What goes up must come down. What goes in must come out. Maybe not in a form we’d recognise, but input creates output, in some form or other. And what’s visible on the outside is (whether it’s obvious or not) directly related to what’s inside!!
External practicalities can take up a lot of our time, and we can end up distracted from the real matter at hand. In so many areas of life, private and public, whether in politics or the minutiae of our over-busy calendar, we can end up massaging the symptoms which cause trouble, instead of actually addressing the causes of what’s not working.
Jesus faced a similar issue, when the religious teachers of his day got all hot and bothered about the fact that his disciples had eaten food without first going through the ritual hand-washing prescribed by Jewish religious law. Good personal hygiene is undoubtedly important, and often such religious customs had their roots in practical common sense.
However Jesus knew that wasn’t the true issue here. He also exposed a flaw in the thinking of the religious teachers. If you live by a system, then you live by it. You don’t get to pick and choose the bits you like. It’s all or nothing. I live in Britain, specifically in England. That means I live under English law. I can’t choose to have English law for some aspects of my life and Scottish or French law for other bits! Or indeed to just ignore some of the law that I don’t like. And that’s exactly what those teachers were doing. They interpreted the Jewish religious law to allow themselves to appear to obey and be “good”, whilst actually doing the precise opposite of the intention of the law, and causing harm to people who needed care and support the most – you can read the details in Matthew 15.
What strikes me most about this story however is how Jesus absolutely nails the central point – as always! It’s not what goes into our mouths that is the problem. It’s what comes out. It’s worth quoting properly (Matthew (15.17-20): 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.”
Just stop and think about it for a moment. Every single hurtful, sinful, or even evil act or comment comes from our hearts. From lies to murder, from fraud and theft to speeding, all of it begins in our hearts and minds. But if our hearts are filled with love, peace, patience, understanding, compassion and truth, then those same qualities will shine in our words and actions.