Matthew 15:10–20: The Defilement of Sin
Although we are taking up Matthew 15:10–20 separately from the first nine verses of the chapter, it is important to recognize that Matthew 15:1–20 constitute a single scene. In the first part of this scene, Jesus had been talking with the Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem to confront him over his disciples’ failure to wash their hands ceremonially before eating, according to the tradition of the elders (Matt. 15:1–2). At this point, a basic question arises: If the kingdom of heaven is not characterized by the legalism of the Pharisees and scribes, then on what principle does it operate? Here, Jesus shifts the discussion away from the mechanical and ceremonial to the heart of the matter, since sin defiles the soul, not ceremony.
1. Why does Jesus call the crowd in v. 10? What is the significance of the words “hear and understand” (v. 10) within the wider context of the Gospel of Matthew? What does Jesus mean when he speaks of “what goes into the mouth”? Why does Jesus say that what goes into the mouth will not defile a person? What does Jesus mean by “what comes out of the mouth”? Why can what comes out of the mouth defile a person?
2. Why were the Pharisees offended by Jesus’ teaching (v. 12)? What does Jesus mean when he calls the Pharisees plants that were not planted by his heavenly Father (v. 13)? How does this image connect with Jesus’ imagery of plants and trees through the rest of the Gospel of Matthew? What does Jesus mean when he calls the Pharisees blind guides (v. 14)? In both comparisons, what is the ultimate fate of the Pharisees?
3. Why do you think that Peter and the disciples continued to struggle with Jesus’ teaching on this point? Why does the food that passes through the digestive track have no lasting ability to defile us spiritually? Why, then, do the words that come out of our mouth have the ability to defile us? What connection do these words have to our hearts? What do your words suggest about what might be lurking in your heart?
4. How does this passage connect with Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in the parables of Matthew 13? How does someone with sin lurking in his or her heart enter the kingdom of heaven? Where are you tempted to justify yourself according to a standard of legalism rather than trusting on the finished work of Jesus Christ? Where are you tempted to sanctify yourself by mechanical ceremony rather than the ministry of the Holy Spirit?