Some years back there was a correspondence in The Times under the heading 'What's wrong with the world?' And people wrote in with all the predictable answers. Education. Living conditions. Social environment. And so on. But it was the shortest letter that said both the most, and the truth. It was from the Christian writer G.K. Chesterton. He wrote:
What's wrong with the world?
Which is what Jesus teaches in this morning's passage from Matthew's Gospel. That evil lies not 'out there' or in 'them', but in each of us, in what Jesus calls 'the heart'. Two weeks ago we looked at vv1-9. Verses 10-20 are the same incident continued - so we need to re-cap from v1:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!' (vv1-2)
The tradition of the elders was a set of man-made rules, and one of them said you must do a hand-washing ritual before meals. If you didn't, your hands would be somehow spiritually 'unclean', so your food would therefore be spiritually 'unclean', and it would then make you somehow 'unclean'. So in this passage, 'unclean' basically means unacceptable to God. So, onto verse 10, and,
First, WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT THE HEART (vv10-11)
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth doesn't make him 'unclean', but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean'.' (vv10-11)
And in v18, Jesus clarifies what he means:
But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (vv18-19)
Ie, what makes us unacceptable to God is the evil behaviour which flows from our 'hearts'. The Bible uses that word 'heart' to mean the 'centre' (much as we talk of the 'heart of the matter'). The heart is the centre of our personalities. The heart is where we make the decisions that govern our lives. On a ship it's called the bridge. In a car it's called the driving seat. In a human being, the Bible calls it the heart. Today, people might call it the will. And Jesus says that, by nature, our hearts are inclined towards evil - we do evil because we are evil. Just like a stream polluted at source will run polluted anywhere you care to test it. And he's talking about every heart of every person without exception.
Which cuts right across how we naturally think. We naturally divide the human race into two - the evil people… and us. We hear about the evil people on the news and in the papers. The boys who killed Jamie Bulger. The sexual abusers of children. They are evil. But in our own minds, we're in a different category. But the Bible says not. Jesus and the Bible as a whole say there's the same evil in every heart of every person without exception. How that evil surfaces differs from person to person - we all sin differently. But we're not fundamentally different. We are not fundamentally different from Jamie Bulger's killers, or from child sex-offenders. Our hearts contain just the same capacity for evil. And, given the right set of conditions, we are capable of any of the sins reported in the news. That's what Jesus says about the heart. No wonder it caused offence:
Secondly, THE OFFENCE OF WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT THE HEART (vv12-14)
Then the disciples came to him and asked, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when you said this?'
We know from the Gospels that the Pharisees felt confident that God accepted them because they kept their rules (v2, the tradition of the elders). They did 1,001 things that they thought pleased God and would earn his acceptance. But in fact, Jesus said, v9:
'They worship [God] in vain,their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
What the Pharisees had done was to swap the word of God for rules of their own making. The word of God calls us to humanly impossible things like loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves (see Matthew 22.34-40). So, consciously or subconsciously, the Pharisees swapped that humanly impossible call for 1,001 rules that were manageable. After all, washing your hands umpteen times a day may be a chore, but it's manageable. And so they were confident they were 'clean' - acceptable to God. But that's because (in jumping terms) they'd lowered the bar. They'd changed the standard of reference. Instead of looking at themselves against the standard of God's word, they were looking at themselves against the standard of their own rules. And if you make your rules manageable enough, you're bound to feel confident.
It's a bit like sheep. I was out walking in the Cheviot hills the other day, and you look at the sheep and they look pretty white, pretty clean. But go out again when there's snow on the ground and the sheep look filthy. Same sheep. Different standard of reference. And to people who think they're clean, because they keep their individual rules, or their group's rules or their culture's rules, Jesus comes on the scene as the spiritual equivalent of a snow-fall. He sets us against the sheer purity of God's perfection. And he says to us all: 'Unclean.' And, v12 the Pharisees were offended then. And I'm aware you may be, too, now. But if you are - perhaps as someone just finding out about the Christian faith - can I say: bear with it. The reason we don't like what Jesus says here is the same reason we don't like our passport photo. They both tell the truth about us. But it's not just that the Pharisees were offended. It's that the disciples were worried about the Pharisees being offended:
Then the disciples came to him [Jesus] and asked, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when you said this?'
And that worries the disciples. You can guess their line of thought: 'If Jesus says things like that, he'll drive them away. And these are religious people, moral people, people who go to church. Surely we don't want to offend the people who are most likely to be sympathetic and 'join up'?' Well, v13:
Jesus replied, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'
Several times in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus uses the picture of plants (see Matthew 3.7-10, 7.16-20, 12.33-35). Eg, he tells a parable about wheat and weeds (Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). The wheat stands for people whom God has worked in and changed; the weeds stand for how we are by nature. And it's the same here in v13.
