Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14
We’re getting used to appearances of the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel. They’re a bit like the bad guys in pantomimes, you know you have to get ready to boo when they come on stage.
These appearances of the Pharisees in Matthew have a dramatic function – they are brought on to the scene to present the counter-argument to what Jesus is saying and doing.
The Pharisees in today’s reading are “shocked”, we are told, at what Jesus says. Actually they are more than shocked, they are scandalized. A scandal is literally a stumbling block, an obstacle in your path that you can’t draw back from and can’t get round. A scandal, in the Gospels, is a serious offence that you become obsessed by and can’t let go of.
What offends the Pharisees in this passage is Jesus saying that external observances don’t matter – things like washing hands, dietary laws, Sabbath observance and so on. Instead what matters is what comes out of you, what’s in your heart.
The ritual observances of the Jewish law were of course a sign of belonging. You did these things because you belonged with the community, with the people, who did these things. But it was important to get them the right way round. According to Jesus, and later St Paul, the ritual observances were what you did as a sign that you accepted God’s generous and loving inclusion of you in his people. God’s action towards you was free and unmerited, and came first. The observance of the ritual law was your response to God’s action.
Instead, for some people, the ritual law had become a means of earning God’s favour, of buying their way in. God’s action followed their observance of the law, it was, they thought, God’s response to their action.
More than that, it was also a used as a sign of being different from other people. If you ticked all the boxes in the ritual law, then you knew that you were alright, and all those other people who didn’t, weren’t. You were an insider, they were outsiders. The law was a means of defining yourself over against other people. You’ll recall the Pharisee in the temple who prayed “I thank you that I am not like other men, and in particular not like this tax collector here”.
Jesus undermines that completely by teaching that what matters is what is in your heart, what comes from within. Because if you look into your heart and are honest, you know that you’re just the same as everyone else. All kinds of unclean thoughts lurk within and emerge in our lives: pride, violence, covetousness, lust. Suddenly there is no tick box which tells us that we’re different from other people. It’s no longer possible to define ourselves as insiders to God’s people, because we can no longer identify outsiders who are not like us.
This is what offends the Pharisees in this reading – their whole means of defining themselves and knowing that they are good and righteous, that they “belong” and other people don’t, has been undermined.
What is left then, if we can’t rely on our own construction of ourselves? Grace and mercy, and the love of God. It is within ourselves that we need to be converted, to be freed from our uncleanness. And God sends his Spirit into our hearts to reveal to us our need of grace, and to make us clean.
God, by his Spirit, will free us from the self-righteous identity which we construct by defining ourselves as different from other people. God, by his Spirit, makes us one in Christ. God welcomes us and all the other unworthy and unclean sinners into his holy people. Our belonging depends solely on his generous love and mercy, freely given to all.