Uniform 05.18.2014: Be Careful What You Do

Matthew 15:1-11, 15-20

In the process of parenting our son, my husband and I often discuss the various methods of discipline that were used in our families growing up. For both of our households, there was always a penalty for using inappropriate language. In my house, my mother would squirt Worcestershire sauce on our tongues. This proved quite effective for my sisters and me, but my brother liked the taste. I think he sometimes tested his limits so that he could receive this savory punishment.

When my husband and his siblings used bad language, my mother-in-law doled out a consequence that makes me gag just thinking about it. She’d take the liquid hand soap from the kitchen sink and pump a sizeable glob on the offender’s tongue. This takes washing your mouth out with soap to a whole new level. I’m told it works.

Unlike the Pharisees who scolded the disciples about putting unclean food in their bodies, our mothers disciplined us when unclean words came out of our mouths. Both of our mothers were concerned with what went into our mouths. They put healthy food on the table, and they insisted on hand washing. Beyond health and hygiene, they worried about what movies we saw and the kind of people we interacted with. But they also believed that what we consumed paled in comparison to the way we behaved.

Jesus modeled this parenting philosophy in his response to the Pharisees: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Mt 15:11). He wanted his followers to understand that a failure to follow purity laws did not change a person’s character. The things we consume get digested and eventually leave us as waste. But the things that we put out into the world—our words and our actions—reveal the content of our hearts. These are the things that have the potential to change us.

The possibility of lasting change is the reason parents are so concerned with their children’s actions. My mother corrected my unkind or vulgar speech because she didn’t want me to become an unkind or vulgar person. Jesus is concerned about those who are guilty of “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, [or] slander” (v. 19) because he doesn’t want his followers to become dishonest or evil people.

Thinking that character formation is limited to children and teenagers is tempting, but Jesus wants us to know that our actions always inform who we are and who we are becoming. Correcting negative behavior can be even more difficult for adults because no one is around to wash our mouths out with soap. But listening to Jesus’ warnings about what can defile and change us is a good place to start.


1. What behaviors were you most consistently disciplined for as a child? If you are a parent, what behaviors are you most concerned about with your children?
2. How do the Pharisees misunderstand what behavior is truly important? What do we mistakenly believe is important?
3. What might we add to Jesus’ list of things that defile a person? What actions do we consider to be most detrimental to our characters?
4. Without parents or teachers to help us, how can we recognize and correct our own negative behavior? How can we gently help others do the same?

Reference Shelf

Matthew 15:1 begins with what appears to be an official delegation of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem coming to investigate what Jesus is doing. Yet the bone is picked with Jesus’ disciples who eat with unwashed, and so ritually unclean, hands. They are said to violate the tradition of the elders. Strictly speaking, the washing of hands was only required before the breaking of bread. The practice involved washing with a handful of water. The issue however actually has to do with Jesus, who is seen as responsible for the behavior of his followers. It was Pharisaic practice to wash diligently before eating. In order to understand the Pharisees, one must recognize that they attempted to apply the Levitical laws for the cleanness of priests to everyone (see Exod 30:19; 40:13).


At vv. 10-11 Jesus takes his case to the crowd, calling them to him and making clear that what his disciples did was no accident nor was it a result of laxness. Rather it was grounded in principle. Verse 11 states unequivocally that what enters a person’s mouth does not defile them, rather it is the unclean things that come out of a person’s mouth that defiles them. If indeed one takes this statement in a straightforward manner, it means Jesus saw a significant portion of the Levitical law code as no longer applicable now that God’s divine saving activity, his eschatological Dominion, was breaking into human history. Jesus’ approach to holiness was not going to focus on the ritual part of the holiness code.

One might say the Jesus movement and the Pharisaic movement were both holiness movements, but they disagreed on the proper approach to creating a holy people of God. Even the Matthean Jesus then is not merely declaring Pharisaic halakah [religious law] defunct or invalid. He is declaring at least some portions of Leviticus obsolete as well. When all is said and done, Jesus believes not food but moral attitudes and “unclean” speech defile a person.


It is Peter, in v. 15, who steps forward and asks for an explanation of this little metaphorical saying, but in fact the answer is given about the earlier aphorism concerning clean and unclean. There follows a mild rebuke of not only Peter, who speaks as the disciples’ representative, but of all of them—“Are you [plural] still without understanding?” Jesus explains that food only goes into the stomach and then passes out of the body. Jesus’ point is that food, which enters a person, is not “dirty” (i.e., people do not eat physically dirty things). Instead, it is one’s excretion that is considered “dirty”; what comes out of a person is what is unclean. The simple point of the comparison is the contrast between the “cleanness” of food versus the “filthiness” of excretion. The actual interpretation of the comparison will be given in the following verses.

The sorts of things that do defile a person are listed at vv. 19-20. Here, as v. 18 suggests, the heart is seen as the source and center of human action, determining its character. This catalog of vices is thoroughly Jewish and traditional. Here we have seven items listed, and the similar list in 1QS 4.9-11 should be compared. The First Evangelist has only one item not listed in the Mark 7 parallel, “lies,” thus making this list include four items from the second table of the Ten Commandments—evil thoughts, all sorts of sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adulteries (these words are in the plural), bearing false witness/lies, and slanders/blasphemies. J. Neyrey suggests that the list of vices here is based roughly on the Ten Commandments, and this is basically so.

Notice that in the Matthean form of the list, unlike in Mark, we are focusing entirely on deeds rather than attitudes and deeds. Jesus in his own way heightens the demand for purity beyond what the Pharisees expected, but his approach involves strict moral purity. Personal sin, not food or eating with unwashed hands, is what now defiles, rendering them unfit for fellowship with God or other humans. In Matthew the story concludes with a sort of inclusion in v. 20, referring back to the initial question of the Pharisees. It is these sorts of activities, not eating with unwashed hands, that makes a person unclean.

Jesus’ radical teaching here, even in its ameliorated form compared to Mark, can be seen as performative in nature, which is to say that “Jesus in our passage is not just holding a mirror up to nature, depicting what has always been the case, but actually changing things by his apocalyptic pronouncement that all foods are (now) clean.” Such a pronouncement is not unlike what we find in Genesis 9:3, where before the Mosaic Law but after the flood all animals could be eaten.


Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 295-300.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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