Jesus is saying only if God works in us - or 'plants us' - will we be people who, instead of taking offence at the gospel, accept it and respond. Verse 13: their teachings are but rules taught by men.' Ie, without a work of God in them, they're still blind to the real state of their hearts. They can't see themselves against God's standard of reference; they can only see themselves through their own rose-tinted self-assessment. So when the gospel tells them they're unclean, they take offence and walk away. And the same happens today.
And Jesus says, 'Leave them.' Ie, we cannot do anything about the offence people may take at the gospel. The temptation is to change the gospel to avoid the offensive content - to tone down its negatives about sin and judgement. That'll certainly make our message more acceptable, but it'll mean that we've sold out on the true gospel and that no-one will ever come to Jesus through our 'evangelism' - because God will only work through his authentic gospel. Instead, we must simply bite the bullet and communicate God's gospel as faithfully as we can, and leave how people respond in God's hands.
And if God is at work in a person right now, unblinding their eyes to these realities, they won't take offence. They won't like it; but they'll accept Jesus' diagnosis and be drawn to him to ask him to forgive them and come into their lives and change them. But if God isn't at work right now, they'll take offence. And maybe not come again. And maybe not thank you for inviting them. The content of the gospel may well give offence, but the content of the gospel is non-negotiable. Our manner, on the other hand, should not give offence. We must, especially, make it clear when we talk about this subject of sin that first and foremost we believe it to be true of ourselves.
Thirdly, UNDERSTANDING WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT THE HEART (vv15-20)
The Pharisees took offence at what Jesus says about the heart. But what about the disciples? Verse 15:
Peter said, 'Explain the parable to us.' [And 'the parable' just means what Jesus said in v11 - 'What goes into a man's mouth doesn't make him 'unclean', but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean'.'] 'Are you still so dull?' Jesus asked them. 'Don't you see…?' (vv15-16)
The disciples didn't take offence at what Jesus said about the heart. That's the sign that God was at work in them, revealing the unpalatable truth. But on the other hand, it didn't come naturally or quickly to them to believe this teaching about the heart. And nor does it to us - to believe this is true of ourselves; but perhaps even more, to believe it's true of our children, our friends, and the many 'good people' out there. So Jesus goes over it in more depth to help us understand. Verse 17:
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 the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'. But eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean'.' (vv17-20)
Jesus works back from symptoms to disease. The symptoms are, eg, v18, evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Not an exhaustive list. But one that reminds us that we're talking not just about actions but words and thoughts. (And before we skip over 'murder and adultery' let's remember that in Matthew 5, Jesus says that anger towards someone is murder in the heart and lust is adultery in the heart (Matthew 5.21-22, 5.27-30). The action merely completes the hidden thought; mercifully God keeps most of our thoughts and desires from completion.)
According to Jesus, it's not that human beings are basically good and that when we think, say or do something evil, we're acting temporarily out of character. No, Jesus is saying human beings are basically evil and our frequent evil thoughts, words and actions are simply a surfacing of what we really are at heart.
Take his sixth example in v19 - false testimony. Lying. I won't do the same now, but in the last church I worked for, a visiting speaker asked whether we'd mind putting up a hand if we'd ever told a lie - or exaggerated, or in any way departed from truth. We all put our hand up. 'Thank you,' he said. 'Hands down. Now, would you put your hand up if you consider yourself to be a liar?' And it was very interesting to see only a scattering of thoughtful (and correct) peoples' hands go up. 'That's very interesting,' said our speaker. 'You're all prepared to admit you do lie, but only a few are prepared to admit you are liars. I wonder: what do the rest of you think you are?'
It's a good question, isn't it? If I admit I do lie but I won't say I am a liar, it means I believe I'm basically truthful, and that when I tell a lie it's just an isolated incident that doesn't reflect on my basic commitment to truth. But that can't be the case. If I'm a basically truthful person, I wouldn't entertain even the occasional lie. Because it would be against my truthful nature. The fact that any of us has lied shows that we reserve the right to lie, which shows that we're not committed to truth, but rather to ourselves. If it suits me, I'll tell the truth. If it doesn't, I won't.
Jesus says we lie because we're liars at heart. We do evil because we lean towards evil at heart. Human beings are not by nature basically good people who have occasional bad lapses. Human beings are not by nature basically neutral people who sometimes choose good and sometimes choose evil. Human beings are by nature basically people who incline towards evil. That's what Jesus says. By nature, we're like shopping trolleys - inclined to veer away from the straight line of God's revealed will. Or like those crown green bowls - with a bias inside us away from the straight line of God's will.
