Sunday Meditation, Matthew 15:11: A Message Of Hope For The Reluctantly Employed?

Disclaimer: This interpretation can be read as secularly or religiously as you prefer. I am not formally educated in theology, or anything else for that matter. My opinions are more than likely heretical and lacking important context. Feel free to correct me in the comment section, I enjoy it. I am reading the Bible with an open mind and the aim of extracting whatever wisdom I can. This is a personal meditation and nothing more.

Stories are an incredibly effective way to communicate ideas that are difficult or impossible to explain “logically.” I am hopeful that publishing these thoughts will open a dialogue with others interested in this sort of analysis.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Matthew 15:11

This statement from Jesus is a rebuke to the Pharisees, who have just criticized his disciples for eating without washing their hands. The issue is larger than poor hygiene. The Pharisees are insisting on hand-washing as a state of ritual purity. Germ theory being a couple thousand years out-of-fashion, the debate here is about violating tradition and how that can threaten your spiritual well-being.

At first glance, this statement from Jesus is a release from doctrine: “Stop worrying about legalistic rituals and start paying attention to how you really act!” Matthew leaves Jesus’s intent up to interpretation, but when Mark recounts the same story, he states explicitly: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” This appears to be the most common reading. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of moral action over man-made ritual, and giving his fellow Jews permission to enjoy BBQ pork and steamed lobster in the process, because Jesus is a righteous dude who has his priorities in order.

When I read this passage, one of my close friends, “Sam” was in a difficult stretch of employment. He worked for a man who paid well, but treated the people around him poorly. There was no material harm taking place, but his employer was consistently rude and disrespectful to people who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Paradoxically, my friend said that he was personally treated well! But that made him feel somehow more complicit in the mistreatment of others. Sam had another job lined up, but it started in two months. He and his wife needed income until then.

Now how the heck am I going to connect this to Matthew 15:11?! We have to distill my friends problem a bit: He needed to eat, but felt horrible working in such a negative environment. He was right to come up with an exit plan — working around miserable people is sure to bleed through into your personal life. But Sam was burdening himself with extra anxiety because he felt unclean by associating with that environment.

Sam was not treating anyone in his workplace poorly. In fact, he put in extra effort to reduce the damage caused by being extra mindful of his coworkers. In other words, he felt defiled by the money (sustenance) passing into his hands rather than any misdeeds of his own. There was no need for him to carry that extra weight when he was already aimed up-and-out. I think we can take this parallel farther than Matthew 15:11 by looking back to verses 3–6, where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy:

[Jesus] answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.

According to Jesus, the Pharisees are teaching people to dedicate themselves to their limited idea of God in lieu of supporting their family. It is helpful to note that hand washing was a Pharisaic tradition, not typically associated with morality in “orthodox” Judaism. Only after this accusation does he follow up with Matthew 15:11. The core of Jesus’s statement seems to reach far beyond eating shrimp and sausage. In conjunction with the earlier passages, he appears to be offering reassurance that taking care of your family’s well being is a much higher calling than arbitrary religious ritual.

A common theme of the Bible is that we live in a “fallen world,” prone to sin and darkness. I believe we have all found ourselves in Sam’s position at some point: associating with people or places that we would rather avoid for the sake of a (hopefully) higher purpose.

When we are surrounded by negativity or bad behavior, it can be difficult not to internalize that environment. There appears to be a thin line between stoicism and complacency in these situations. How can we distinguish the two within ourselves?

Matthew 15:11 reminds us that we are only defiled by the actions that pass out of us, not into us. We cannot control the actions of the people around us. We can attempt to control the way we react, which is the ultimate reflection of our inner self.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Matthew 15:11

Hey, this is a new genre for me and I hesitated to publish it. I enjoy reading and interpreting all kinds of “wisdom” literature, and I’m considering doing this sort of thing every Sunday. Let me know what you think in the comments.

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John Joseph

John Joseph

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Poultry farmer and part-time handyman. Now I write on the internet.