What defiles a person?

Jan 31, 2021 by: Sam Hestorff| Series: Questions Jesus Asked
Scripture: Matthew 15:1–15:20

All that happened was that a few of Jesus' disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate . . .

I mean, what’s the big deal?  A lot of people don’t wash their hands before they eat, not that it’s a good idea – especially in the day of COVID but the reality is . . . sometimes people don’t wash their hands before they eat . . .  So, why such a conflict?

Well . . . as with all biblical stories, it’s probably important to know the context in which it took place.

The Pharisaic tradition of washing hands before eating was a long one and it had nothing to do with hygiene . . . Clean or unclean is the question . . . and the issue is about holiness. 

All men are unclean because of our sin – the Pharisees knew that.  But they also knew that God called his people to be holy because He is holy. 

But the question is how to make an unclean person clean – this at the center of the problem. 

And as the Jews encountered the Gentile culture more often, the question of ritual cleanliness took on a new significance.  It served as a way of maintaining Jewish purity and identity over the gentile culture. 

The idea was that they cleansed themselves of anything that was impure or unholy before they put their hands anywhere near their mouths.

  • When they’d been to the market place, there was the possibility that they could have touched something that was ritually unclean.
  • They might have handled money that had been touched by a Gentile
  • Or brushed against something that had some kind of ritual uncleanness about it.

If they didn’t wash their hands that impurity could find its way into their body and they’d end up defiled and unable to have anything to do with God and that’s not a risk they were willing to take.

So, when they saw Jesus and His disciples not following the tradition, of course they had a problem.

Understanding their tradition, we might find it harder to fault the Pharisees.  It might be like wondering today why a group that calls itself religious doesn’t say grace before eating or gathering together.

But Jesus does fault the Pharisees.

He notices the gap . . . the gap between the Pharisees' external religious practice and their internal belief. The Pharisees have concentrated so much on these external measures of religious practice that the internal marks of faith are forgotten or worse yet, deliberately avoided.

And Jesus is saying to these Pharisees, “You are so focused on the tradition of the Elders and the hundreds of rules and regulations that are supposed to bring you closer to God, but actually they are taking your attention away from him.” 

You are replacing God’s Word with your traditions . . .

He then expands a little more on it to the crowd which has now gathered – and then has to explain further for the sake of his disciples because at this point, they just don’t seem to get Jesus . . . yet!

What he is saying is that you cannot be contaminated by what goes into you.  Anything that you take into your body because you haven’t washed your hands is going to get into your stomach and eventually find its way out of the body without doing any long-term spiritual damage. 

The problem with the human condition is the heart.   There are plenty of outward signs of religion that might look holy, but the inward marks of faith are what are important.

So, he asks the question, “What is it that defiles a person?”

  • Is it failing to stick to tradition?
  • Or is it harboring attitudes that are at odds with God’s word?
  • Clearly, it’s the latter.

But fear has a way of distorting the truth.  Though the tradition of washing hands had begun for the Pharisees in all sincerity, by Jesus' time fear had set in.

Everything they did hinged on the concern that maybe they would be breaking a law, and if one part of the traditions were to be broken, then maybe the whole tradition would die out, and if the tradition died out, then maybe the whole faith would die out.


And it was out of this fear that the Pharisees thought that if they did the proper external acts, then they would be made inwardly clean.  If they just did the right things . . . they would be made holy before God.

But I wonder if maybe their deepest fear . . .  and perhaps our deepest fear . . .  is that we really are guilty and despite whatever we do to be made clean--wash our hands before eating or praying before going to bed at night, going through the correct motions at church--despite anything we do, our fear is that there is no way to be made clean, no way to be made whole.

Perhaps our deepest fear is that there really is un-cleanliness in us and we are afraid to face it.  There is everything that Jesus mentioned, from evil thoughts to adultery to slander to foolishness.  There is deception and manipulation . . . . and out of this fear

  • We present false images of ourselves.
  • This fear drives us to do all we can on the outside to clean ourselves up when the inside is just as guilty.
  • This is the fear that drove the Pharisees to such a degree that Jesus finally called them "Hypocrites"

It is to those deepest fears that Jesus speaks.  Fear can be paralyzing but there is a way out . . . Freedom. 

It was the freedom of Jesus that troubled the Pharisees so much.

They found him to be blatantly disregarding the tradition of the elders.  

  • He ate with outcasts, with unclean people.
  • He plucked grain on the Sabbath.
  • He ate without washing his hands,

But it was also the freedom of Jesus that drew people to him.

  • He was free not to be scared of society or of his enemies but to speak truth to them in love.
  • It was the freedom of Jesus that enabled him to accept those who were different: the outcasts, the unclean.
  • It is freedom that allows us to look at ourselves honestly and to see that, yes, indeed . . .
    • There is uncleanness in us.
    • There is all manner of sin.
    • There is plenty to be ashamed of.

But it is freedom, which enables us to accept the mercy of Jesus Christ.  It is freedom, finally, which enables all of us to love.

When our hearts are made free in Christ, then we find that all life is sanctified.  

  • Common things can be made holy.
  • Ordinary things can be made clean,
  • not by saying the right prayers over them or by washing our hands in the proper way but by seeing those common events and ordinary people in a new way.

That new way is through the eyes of Jesus Christ.  

  • Jesus freely accepted the outcast, the lonely, the unclean, and the guilty.
  • He accepted the common things and broken things of this world, which is why he accepts us.


He was not afraid of what went into him.  He was not afraid to get dirty, to brush against and touch the unclean things of this world and he was not afraid to be crucified for them.

That's what made him holy and that’s what makes us holy.

So, let us strive not to escape defilement and uncleanness but to touch the unclean and broken in ourselves and in others with the freedom and love of Jesus Christ. Then we shall be holy indeed. Amen.

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