(This is part of the GIGO series.)
OK, let’s take a careful look at Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23.
A map of the two passages
We’ll start by walking through the passages to see the basic structure.
I’m using the New American Standard Version, but I’ve added some paragraph breaks of my own to make the structure more visually obvious. If a word is in italics, it does not mean it should be emphasized. It means that rather than being a direct translation from an equivalent Greek word, it has been supplied by the translator in order to make the whole phrase more understandable.
Even though I usually I just quote fragments of the section I am talking about, I have left the references in so that you can roll over them to see the complete passages if you want.
1. Background knowledge
Mark begins by giving us some important background information.
“… some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders …”
See Mark 7:1-4.
2. The Pharisees bring an accusation against Jesus’ disciples.
“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
See Matthew 15:1-2 and Mark 7:5
3. Jesus tells the Pharisees they are hypocrites.
Jesus makes two points. They are listed in one order in Matthew and in the opposite order in Mark.
For one thing, he accuses them of considering their traditions more important than the Law from which those very traditions were derived. He gives a specific example about honoring one’s father and mother, and concludes:
“And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”
See Matthew 15:3-7 and Mark 7:6-8.
In addition, he calls them hypocrites.
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”
See Matthew 15:8-9 and Mark 7:9-13.
In Mark, the whole passage is summarized again with these words:
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
See Mark 7:13.
Notice the significance of the contrast between the Law and the traditions of the elders.
4. Jesus tells the crowd a parable.
After talking to the Pharisees, Jesus tells the crowd a parable to help them understand what is going on. We’ll talk about the parable a lot later, but for now I just note that Jesus tells it.
“Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”
See Matthew 15:10-11 and Mark 7:14-16.
5. The Pharisees are offended.
Matthew (whose book focuses especially strongly on the bad relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees) adds one more saying of Jesus accusing the Pharisees of spiritual bankruptcy.
Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?”
But He answered and said … “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”
See Matthew 15:12-14.
6. Jesus explains the parable.
Here is Mark’s version.
And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?”
(Thus He declared all foods clean.)
And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.
All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
(Mark 7:17-23. See also Matthew 15:15-20.)
The status of the Old Testament law
Jewish believers were required to follow the Old Testament law in every detail. Christians are not. Yet the law is part of the Christian Scriptures. So what is the exact relationship between Christians and the Old Testament law? The story recorded in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 is relevant to that question, which is almost certainly one of the reasons Matthew and Mark both chose to include the account in their gospels.
In the epistles, Paul emphasizes that through the death of Christ we have been set free from the Law. We are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). That’s a really important doctrine, and one I feel strongly about, but it isn’t the focus in this passage, so let me set it aside for now.
What does come into play in this passage, and what is often the focus in the gospels, is that during his earthly ministry, Jesus implied that He had the authority to be our new “Law-giver”. He claimed to have all the authority necessary to add to, interpret, or perhaps even modify the Law.
I say “perhaps” because one might argue that Jesus never modified the Law (Matthew 5:17-18). Yet He seems to claim the right to do so one some occasions, such as when he says “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Even in this passage, when Jesus explains the parable, Mark adds the parenthetical comment that: “Thus He [Jesus] declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19b).
Nevertheless, even if Jesus did not modify the law, He certainly claimed the right to interpret it (compare Matthew 5:19ff; also 2 Corinthians 3:12-18). A lot of Jesus’ teaching was aimed at giving people a clearer understanding of what the Law really meant.
That is the primary issue Jesus addresses on this occasion. The Pharisees and scribes, in spite of their great learning, have completely misunderstood the point of the food laws. They did this not because they were intellectually sloppy but because they were morally blind.
The “tradition of the elders” refers to the fact that the Pharisees had added a massive number of additional rules and regulations that went far beyond the actual food laws recorded in the Pentateuch. Jesus accuses them of making these – their own traditions – more important than the very Scriptures on which those traditions were supposed to be based.
That’s part of what Jesus is doing in this passage. That’s his negative point.
The other part, though, his positive point, is the parable he addresses to the crowd. In that parable he is trying to help them reach a correct understanding of the food laws.
In other words, He is not simply saying, “This is the right interpretation because I say so.” He is saying,“Don’t you see that the Pharisees must be wrong in their interpretation? Don’t you see that the Scripture cannot be saying what they think it is saying?”
The Pharisees think that the disciples’ failure to ritually cleans their hands before eating makes them guilty of unholiness before God. Jesus says that is not true. He wants the crowd to realize why not.
As was typical of him, Jesus did not simply tell the crowds “This is what it all means: …”, but instead gave them a parable. That way they would be forced to figure out for themselves what his point was. The thing about Jesus’ parables is that most of them only make sense to people who are willing to humbly admit their own sin. Most of the parables only open up to those who open their hearts.
That is why Jesus says:
Hear and understand …
Listen to Me, all of you, and understand …
If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear …
And later to the disciples:
Are you still lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that … ?
Here is the parable itself:
It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. (Matthew 15:10-11)
[T]here is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. (Mark 7:14-15)
The point of the parable is that the root of sin is in our hearts, already there.
As he explains to the disciples:
Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?
… That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.
All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:17-23)
These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matthew 15:20)
Think about the food laws for a moment. We know today that it makes sense to wash your hands before eating for health reasons. Eating with unwashed hands can contaminate your body with germs and make you sick. The Pharisees thought something similar was true, but they were not concerned about germs and hygiene. They were concerned about holiness. They assumed that, somehow, failing to cleanse oneself ritually before eating led to contamination with unholiness. Presumably Jesus (and Matthew and Mark) would have approved of washing our hands to clean off the germs. What was problematic was the Pharisaical assumption that we need to wash our hands ritually to clean off the sin.
Jesus says, just think about it! Isn’t it clear that all your sin comes from inside you? To those who are not blinded by spiritual pride, it should be obvious that we are filled with unholy thoughts and desires. Just think about what sin is, and where it comes from, Jesus is saying, and you’ll see that the Pharisees’ take on these commandments makes no sense. Ritual uncleanness does not make us unholy before God. It cannot – because sin arises from the heart, not from the physical objects around us.
Does any of this apply to the GIGO teaching? Definitely not directly, but I believe it does indirectly.
The key is that we must avoid repeating the Pharisees’ error. Why did they think they could control sin by ritual cleansing? Because they thought of sin as something out there, something that could contaminate them when they came into contact it with it, and something that they could avoid by controlling their environment. Jesus says, how absurd! Of course sin is always a matter of our own choices, of the human heart, of the wrong desires that are within us.
It is possible to use the GIGO doctrine to commit the same error. If sin is a matter of being contaminated by things outside of us, it makes it so much easier to manage. We can control our spiritual lives by controlling our input. Everything is neatly measurable and quantifiable. Even our thought lives can be handled without requiring any real introspection, any soul-searching, any deep repentance. We just filter what comes into our minds from outside. It’s very tempting to go that route.
In my opinion the GIGO teaching is technically wrong, but I have no real beef with it as long as those who teach it stay away from the error of the Pharisees. It is spiritually dangerous precisely to the extent that it is coupled with the false hope that we will be able to control all our sin by filtering out outside influences carefully enough.
In the next and final installment I’ll talk about making all this practical.