Tag Archives: Unclean

Matthew 15: 1-20 Piety and Righteousness Revisited

James Tissot, The Blind in the Ditch (1886-1894)

Matthew 15: 1-20

Parallel Mark 7: 1-23; Luke 11: 37-41; 6: 39

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 5 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. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'”

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes, as presented here, have different points of reference as they enter this argument. The Pharisees in the gospel have had a growing list of complaints about the practices of Jesus and his disciples: they eat with the wrong people (9:11), they do not fast (9:14), they pluck grain on Sabbath when they are hungry (12:2), Jesus heals on Sabbath (12:10), in our current passage they don’t wash their hands before eating and in future readings will come questions of paying taxes to the Temple (17:24) and the emperor (22:17) (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 197) All of these visible practices which are not wrong or evil and may even be life giving in the right context (I’m writing on this passage on washing hands before eating in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic) also become ways of judging the righteousness of others or practicing one’s piety before others. These conflicts resonate strongly with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount which I will discuss below, but also highlight the difference between piety and righteousness.

The Pharisees and scribes that come to engage Jesus’ practices now come from Jerusalem, and this is the first time we have indication, since the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Judea, Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan came to Jesus, (4:25) that Judea and Jerusalem and their authorities are aware of Jesus’ ministry predominantly in Galilee. Jesus’ practices, or at least the practices of his disciples in this instance, do not fit within the frame of what holiness practiced by visible actions that demonstrate one’s faithfulness, one’s piety, according to the practices of these Pharisees and scribes. There is a lack of openness to the works that Jesus is doing because they do not fit within the expectations of these leaders who have come to challenge the worker of the acts of power and the teacher of a different understanding of the relationship between the law and the tradition.

Jesus has very little interest in piety, and this is one of the reasons that most English translations of Matthew 6 of dikaisune as piety instead of righteousness misunderstand what Jesus is attempting to state. Jesus in Matthew 6: 1 stated, “Beware of practicing your righteousness (not piety) before others in order to be seen by them;” because the very practices that Jesus is being judged for here are the things that fail to produce changed hearts. Pietas (often translated piety from Latin) was an important Roman concept which the orator and statesman Cicero describes as that, “which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.” Jesus’ understanding of righteousness is not limited to ‘doing one’s duty’, particularly as it is viewed by others. Central to the language of the Sermon on the Mount were these practices of righteousness done in a way not to call attention to the individual’s practices. The actions of the community of the faithful may be visible, but the individual practices of the disciple will not be. Jesus may not look like he and his disciples are ‘doing their duty’ as viewed by the Pharisees but Jesus does not view them as faithful guides for how a community should practice righteousness.

The practice of washing hands comes from places in the law like Exodus 30: 19-21 (priests washing before entering the tent of meeting), Leviticus 15: 11 (washing after a bodily discharge) and Deuteronomy 21: 6 (where washing absolves the leaders of a community of responsibility an unsolved murder). The tradition of the elders mentioned here would be an expansion of the practices outlined in the law which only become troubling when they become standards for judging the holiness or acceptability of others. Jesus’ response goes directly back to the commandment and the justifications, often religious, that people might use to not fulfill their covenant responsibility to others. As I mentioned in the discussion of the commandment on honoring parents in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, this commandment is not primarily about young children being obedient to parents but instead older children continuing to honor, respect, and care for elderly relatives. If this practice of dedicating wealth and property to the temple or to the priests in order to abandon one’s responsibility to a family member occurred, it would be masking unrighteousness in the appearance of socially respectable piety.

Jesus may bring about divisions in families and may call his followers to ‘let the dead bury their own dead’ or declare those who do the will of his Father in heaven are his ‘brother and sister and mother.’ But it is important for Matthew to continue to link Jesus as the fulfillment of the intent of the law. Jesus never declares that families do not have value and that family connections are not to be honored; they are simply not ultimate. The Pharisees who would practice this ‘dedication of one’s resources to God’ through the temple or the Pharisees, in lieu of caring for family probably felt they were making the same argument. Eyes opened to faith can see what is at the center of practicing righteousness and how faithfulness to Jesus takes a higher place than loyalty to temple or a religious community. The inability to distinguish between piety and righteousness leaves these Pharisees and scribes as blind guides leading the blind.

Hypocrites is a word that Matthew uses more than the rest of scripture, but its use here connects us both with its usage in the Sermon on the Mount (6:2, 6:5. 6:16, 7:5)  and Matthew’s frequent use of the term in the conflicts with the Pharisees in Jerusalem (22:18; 23: 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24: 51).  As I mentioned when discussing 7:5, when righteousness becomes reduced to piety to demonstrate our own faithfulness or righteousness, we become like the one blind to the log in their own eye while trying to remove the splinter from another’s eye. Our expectations of what piety should look like allow us to pre-judge (where the term prejudice comes from) others and may make us blind to the ways our own practices may lead others astray.

Jesus, like the prophets before him, continually had to remind people that religious practices were not enough. Anna Case-Winters, picking up on the language of the Isaiah quotation, cleverly calls attention to reality that ‘lip-service” is not enough. A heart oriented on God and the way of life God calls God’s people to live is far more central and allows the right intentions to flow out of the mouth and to proceed from one’s hands (washed or unwashed). The Pharisees are scandalized (took offense, NRSV) according to the disciples but Jesus remains unconcerned by their judgments. He views them similarly to the weeds sewn among the wheat (13: 24-30) and as those who in their blindness are leading others in blindness. Like the Pharisees in John 9 who cannot accept the blind man who can now see and become spiritually blind, these Pharisees remain unable to see and participate with the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven’s work and presence in Jesus. Their prejudgment of Jesus makes them unable to properly see the road they are walking down which leads them and others who follow them into a pit.

