occasion I have gone to the hospital as a clown doctor.  Here are some of my props.  I have a stethoscope with a commode plunger on the end of it.  It really works.  I have a needle I use to give myself a chicken blood transfusion from “Bones,” my rubber chicken.  After I start clucking like a chicken, I ask the patient if she’d like a transfusion.  I tell her if she can stand the side effects that the transfusion is ten times as good as chicken soup.

In addition to my many other props, I hold this one for last.  I say, “And before I go, if you don’t mind I need to get a little stool sample for the doctor.  Oh, never mind, I already have one.”  Then I hand the patient this bottle.

Inside the bottle is a tiny, three-legged stool that you can place in the palm of your hand.  It’s a great gag.  Once when Mrs. Dolores Garrison was in the hospital she kept my stool and told every nurse that came in her room that her pastor gave her one of his stool samples.  They thought she’d lost her mind until she produced the evidence.

Jesus said the real evidence of what we have been putting in our bodies goes into our stomach and out the toilet.

Jesus said that the real evidence of what is in our hearts shows up by what comes out of our mouths.

We often think that it’s the external things that people see that make us holy.  However, it’s what we put in our hearts that makes us holy and the evidence of that is   often made known by what comes out of our mouths.

James, the brother of Jesus, compared the tongue to a fire, saying that with our tongue we “we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” James 3:10-12

So, God desires that from our mouths come words that reflect people who are genuinely changed by God’s grace, humble, authentic, forgiving, sincere, truthful, kind, compassionate, and bold in sharing our faith.  

In the sandbox days we all learn some rules about mealtime. They are all designed to help us get the right food in our bodies to help us grow healthy and strong, but sometimes the rules are misplaced.

It happens that way with our religion, too.  Will you allow the Great Physician to examine your hearts this morning? Will you listen to Him today and make sure the rules you are following and hold as the most sacred, are really the ones Jesus believes are most important? Will you take inventory of the words you have spoken in the last several days or week? These words say something about what is in your heart.

If you want to change what comes out of your mouth, you much first change your heart. That begins with Jesus, with His forgiveness, with allowing Him to wash your sins away. Then begin to meditate on His word, and have daily conversation with Him. Unless what you change what you put into your heart, your actions will not change either.