It seems counterintuitive at first. Opposite the way we would think about it. We think that what defiles us, what soils us, what makes us “unclean,” comes from outside ourselves. After all, when it comes to dust, dirt, and grime, we don’t get dirty from the inside out, but from the outside in. The dust and grime in the air corrode our lungs. The pollution from the world fouls our insides. We take baths and showers to wash off the filth that clings to us from the outside. A man becomes a drunkard by taking in drink. A person becomes a drug addict by taking in drugs. A kid becomes a gang member by hanging out with the wrong crowd. From our vantage point, we are soiled from the outside in.
That’s why Jesus’ saying this morning causes us to stop and go “hmmm.” It’s opposite what we expect. We expect spiritual things to work just like everything else. In other words, we expect spiritual purity to come with our efforts to “keep ourselves clean and pure.” Read the right books, watch the right movies, associate with the right people, stay away from the “worldly things.” That was the whole basis of monasticism — withdraw from the world, set yourself apart from the “unclean things.” isolate yourself from the unclean world and you can be pure, untainted by the unspiritual, unclean world.
That was also the wrong impression that religious Israel got when applying the purity laws of Leviticus. It’s an easy mistake to make. All those “clean” and “unclean” regulations touching almost every aspect of life – what you ate, what you touched. There were certain animals considered “unclean” for food, things like pork and shrimp and lobster. If you so much as touched them, you would be ritually unclean. And all sorts of other ways too. And so it was an easy logical leap to think that it was what went into you that made you unclean. Eat unclean food, become unclean. Touch unclean things, become unclean.
The mistake is to confuse ritual purity with spiritual purity. Ritual purity was set Israel apart from the other nations. They had a unique diet, unique regulations and rules governing every aspect of their lives, reminding of who they were – a peculiar, chosen people set apart for a purpose, that is, to bring forth in the fulness of time the Messiah-Savior. But none of these rules and regulations could purify the heart or the person spiritually speaking. In fact, all the OT rules served to show how difficult to impossible purity is. If you could barely keep ritually pure, how on earth could you be spiritually pure?
Jesus turns it all upside down and inside out with this sentence: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” That’s right. You heard it. You become spiritually unclean from the inside out, NOT the outside in. It’s what comes out of you that defiles you, not what goes into you.
I hope you have an appreciation for how radical this concept is. The disciples didn’t get it. When they were apart from the crowds in the house, they asked Jesus about it, and Jesus seems to be a bit impatient with them. “Don’t you get it? Are you also without understanding? Foods don’t make you unclean. It goes in, it’s digested, it goes out, never touching the heart, except perhaps for a case of heartburn. With that, Jesus declares all foods to be clean. In effect, Jesus lifts the distinction of clean and unclean from the book of Leviticus. He can do that. He’s the Lord. And He needs to do that, since the distinction of clean and unclean, of Israelite and non-Israelite was only intended to pave the way for His coming as the Christ of Israel, the Savior of the world. And with Jesus having come, the OT laws with all their distinction of clean and unclean come to their fulfillment and end.
Jesus makes the unclean clean. He cleanses the leper with a touch, a touch that would have rendered you “unclean” according to the OT law. But with Jesus, the unclean become clean, holy, and pure.
Now with those words, Jesus also indicts our hearts and points the finger of the Law toward them as the culprits. It’s not the world that soils us, unclean as the world may be. The finger that points at the world and blames it for everything unclean is pointing in 180 degrees the wrong direction. It is out of the heart, your heart and my heart, that sin proceeds. Listen to the effluent: evil thoughts, sexual immorality (take you pick as to which variety), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All of this stuff comes out of the heart unbuckled from God, the heart steeped in Sin, the heart turned inward on itself.
It’s good to know. We need to know this. We’re prone to looking outside and blaming others for our condition. Like Adam and Eve in the garden. “The woman you gave me…” “The serpent lied to us, it’s his fault….” And secretly in the recesses of ours hearts, “It’s your fault, Lord….” But the finger of blame and responsibility needs to be turned toward ourselves and our rebel wills that want it our way instead of God’s way. Out of these hearts of ours, come all of the things we hate in the world – all the murders, adulteries, deceits, you name it, they all begin in the heart.
This then is not only the end of the OT’s kosher laws, it is also the end of all “heart religion,” the business of giving one’s heart to God. As Bo Giertz writes in the Hammer of God, “What sort of gift is that for a King, that rustly old tin can of a heart of yours?” That heart is a septic tank by the words of Jesus. it’s the end of “following one’s heart,” “praying from the heart,” anything “from the heart.” We need new hearts. A heart transplant, if you will. The prophet Ezekiel says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez 36:26).
It’s not as though we can rehab these old hardened sinful hearts of ours. We can’t. They are hopelessly mired in sin and are the source of all the stuff that comes out of us – the corrupt thought, the loveless word, the ruthless deed. This is the whole nature of “original sin.” We’re conceived and born this way, with unclean hearts that give rise to unclean thought, unclean words, unclean deed. This is a fundamental thing and something we need to keep straight. We are NOT sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. It comes from our hearts. Even a tiny, innocent, newborn baby, has this heart capable of all the evil things Jesus lists and then some. It’s only a matter of time before that little heart begins to spill out it bilge – from a defiant resistance of a parent’s will to the willful assertion of its own will to do as he pleases. And so it goes with each of us too. Out of our hearts flow our own idolatries, adulteries, murders, lies, deceits, confess what you will, it begins in the heart.
The answer lies not in our hearts, but in the heart of God, in the undeserved kindness and mercy of God in Jesus. Only God can touch the heart, only God can shape the will of rebel man, only God can take the unwilling and make him willing. A heart transplant. New hearts. Hearts of flesh instead of stone. Hearts that beat to the rhythms of God’s Word and Spirit. Hearts that are alive and burning with faith toward God and love toward neighbor. That’s what God wants for each of you; that’s what God gives to each of you.
And it’s not so much like a heart transplant where one heart is removed and another is put in its place. If that were the case, we would already be without sin because of the source of sin would be gone. But then, He would have to kills us and raise us to life, which He will do, in good time. Instead, God does a kind of “piggyback” operation, and puts a new heart next to the old. Luther called that being at once a sinner and a saint. They beat together for a while, the old heart of Adam, the new heart of Christ. We call it “this life of faith,” a life that held in tension waiting for the resurrection.
Having two hearts is not an easy way to live. Much easier it would be to reject that new heart and just deal with the old, dying one. But you know what comes out of that one. God leaves us hanging in a bit of tension between the old and the new, between death and life, between sinner and saint. And He says to you, “Trust me. I am your God, you are my people. I have rescued you from your sins in the death of my Son Jesus. I have washed you clean, baptized you with My Word, claimed you as my own. Trust me, that I know what is best for you. Don’t give me your heart; instead I will give you my heart, the heart of my Son Jesus, whose heart always beats to my will.”
It’s not what goes into us that makes us unclean. But it is what goes into us that makes us clean. Spiritual purity comes not from within, but from without, outside ourselves. Baptismal water poured on us; forgiving Words spoken into us; Christ’s Body and Blood fed to us. Those are what make the unclean clean. God alone can do it. God alone has done it. And He does it for you, here today.
In the name of Jesus,