Clean Hands (Matthew 15:17-20)

Photo by Fran Jacquier on Unsplash

Having given clear teaching on the nature of what makes a person ‘unclean’,
Photo by Fran Jacquier on Unsplash Jesus was asked to explain His parable. It is an uninformed question, because what Jesus said was not hard to understand. But a question is a starting point, and every teacher knows that you have to start where people are at, not where we wish they would be. So Jesus graciously answers it all the same, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”

The religious leadership of the day had accused Him of not following tradition by insisting that His followers wash their hands before they eat. In response, Jesus taught that uncleanness is not caused by what goes into someone’s mouth, but what comes out of it. It was not a difficult concept. The leadership was focused on the physical. To them, hand washing was important at least partially because others could see that you were ‘staying clean’. Jesus was trying to lift their eyes off the material plain to the spiritual. The far more important matter was not that their hands were washed (human tradition having to do with physical bodies), but that they were spiritually clean in God’s sight. For God’s gaze looks past what we look like on the outside and how we act for the benefit of others. He is looking at who we really are on the inside and how we act for His glory. As the Lord had said to the prophet Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Jesus knew that. The Word recorded how David had prayed even though all Israel thought very highly of him, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. […] Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” David knew that while his body was clean and public perception of him was clean, his heart was desperately wicked. He needed to be clean in God’s eyes. The Pharisees should’ve known that. Especially because there was also Scriptural precedent for this exact issue. When King Hezekiah had called all Israel to celebrate the Passover there were many who were ‘unclean’ on the outside but yet forgiven by the Lord; “Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.”

The disciple of God Most High must know this; being ‘clean’ is much more a matter of the heart than a matter of the hands!

He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

King David (from Ps 24:4-5)

APPLICATION: Intentionality

We all know to regularly wash our hands. How often do we regularly wash our hearts?