That's not to say human beings always do evil, unmixed with what we'd call 'good things'. It's not to say there are not very many admirable lives being lived out there. God has been very kind to us. He hasn't let the human race become as bad as it could be. Through our consciences and in the structures of society, he restrains us - eg, through law, or accepted taboos, or the whole idea of shame. (Though, God help us, they're being unpicked at a rate of knots.)
But that's the point. We need restraining by these things. Because we're basically inclined to evil. But mankind wasn't created that way. Mankind was created good, with no inclination to evil whatever (Genesis 1.26-27, 31). But the rebellion of the first human pair against God left them and us inclined that way by nature (the 'fall' of Genesis 3). No time to go into that, except to say that the Bible will not allow us to shift responsibility onto God who created the human will. The responsibility rests on us who exercise it. And recognising that is the starting point for responding rightly to God.
Well, how are we to respond? In itself this passage is almost entirely negative. It diagnoses but only hints at the cure - in v13: 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted…' That's the hint that only by a work of God ( a 'planting by God') will a person hear this diagnosis and rather than take offence and run, take it to heart and come to Jesus as the solution. The problem is two-fold. Apart from Jesus, we're unacceptable to God - unclean. We do evil because we are evil. We have a track-record that needs wiping clean and a heart that needs cleaning up. And the gospel promises both when we come to the risen Lord Jesus and ask him for them. Elsewhere in the New Testament it says that:
The blood of Jesus, [God's] Son, purifies us from all sin… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1.7, 9)
That's about the work of God for us on the cross. Our track-record of evil can be forgiven because Jesus took responsibility for it on the cross. So whether you've yet to come to Christ, or long since come to him, your past, your track-record can be wiped clean up to and including the present moment. And if you are trusting in Jesus, that is true of you right now. 'The blood of Jesus his Son goes on cleansing from all sin' [1 John 1.7, literally]. But what about the heart itself? The gospel also promises a work of God in us. The prophet Ezekiel talked about it like this (God speaking):
I will cleanse you from all your impurities… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will take from you your heart of stone [ie, unresponsive to God] and give you a heart of flesh [ie, responsive to God]. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws [ie, God will incline your heart to want to live for him]. (Ezekiel 36.25-27)
Which is what Jesus was referring to when he said, 'You must be born again' - 'born of the Spirit' (see John 3.5-8) That's the two-fold promise that the risen Lord Jesus holds out to us unclean people who can do nothing about either our track-records or our hearts. We who can change neither the past nor ourselves. For the track-record, the Lord Jesus promises forgiveness flowing from his own death for our sins. And for the heart, he promise his Spirit - his presence in our lives, changing our hearts, changing what we want, as only a relationship can.
That may leave you wondering how to get from knowing about the gospel to actually being forgiven and having Jesus come into your life. If so, please do take away a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? (NB the sermon "What is a Christian?" (Luke 5.27-32) - Sunday morning, 28 May 2000 goes over something of this.) But it may leave us wanting reassurance that we have been forgiven and that Jesus has come into our lives by his Spirit - after all, our experience is such an ambiguous mix of living for God and failing to live for him. What signs are there that I am really forgiven and changed? Well, go to Matthew 5. In Matthew 15, Jesus describes what comes out of the heart as it naturally is. In the beginning of Matthew 5 he describes what comes out of the heart which God has forgiven and changed. That person does not become perfect. O, that we did - but we won't be perfect this side of heaven. So what are the signs of a forgiven and changed heart? Matthew 5:
[v3:] Blessed are the poor in spirit… [ie, those who are no longer blind to the true state of their hearts but see themselves as spiritually bankrupt, with no resources to help themselves.]
[v4:] Blessed are those who mourn… [ie, those who regret their sins, who are now sensitive to them, who now realise how many things are sin that they did not once regard as wrong at all.]
[v6:] Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… [ie, those who long to change, who want to love and serve and obey God better and more.] (Matthew 5.3-6)
Are those things coming out of your heart? If so, your is not the unchanged heart of Matthew 15, but one that God has forgiven and changed. And if that has happened to us, we will never grow out of our daily need for those two things from the Lord Jesus - forgiveness for the past day's sins, and the Spirit's empowering for the next day's living. Which is why the two basic prayer requests Jesus taught us were:
Forgive us our sins… [cleanse the track record],
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil [cleanse the very heart] (Matthew 6.12-13).