Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 15
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Our God now shows the kids about sin with commandments.

O is for other gods
G is for graven images
N is for the name of God, never taken in vain
S is for the sabbath, so relax
T is for thy father and mother, and honouring them
K is for killing
A is for adultery
S is for stealing
W is for witnessing falsely
C is for coveting, always a bad idea.

Our God now shows the kids about sin with commandments. There will be a test later.*

If you ask the internet, you will be rewarded with numerous ways to memorize the ten commandments. There are rhymes, cute children with ten fingers, silly songs and various other mnemonics. The one I just shared may be the best of the lot, and it really isn’t that good.

There is another approach, kind of controversial, that involves picking your favorites, and leaving the rest. And I hesitate to even suggest this as an option, except that this is exactly what Jesus seems to do in Matthew 15. Six or so get kicked to the curb, and then he adds a couple, making a new total of six.

The six commandments. Will it work? It’s certainly easier to remember six, and it is a nice round number, but it doesn’t correspond very well with your number of fingers, unless of course you have been careless with the table saw. So what are these six commandments, and what’s left out? Let’s take a look:

Jesus said “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Basically, the first five are gone. Other gods, graven images, name in vain, sabbath and honouring your parents are gone. Coveting is gone too, but that was always kind of awkward anyway. Exodus 20:17 barely fits on a tablet:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

I’m assuming Moses misheard, or was getting tired at this point in the transcription. Either way, this was always the last (10th) commandment for a reason. Covetousness is bad, but there are better ways to say it.

If you’re keeping track, or still wrestling with my opening mnemonic, you will be the first to note the additions: sexual immorality and slander. Again, I don’t want to seem picayune, but sexual immorality and slander are fully related to adultery and bearing false witness. Variations on a theme, and questionable as new commandments. But this is Jesus, so we better try to figure out what he was up to.

The first thing to note is that one broadens the original concept while the other is a small subset of the original. See if you agree: Adultery is expanded by adding sexual immorality, the first being one aspect of the other. Slander, on the other hand, doesn’t expand bearing false witness, rather it’s a subset of not telling the truth. So we’re back where we started.

Maybe we should begin at the beginning. At the beginning of this chapter Jesus is taken aside and confronted by the religious ones and asked why they do not wash their hands before meals. He and his disciples don’t follow the hand washing ritual proscribed by the law, and some people take note (Just as an aside, Jesus was locked in a theological debate with the so-called religious elite—I’m sure he would still encourage us to wash our hands before we eat).

So the debate began, and by the time we get to the lesson shared today, Jesus has formulated this counter argument about what defiles: not what goes in the mouth, but what exits the mouth in the form of the bad things we have been discussing this morning. And he adds some additional context, as an aid to understanding:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

So Jesus has created both a anatomical guide to what happens when we ingest the things we choose to put in our mouths, and he has also traced the source of the things that exit the mouth—that would be the heart. There is a two-way path here: food begins at the mouth and travels downward while all kinds of evil begins in the heart and travels up and out the mouth. “Watch you mouth,” as my mother might say, or “you have a smart mouth” which didn’t mean anything like it sounds.

Once again we have an issue. Take the list (murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander) and try to locate them in the mouth. It doesn’t quite work. False testimony and slander are verbal, and exit the mouth, but the others do not. How is this going to work?

Jesus, of course, is a little more subtle (and expansive, as we shall see) when he says “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery and so on.” In effect, we have gone from saying bad things, to doing bad things, to simply pondering them in our hearts. “For out of the heart comes evil thoughts,” and this is enough to convict us of wrongdoing, enough to become the moral equivalent of actually bearing false witness or actually slandering someone.

And all this is really tricky. There was been considerable ink spilled of late in this topic of thought crime—can it be considered criminal to plan to do something criminal, to have criminal thoughts? And where do you stop? The recent conviction of a rather misguided young man, for buying a plane ticket and planning to become a jihadi, is an example to how we have criminalized the act of simply planning to do something obviously criminal.

Again, where do you stop? If two drunks are fighting in front of my house at 2.30 in the morning, and I say “I should knock their heads together until they stop” have I just committed thought assault? Should that be a crime? It’s not very Christian—I’ll give you that—and I suppose I could get dressed, go out, and help them talk it through—but my thoughts are more of the head-knocking variety.

So we’ve gone from this new list of six heart-proceeding examples of wrongdoing, to the development of thought crime (and all the problems that will pose in a free society) and I fear we’re no further along than when we started. So let’s go back to the text once more, and see what else we can learn.

At the beginning of Matthew 15, Jesus is asked the question about failing to wash his hands in the ritual manner. Then he responses with this:

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

Suddenly we see there is much more going on here. The fifth commandment (honour your parents) didn’t disappear at all—in fact, it’s at the heart of this new discussion. For it turns out that the religious elite were manipulating the system of gifts given to the Temple, and declaring some gifts ‘devoted to God” when they should have been giving to parents in some kind of need. You could honour your parents by giving them food to eat, or you could be manipulated into believing that the food should belong to God, and does not fall under the command to honour your parents.

In other words, we have stepped in the middle of a very complex conversation between the Jewish religious elite and the Jewish Jesus: reformer, radical, and someone who was quick to expose hypocrites, liars and people who follow the letter-of-the-law rather than care for the vulnerable.

And this, it seems, explains the emphasis on the heart. It doesn’t matter if our outward actions seem righteous—if our heart is harbouring ill-will, self-interest, or the intent to deceive. The heart matters, and the rest is just posturing and memorizing list of commandments.

May God bless us and dwell in our hearts, that we may resist the wrong, and follow the right, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

*Adapted from


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