This chapter records yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. And it reveals just what the real issue was behind their ongoing conflict. Jesus matter-of-factly states that it was a matter of externals versus internals. The outside versus the inside. Religion versus relationship. Behavior modification versus heart transformation.
The Pharisees confront Jesus about His disciples' failure to "walk according the the tradition of the elders" (Vs 5). It seems that, according to the Pharisees and Scribes, the disciples were eating their bread with "impure hands" Now, this wasn't about proper hygiene and the Pharisees' concern for the disciples' health and well-being. It was all about rules and conduct. It was about following a bunch of man-made regulations regarding ceremonial cleansing. This wasn't about keeping God's Law, it was about breaking the commandments of men. And Jesus would have nothing to do with it. So He slams the Pharisees and exposes them for what they were: hypocrites. In fact, He calls them "experts at setting aside the commandments of God in order to keep your tradition" (Vs 9). These guys had turned legalism into a professional sport, and they were the league's superstars.
It's What's Inside That Counts
Jesus makes it very clear. This is an internal issue, not an external one. It is not all about external rule-keeping and ceremonial cleansing. It is about the condition of the heart. He says, "the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man" (Vs 15). He even makes it more clear for the disciples when He says, "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" (Vs 21-22).
Jesus was confronting a pervasive mindset that taught that external change was the key. Keeping a well-defined set of rules was what righteousness was all about. But instead, Jesus focuses attention on the heart. He makes it clear that the heart is where true cleansing must take place. Obsessing about external behavior and striving to keep up the appearance of righteousness is nothing less than hypocrisy. Because no amount of good deeds done, rules kept, or commands followed can change the condition of the heart. Which is why He called the Pharisees white-washed tombs, pristine on the outside, but full of decay on the inside. You may look good to those around you, but God knows what's inside.
At the end of this chapter, there is the story of Jesus healing the deaf mute. There is a phrase within this story that really caught my attention for the first time. It is in verse 34. It says that after put His ears in the man's ears, and then putting his own saliva on the man's tongue, Jesus looked up into heaven, then with a deep sigh said, "Be opened" What struck me is that Jesus sighed. Why? I think it was because he longed for the ears of all His listeners to be opened. Because in reality, they were all as deaf as the man who He was about to heal. Secondly, Jesus said, "Be opened!" He spoke in reference to the man's sense of hearing. That seemed to be the main focus of Jesus' healing. Sure, the man was given back his capacity for speech, but the ability to hear seemed to take precedence. It reminds me of what Jesus said back in Mark 4:23: "If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."
Jesus longs for us to hear what He is saying. Not only when it comes to the gospel message, but in regards to heart change versus behavior modification. He wants us to hear that true change begins on the inside. He wants us to give up trying to change ourselves from the outside-in, and start allowing Him to work His process in reverse – from the inside-out. But how quickly we fall back into the trap of rule keeping, and with always the same results: disappointment and disillusionment.
So let's listen to what Jesus has to say. Not so we can go DO something about it, but so that we might focus on what He says is important: our hearts.
Father, forgive me for being fixated on the externals. Help me to see that your desire is for heart transformation. Open my ears to hear what you have to say regarding in internal dimension of my life. Continue your heart-transforming work in me. Amen