Clean and Unclean

Matthew 15:1-20 Commentary

Angles, insights, and illustrations as entry points into the text and sermon

Inside and Out

Preachers as well as parishioners know intuitively that there is much at stake in a text like Matthew 15.  What is at stake here, and how high the stakes are becomes obvious as we probe more deeply.  In the text, Pharisees are critical of Jesus for allowing his disciples to violate the tradition of washing hands before they eat.  Jesus responds in turn and exposes their shallowness.  Unlike today, their objection is not about hygiene, but about adherence to human rules and regulations masquerading as a religious issue.  Jesus makes clear that his interests are not about keeping appearances but about the heart.  He continues by explaining that it is not what goes into a person, or how it goes in that defiles a person or makes him unclean.  Instead, it is what emerges from him.  While this may sound like it is quickly becoming a lesson on the human digestive system, Jesus surprises us by asserting that defiling waste is not a product of the bowels but of the human heart.  Pharisees had it all wrong:  they were looking for bad things, bad people, dirty hands, and violated protocols.  Jesus turns this way of seeing upside-down.  He schools them and calls them to do heart scans instead of wearing rubber gloves and spiritual biohazard suits.

It is easier to pick away at someone’s faults and failures than to practice self-examination.  Yet such a strategy not only shortcuts grace, but also puts the wrong subject under the magnifying glass.  Spiritual hygiene begins at home.  Those who are serious about it let grace touch their own incongruities and inconsistencies.  Eventually that practice becomes contagious so that someone else’s failures don’t seem nearly as large as your own.  Such learning only can take place when you and I start from the inside and work out.  But as long as we are labelling and categorizing others, we are always going to coming out on top while the one(s) we judge will never earn our Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.

The Pharisees orchestrate attention (both their own and that of their people) to the wrong things.  They are looking for order rather than the One who orders reality.  Because they cannot see the One behind a rule, or principle, or law, they cannot see human beings who reside on the other side of a rule, principle, or law.  They are not skilled in seeing persons or life, but principles.  In the Kingdom, seeing a rule where you should see a person is like describing a marriage in terms of the County Clerk’s signature on a license.  It is like getting to know someone by reading their autopsy.  Such things might be forensically right and true, but they miss everything real and personal about our shared lives together.  Pharisees flee from personal encounter with God and others by classifying people, practices, and behaviors.  Then they monitor the borders of those categories to ensure that they do not infect one another by blurring.  For the Pharisees, the categories of “clean” and “unclean” become the vocabulary for sorting and differentiating much of their spiritual and social border patrols.

Disgust Discussion

Psychologist Paul Rozin researches boundary psychology and is an expert in the human experience of disgust.  Rozin’s research has led him to three main categories for disgust.  They include:  revulsion related to issues of food, morality/people, and what he calls “animal-reminder” (I would call creatureliness).  Each of these contains socially-prescribed boundaries that relate to what we ingest, how we regard others, and matters of hygiene, death, and elimination.  The “natural” human response of disgust is something that we learn and is not something we immediately grasp.  For example, if we observe the behavior of one year old children, we know that that we will see everything and anything go in their mouths.  There are no oral boundaries at this stage of development.  This calls for a watchful eye on the part of every parent or caregiver.  Such surveillance is strongly needed for safety and also because a child has not been fully schooled in disgust-discernment.

In the book of Matthew, Pharisees adopt a similar parenting role around God’s holiness and potential human defilement.  As God’s Secret Service agents, they quarantine God as a strategy to protect from him from contamination.  Invariably, some are kept in and others are kept out.  As righteousness inspectors, Pharisees serve as social and spiritual gate-keepers by maintaining boundaries and borders.  All of this is done – of course – in the name of God, religion, piety, and human safety.  After all, without guardrails defilement is an easy slippery slope.

Yet the marvel of the gospel is that Jesus is a boundary crosser.  When he does, he not only creates misunderstanding but also offense and disgust.  Jesus challenges the learned attitudes and behavior that sort and categorize people by what is wrong with them, and replaces them with acceptance and embrace.  He is replacing the old category of purity with a “new” priority for people.  This does not mean the elimination of any or all boundaries, but it does mean that we become more attuned to the ways we are prone to classify people and define them as clean or unclean.    Anyone who has read the heart of Deuteronomy or the prophets knows that Jesus’ interest in the least, the last, and the lost is nothing new.  And one of the marvelous invitations of this text for a missional people is to allow love to replace disgust.

