A sermon on Matthew 15:10-28
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
August 16, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
I do not imagine that anyone here immediately recognizes the name “Amy Bragg.” But I bet that you would all recognize the results of her work. That would be true of those of us who follow college athletics and especially college football. You see, Amy’s official title is “Director of Performance Nutrition” at the University of Alabama. She is in charge of making sure that the almost 700 student athletes at Alabama are properly fed so that they can attain their maximum physical potential. And that includes the championship Crimson Tide football squads during the last ten years.
Concerning the football team, each player’s nutritional profile is of the utmost importance. Each position on the team has its own unique nutritional requirements that differ from other positions. And interestingly, even between two players at the same position, the profile might be a little different from another. When the players first arrive on campus, Ms. Bragg evaluates each player, using a player’s body composition as a starting point. She has said, “When people lose muscle, they lose power. In football, we have an ideal frame in mind for every position. We begin by conducting a full-body evaluation with baseline measurements, blood work, photos, and a scoreboard to help individuals track their own progress.” 1
Many of the athletes—even many of the elite ones—arrive on campus with a history of poor eating habits. Ms. Bragg teaches them that there is a better way. Additionally she meets with head coach Nick Saban and the strength/conditioning coach every couple of weeks to assess each player’s progress in this regard. (Before doing the research for this sermon, I had no idea that they did that kind of thing. But given Coach Saban’s legendary attention to detail, that does not surprise me in the least…)
In a way, the dietary philosophy instilled in the players at Alabama can be summed up in a sign that hangs on the wall of the Crimson Tide’s weight training and conditioning facility. That sign says, “You can’t out-train bad nutrition.” Given the level of success that the Crimson Tide football team has enjoyed over the last decade, it’s hard to argue with it…
“You are what you eat.” That is a phrase that has a lot of currency these days. And there is a lot of truth in it. They certainly believe it at Alabama. In today’s passage though, Jesus turns that expression on its head. In essence, he says, “You are NOT what you eat”—at least when it comes to the realm of the Spirit…
1 Info primarily from (Accessed August 10, 2020)
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In the opening verses of Matthew 15, Matthew reports that some of the Pharisees, who were the religious professionals of the day, came all the way from Jerusalem to see Jesus. This was not going to be a cordial meeting of the minds. Apparently the first thing that they did when they arrived was to try to put our Lord on the spot. They asked him a question concerning a customary religious practice that he and his disciples had been disregarding. They asked him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Hmmmmm….That question takes on a different resonance during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, doesn’t it?…!)
[Side bar here: As best as I can tell, nowhere in the Old Testament law does it say that you have to wash your hands before eating. In the law, there are several references to washing, to be sure. And there was a large bronze basin located in the Tabernacle where the priests would wash their hands and feet while leading worship in the Tabernacle. But this religious rule about washing your hands before eating was something extra that some folks had just made up. Whatever its origins, it had become considered a religious duty during the time of Jesus…It was considered a mark of devotion and spirituality.]
Well, Jesus was having none of it. As it is often the case in the gospels when confronted with a question, our Lord did not answer it directly. Instead, he turned the discussion around back on the Pharisees by pointing out that they were not particularly interested in obeying what God’s law had to say, despite whatever the outward appearances that they may have given. He then quoted Isaiah 29: 13 as an apt description of the Pharisees. That verse says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Whatever plans that the Pharisees might have had to discredit Jesus as a religious teacher…well, they went up in smoke like paper in fire…
But Jesus wasn’t finished. He continued his public debate with the Pharisees by calling the crowd in. And he gave them another example of religious practice gone wrong. This is where the scripture text for today begins…
The text begins with a comment about foods to be eaten…and foods to be avoided…In verse10, Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” That really made the Pharisees (and probably much of the rest of the crowd as well) sit up and take notice.
The religious significance of food was a big deal in the religion of the Hebrews. The Old Testament law was very specific about what foods were okay to be eaten…and which foods would make a person unclean. Leviticus 11 contains a whole list of different kinds of things that could be used for food: animals, birds, fish—and even insects. (I don’t know about you, but most of the time I am trying to keep insects out of my food—not to make them my food…) So some species were allowed to be eaten while others were to be avoided…
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The penalty for eating anything prohibited is pretty much the same in each case. The person doing such a thing would be required to wash their clothes and they would be considered unclean until that evening. So every devout Jew would make sure that they avoided the foods that would make them unclean as a part of their religious practice. And the Pharisees were among the most scrupulous in observing these regulations.
