Matthew 15:1-11 and Jesus’ Practical Spirituality
1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2″Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men'”(Isaiah 29:13)
10Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”
In this conversation from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus questions the priorities of the religious leaders, confronting them with a stark choice between religious language and pious practices on the one hand, and the demands of everyday life on the other.
Redefining the loaded terms ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, Jesus calls into question the ways in which the ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’ understood and applied the law of Moses. Jesus shifts our attention from promises to real actions.
This passage has nothing to do with any attempt to elevate the spiritual above the physical; quite the reverse! Real physical support for one’s parents is preferred over high-sounding vows made to God. Jesus knows that religious language can serve as a cover for self-interest, or to gain status and prestige.
But Jesus is not making us choose between words and actions, either. What comes out of a person’s mouth has the power to make them ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’. Words are as much a part of our practical spirituality as actions are.
The spirituality that Jesus advocates is one that remains grounded, attentive to the real needs of the people around us. It is a question of heart, words, and action.
This means that it really matters what I think and say and do.
On the other hand, Jesus does not privilege personal hygiene; his disciples ‘don’t wash their hands before they eat’!