Anyone who remembers learning about sexual intercourse – particularly between one’s own parents – probably remembers feeling disgust (even if the word we used was “gross”).  Yet upon falling in love, the idea of intercourse moved from something disgusting to something rather appealing.  Until having children, I thought an infant’s dirty diaper or spit up was something from which to run.  Yet once I had children of my own that I deeply loved, the love became larger than the disgust.  Ask any nurse who provides deeply personal care for someone in need and you will likely find someone whose love has grown large enough to replace disgust.  The Gospel calls us to lovingly reframe our view of people around us, their dysfunction, disease and damaged human behavior, for Jesus’ variety of reframing how we see people, disease, dysfunction, and human behavior.  Jesus does not allow our perceptions or ritual purity to interfere or interrupt real opportunities to connect with the “unclean”.  Nor does he relinquish or abandon the traditions or practices of Israel; instead, he moves directly to the heart of them.

Disgust Demonstrated

Intriguingly, Jesus speaks of the boundary between inside and outside a human being.  There is indeed a difference between things inside versus those outside of us.  This instruction wittingly or unwittingly conforms to Paul Rozin’s research on disgust.  While lecturing to college students on the topic, Rozin will often select a student volunteer to demonstrate his point.  While she is in front of the class, he hands her a Dixie cup and asks her to spit into it.  Most of his volunteers need both Rozin’s encouragement and the delighted pressure of her peers to do it.  Eventually his volunteer yields and does something she previously deemed unthinkable.  But that is only part of the demonstration.

The second part of the experiment is his request that she now drinks it.  In spite of all of her classmates howling, cheering, grimacing and gagging, none of his female volunteers have ever followed through on his second request.  And this is precisely his point.  On a scientific level, this refusal makes no sense.  Every day, every hour, every minute we are swallowing our own saliva – when it is inside us.  Yet, as soon as it has crossed from inside to outside, that movement is more than geography (or telemetry), it is categorically different.  Now transformed into something else, it is not saliva but spit.  It is not only unpalatable but in regard to ingestion, unthinkable.  Oddly, the only thing that has changed is its location.  Scientifically, this makes no sense.  Socially, it makes all the sense in the world.

Richard Beck illustrates “clean and unclean” in a related way.  Similarly, Beck will ask a volunteer to inspect an apple.  Cautiously, the student ordinarily responds that the apple “appears perfectly normal.”  Beck concurs.  Afterward, Beck will take a large bite out of the apple and will now fully concur with the student’s assessment.  Handing the apple back to his volunteer, he encourages her to take a bite out of the same apple.  Sometimes students will meet his challenge and take a bite from the opposite side.  Donning rubber gloves, Beck will then reach into a small plastic bag and show the student a small segment of cat feces.  Touching the apple with it, he now asks the student if she will even hold the apple.  In all cases, the student refuses.  “Wait a minute, you just told me it is a perfectly good apple!  Then, returning focus to the litter box product in his other hand, he says, “Oh, I get it, by touching the perfectly good apple this has now been made good.”  His point is made:  in this world, contamination, defilement, and pollution only goes one way­ – unless you are Jesus.

The point of the gospels is that in regard to people, Jesus and his love and mercy change our way of seeing and dealing with people; people who are different, people who once disgusted us, people who have disease, disability, or dysfunction.  In love, Jesus has crossed over a boundary so that love can overcome disgust.  The Pharisees were missing this.  If you can only see what is right, dutiful, and responsible, you will likely not see God or his image-bearers; you will only see only the rules you are invoking.  People, however are more complicated.  They have hearts and lives and stories and God’s children are more valuable to him than the old categories of purity.  You don’t need to be holy, perfect, or blameless to be loved.  Love comes first.  Disgust is something that is taught and learned; sometimes, the first learning is to unlearn what we have been taught.  This is why Jesus says twice in Matthew’s Gospel what God had spoken centuries earlier through the prophet Hosea:  “But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt 9:13, 12:7; Hosea 6:6).

The church has a long history of guarding the “purity of the church”.  In our fears and pursuit of that purity, we have sometimes forgotten Jesus’ words that first and foremost, cleanliness is a matter of the heart not the hands.  Paul suggests that human regulations have the appearance of wisdom, and perhaps righteousness, but have no power to bring about the purity of heart God desires (Col 2:23).  For those of us whose spiritual formation has been largely informed by “cleanliness is next to godliness”, this chapter challenges us to begin the housekeeping on the inside – not on what is seen on the outside. 

Marc Nelesen is a CRC Regional Pastor eligible for call.


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