When asked by his disciples what he meant by those words, Jesus explained the teaching in verses 17-19. Those verses read, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the moth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander. These are what defile a person…” Jesus said that it is not the food going in, but it is the sin coming out of a person that hampers one’s ability to develop a proper relationship with God and with others.
Throughout most of the history of the church, the Pharisees have been shown in a bad light. They have been characterized as the enemies of Jesus. Many of the Pharisees did their best to discredit Jesus and show him up to be a fraud. They were the ones who believed that they were setting the example for people to show what a Godly life looked like. Consequently they had the reputation of being self-righteous and judgmental. Even today, the word “Pharisee” is a derogatory term that has come to be synonymous with such undesirable attitudes and behaviors.
All of those things are true as far as they go. There’s no denying that. The Pharisees are depicted in the gospels of pushing back on our Lord and his teachings. But not all of them were. The book of Acts indicates that there were some ex-Pharisees that were members of the early church. I have the impression that not all of them were bad eggs—they were just misguided and stuck in old ways of thinking and behaving while God was do9ing something new in Jesus…
The longer that I try my best to follow Jesus, the more I find myself occasionally being more sympathetic to them. Because sometimes—when I am at my worst—I have to acknowledge that I see myself in them. And sometimes I see them in some other Christians I know…
In some of his dealings with the Pharisees recorded in other places in the gospels, Jesus characterizes them as “hypocrites.”2 The word “hypocrite’ comes to us from the Greek language and means “a play actor.” In ancient times, Greek dramas were performed with a relatively small cast. Most of the time, one actor would play several roles during the performance. The actors would wear a different mask for each of the characters that they played. That’s how you could distinguish one character from another. So a “hypocrite” is someone who is a play actor. He or she is hiding behind a mask, putting on a good show for others…
2 See especially Matthew 23:13ff.
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The essence of the teaching of our Lord in this passage—and really, of the entire gospels—is this: Merely following religious rules and regulations, regardless of how difficult and stringent that they may be, are never enough by themselves to develop the relationship that God wants with you. That’s not what God wants from you. Instead, God desires the relationship with you that comes from being transformed by his indwelling Holy Spirit in your life.
What Jesus was doing in this passage was neither attacking nor affirming the Old Testament law. Instead he moved it to a whole other level. His teaching—and his life—opens up an entirely fresh approach to developing one’s relationship with God. It’s an approach that de-emphasizes the importance of meticulously following rules. And instead he puts the emphasis on the works of love and mercy that are evidence and the outworkings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Our Lord made this clear in Matthew 5:17 when he told the crowd, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Simply keeping a bunch of religious rules and regulations is not enough. Jesus’ teaching is that you must go beyond rules and regulations. God doesn’t want your adherence to The Ten Commandments nearly as much as he wants a transformed heart within you and a life that demonstrates that changed heart and mind led by his Spirit.
It is my observation that way too many people, including both people inside and outside of the church, get stuck at this point. They want to live their lives as if the Christian life is one where rules and laws dominate one’s life and behavior. It is as if God is portrayed as some kind of cosmic scorekeeper who has a set of inviolable laws and rules. And He keeps a running tally of those who follow the rules and those who don’t. It’s great if your deeds put you in the black—but woe be to you if your deeds put you in the red…
People who understand the Christian faith like that are missing a very important point. Good deeds are the product of the changed life led by the Spirit. Good deeds in themselves do not create a changed life…However good-intentioned those good deeds may be, and however hard we may try to follow rules that we believe honor God, simply following laws does not create the life of the Spirit. They tend to kill the soul—not give it life…
Jesus said that there are only really two commandments to be found in the whole Bible. They are these two “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.” He said that our entire relationship with God is contained in those two commands. Notice that they have nothing to do with outward obedience of laws and rules unless that obedience is guided by those two commands…
The truth of the matter is that this is the supreme test of our faith. We do well to ask ourselves the question: Is our religion a thing of the heart, a life lived as a connection between our hearts and God? Is it a force that drives us to catch a glimpse of him working in our lives and in our world? If that
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does not describe our faith, then something vital is missing—something important—something crucial to being able to live the abundant life that Jesus promised his followers.
That’s what it really boils down to, doesn’t it?….
To God alone be the glory! Amen.