The Pharisees are not the only ones who have trouble seeing and understanding what Jesus is saying, even the disciples have to ask for clarification. Peter, on behalf of the other disciples presumably, asks for clarification and Jesus explains that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out of a person that defiles. A clean heart is more important than washed hands, and the actions which destroy community cause far greater harm than the practices of how or what one eats. Yet, Matthew also does not include Mark’s note in the parallel story that “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19b) Matthew does not discard all the practices that the Jewish people practiced, and many in Matthew’s community may have refrained from eating foods traditionally declared unclean like pork or shellfish. But Matthew also does not allow these practices to give the disciples permission to prejudge others who practice their righteousness in a different way. There will be surprisingly faithful ones among those who were once considered Gentile dogs.

Matthew 8: 1-4 Jesus Takes our Infirmities and Bears our Diseases part 1

Mosaic, Cathedral of the Assumption in Monreale, Sicily (12-13th Century)

Matthew 8: 1-4

Parallels (Mark 1: 40-45, Luke 5: 12-16)

1 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2 and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 3 He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Jesus comes down the mountain after the Sermon on the Mount and we see the kingdom of heaven in conflict with the forces that keep people enslaved in the world. In chapters eight and nine of Matthew’s Gospel we see three patterns of three stories each separated by some manner of conflict with those hearing the message and some explanation of what we are seeing. It has been noted that like Moses participating in God’s liberation of the people from Egypt with the ten signs and wonders in Exodus 7-12, there are in these two chapters a total of ten acts of healing, exorcism or miracles, (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 125) and while I would agree there is a strong Moses typology in Matthew’s gospel that both places Jesus in comparison and in contrast to Moses these ten signs that announce the kingdom of heaven’s approach. There is also resistance from the forces of the world to the approach of the kingdom of heaven which occur each time Jesus descends a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew eight and nine at the end of each set of three stories there is an expansion of the effect of the individual acts to the many or crowds that are brought into the sphere of influence of the kingdom’s activity.

The first healing in Matthew’s gospel is a person rendered unclean by a skin disease, and while this probably isn’t leprosy, or Hanson’s disease as we have long translated this term, it is for the people of Israel a disease that rendered a person unclean and forced them to live isolated from the community. Skin diseases were a significant concern among the people and the priests are given the role of properly identifying this as a disease that makes one unclean and excluding and reuniting the person with the community. Leviticus 13-14 give the details of how the priest is to diagnose, proclaim unclean, and if the person recovers to ritually declare the person clean again. This type of uncleanness was viewed as a punishment by God, for example Numbers 12 with Miriam, and many diseases in this time were viewed as either an affliction by God or the act of some demonic corrupting force. Yet, I do think it is interesting to note in comparison with Moses that the second sign God gives Moses is turning his hand diseased (leprous in most translations) before Moses goes to witness to Israel. Here Jesus reaches out his hand and touches an unclean man with an affliction of the skin and makes it clean. Matthew in narrating Jesus’ story moves this story ahead of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark’s Gospel and perhaps he alludes this connection early in Moses’ ministry.

Regardless of allusions, the issues of what righteousness and the relationship to the law which were important to the Sermon on the Mount are immediately brought into concrete expression as Jesus encounters one who is ritually unclean and acts in ways both contrary and in concert with the law. The law would declare the person unclean and untouchable and there is a view that uncleanness is contagious and because it not only was there a fear of contagion but a fear that the inclusion of the unclean one impacted the purity of the community in its standing before God. Yet, in the kingdom of heaven cleanness is contagious and can be transmitted. Jesus in many of the healings and exorcisms that occur in the next two chapters will cross a barrier to inclusion created by disease, possession, bleeding, being a Gentile, and even being dead. Jesus exercises the authority to make the unclean now clean, unlike the derivative authority of the priest which can only declare that which God has made clean as clean. Something greater than the law is at work here and yet there is still the insistence to offer the gift commanded by Moses as testimony to the priest.

Matthew removes the secrecy motif which is a part of Mark’s narration of this story. In Mark the cleansed leper is commanded not to tell anyone but spreads the word freely which prevents Jesus from being able to enter town. In Mark’s telling there is a great reversal where the formerly unclean leper goes into town telling the message he was to keep silent and Jesus now becomes unable to enter town but now people come from everywhere to touch him. In Matthew the narrative ends after the command to offer the gift to the priest. Matthew also places this story before the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law later in the chapter which has him entering the town of Capernaum. Another key portion of Matthew’s narration is the title people use to address Jesus. Here, and frequently in stories with positive attributions of faith in Matthew, Jesus is referred to as Lord instead of ‘teacher’ (often when faith is questioned) or ‘son of God’ (normally demons but also the Centurion at the cross) or ‘son of David’ (those who are blind but see what others cannot). Lord may simply be a polite address of authority, like ‘sir’ in English, but it also has a strong connection with how the people of Israel referred to the God of Israel (using Adonai, translated LORD instead of the name of the God of Israel). Matthew has already demonstrated a propensity for using language and vocations reserved for the God of Israel to talk about Jesus, so the frequent use of the term Lord in a positive light may point to the nature of faith seeing in Jesus the God who is with us. This is also highlighted by the action of the unclean one kneeling before Jesus in a stance that is appropriate to worship. The act of kneeling could be a stance giving honor to Jesus, but Matthew probably intends for the reader to see in this act the appropriate stance of giving worship to the Lord.