“Summoning the crowd again, he told them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What do you get when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste? I recently saw a magician squeeze ketchup and then pour salt out of the same tube of toothpaste. I’m pretty sure he monkeyed with the tube somehow. Normally, when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste out comes a glob of…toothpaste. This isn’t rocket science. Now, here’s the real trick question: Why does toothpaste come out of that tube when you squeeze it? Ready for this: Because that’s what’s in it. I know, I know, this is mind-blowing stuff. So why am I thinking about toothpaste this morning? Because of what Jesus said here. Let’s talk about it.
Let me change things up on you with another question. Have you noticed how monster movies have changed over the years? A generation ago, monsters were always the villains of the story. They were out there and needed to be defeated. Then things changed a bit and it was the monsters who were inside us. They were hiding there and we needed to overcome our own monsters or else be destroyed by them. Nowadays we are more often told there aren’t really monsters at all. We may call them monsters, but if we just understood them better we’d come to understand that no one’s really a monster. We’re all perfect in our own way.
Think about some of the recent examples of this. Most of them, frankly, have come from Disney. It started with Maleficent with Angelina Jolie as the titular character. Maleficent, of course, was the villain in the original Sleeping Beauty movie and one of the most dominant Disney Princess-verse villains of all. The whole point of Maleficent is to help us understand that she isn’t really a villain at all. She’s simply different and misunderstood and the prejudices of the traditional good guys are what drove her to do the evil and destructive things that she did. The upcoming Disney+ feature Cruella looks to do the same sort of thing with another dominant Disney villain, Cruella de Vil.
We talked last week about the Pharisees fussing at Jesus and the disciples for not keeping some of the Jewish traditions for keeping oneself ceremonially clean. There were a number of different situations in which observant Jews were to wash their hands or their cups or bowls or a variety of other things. These were to purportedly keep them clean and pure from sin. The whole root of this line of thinking, though, was that sin was something outside the body that was constantly trying to get in. The basic presumption about people is that we are inherently good and the bad comes in from the outside. If we will just keep ourselves clean, we can stay fit for God.
This kind of thinking was not isolated to the Jews of the first century. It is common across nearly every major and minor religion that has been conceived of in the whole history of humanity. It still persists today. We are basically good and have been corrupted from without. If we perform the right set of rituals and acts of penance, we can drive out the bad that’s gotten in and keep ourselves good going forward. Then Christianity came along and upset the apple cart.
This is one of the things that marks the Christian worldview out as different from all the rest. Our starting assumption about people is that we are broken. We were created in sinless perfection, yes, but ever since the Fall, sin is something residing within us. We are fundamentally broken, born into sin. Before receiving the cleansing grace of Jesus through faith there is never a moment in our lives when we are not thoroughly corrupted by sin. Now, yes, theologians have always carved out an exception of sorts (with which I am in agreement) for very young children by talking about an age of accountability, but there isn’t any direct scriptural support for this which makes defining it clearly a tricky thing to do. Minus this somewhat gray area, though, we are in the grip of sin until we are in the hands of Christ. Period. No exceptions.
Because of this, all of the ritual washings the Pharisees wanted Jesus and the disciples to keep were accomplishing nothing of spiritual significance. Most of them hadn’t been commanded of the people in the actual Law of Moses at all. They had been added over the centuries as ways to keep one within the framework of the Law. They didn’t actually do this as far as God was concerned, but that didn’t matter much to the people performing them. They were utterly convinced they worked. If we just do and say the right things and learn to see people in the right light, none of us are monsters. We’re all saints waiting to be honored.
What Jesus wanted His audience here to understand, though, was that this is simply not the case. The things that make us unclean and unrighteous do not primarily come from without. In fact, they don’t come from without at all. They all come from within. The sin is on the inside of us waiting to get out. Wiping the outside down and keeping ourselves looking good to passersby is fine, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking any of that somehow makes us right with God. It doesn’t. In fact, it can actually be worse than nothing because in keeping ourselves clean on the outside, we can be taken by the ruse intended to trick the people around us and start believing that’s all that really matters and that we’re good with God when we’re really not.
Friends, it is not what lies on the outside, but what lurks within that ultimately defines us. Unless we address the monster within, it will eventually take over our lives and sow seeds of chaos everywhere it can. There is only one power great enough to tame and destroy this beast: The Holy Spirit. It is only when we accept Jesus as Lord and the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us that we can reach the point where we are clean outside and in.
If things are going well on the outside in your life, rejoice in that. But don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. Remain vigilant for the monster within lurks still and is looking for a chance to assert itself once again. Pursue the spiritual disciplines with intentionality. Remain deeply connected with a community of faith. Be engaged regularly with a smaller group of believers who have access to your inner life and who can help hold you accountable. Serve others whose circumstances are not as happy as yours (even if yours aren’t particularly happy there are always folks who have it worse) to keep your attention turned outward so the selfish person inside you doesn’t get a chance to come to the light. None of these things will necessarily leave you looking all that put together from the outside, but that’s not your real goal. Your real goal is to tame the beast on the inside and these things will help with that. Don’t buy the lie of our culture that you are perfect the way you are. You’re not. But there’s grace for that. Receive it and let the Spirit help you become all you were designed to be.