It's About What Comes Out: Reflections on Matthew 15:10-20

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Lectionary Reflections
Proper 15, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:10-20
August 14, 2011

At the heart of this scripture passage lies a proverb: "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out" (Mt. 15:10). Jesus often coined short sayings or proverbs that shed light on specific situations. When we know who coined them, we call them aphorisms. Here Jesus' aphorism counters the Pharisees' criticism of his disciples for not following their rituals for pre-meal hand washing. Implied is a broader criticism on their part against Jesus and his disciples for not observing their rules for what one could and could not do on the Sabbath and for associating with those they viewed as unclean.

The spirit of Pharisaic Judaism intended these external rituals to keep the inward heart focused on the heart of the Torah: mindfulness of one's duty to God and neighbor while immersed in the details of daily life. Jesus knew that even the best-intentioned external observances can become corrupted. They can become substitutes for devotion to God while our hearts are occupied with thoughts that promote our agendas and whittle others down to size. It is possible to honor God with our lips while our hearts are far removed (Mt. 15:8).

This saying of Jesus about what defiles is a paradoxical proverb, meant to undercut the way we habitually look at things. Conventional wisdom, whether biblical or contemporary, usually pairs good behavior with good results. "A penny saved is a penny earned" (Prov. 11:28b). Conventional wisdom usually pairs foolish behavior with ruinous results, as in the contemporary proverb coined by computer operators: "Garbage in, garbage out." A biblical example is: "Those who trust in their riches will wither" (11:28a).

But Jesus' proverbs at times pair something we would normally view as good with ruinous results. "Those who want to save their life will lose it." "Whoever wants to be first must be last." He pairs what we would view as negative with positive results. "Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." Our proverb from today's passage is one such paradoxical proverb. These proverbs shake up our conventional worldview and point us toward unorthodox, but faithful attitudes and actions.

As Good as It Gets?
In the movie As Good As It Gets actor Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an obsessive compulsive author of more than sixty romance novels. He lives alone in an exclusive New York City apartment and is a busy man. Several hours a day he spends writing about love and romance. He also spends quite a bit of time making sure he doesn't step on the cracks in the city sidewalks and that no other occupants of the sidewalk so much as brush against him as he walks along the crowded streets.

Another of his favorite pastimes is insulting everyone, whether they are his gay neighbor or the Jewish patrons of his favorite restaurant who dare to sit at his favorite table. When anyone tries to have a humane conversation with him, he proves to be the world's poorest listener. So absorbed is he with protecting his personal world from contamination that he checks out of conversations when they don't directly concern him and his needs.

Oh, and there's one other pastime Udall engages in. That is his daily hand washing ritual. In his medicine chest is row upon row of gleaming amber bars of antiseptic soap, wrapped in cellophane, never before touched by human hands. During his daily ritual, he goes through several bars of soap, swiping each one once across his palms before discarding it and unwrapping another.

Verbal garbage that wounds others and hands clean enough to eat off of. Jesus reminds the Melvin Udall character in all of us that "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." In fact, the whole plot of this movie can be summed up as Mr. Udall gradually living his way into the truth of this pithy, pungent saying of Jesus.

Jesus offers us this proverb for the same purpose that he offered it to his first century listeners. He invites us to look out over the expanse of our culture, our church community, and our personal lives to see if there are any situations that stand in need of its pithy but powerful challenge.

I have a friend Laurel who is Jewish. In the late '60s, she began her freshman year at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. She had moved her things into the dorm and met several other girls. One of her favorite new friends was a girl named Debbie who had grown up in a little town in rural central Pennsylvania. One day in the lunch line, as Debbie was piling lettuce on her salad plate, she said to Laurel, "Did you know that there were some Jewish girls in our dorm?" Laurel said in pretend surprise, "Really?" "Yes," said Debbie. "I'm kind of glad I didn't get one as a roommate. I never saw one before. I wonder what they look like." Laurel said, "I'll bet you'd be surprised."