[Jesus] called the people to Him again and said to them, “Hear Me, all of you, and understand: 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.”
Jesus says a lot about eating. Earlier this month, you heard Him speak about the Bread of Life: that He is the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. He told you to eat and drink His flesh and blood, so that you would have life in you. Today, Jesus tells you that what you eat cannot defile you, that what you eat does not make you unclean. But what you do eat can make you holy.
Jesus’ statement about food and defilement comes in response to the Pharisees’ criticism of His disciples. As you heard last week, the Pharisees had complained that Jesus’ disciples had eaten with defiled hands, that is, unclean hands. The Pharisees demanded that Jesus’ disciples conform to the traditions handed down from the elders, the supplementary regulations that were appended to the Lord God’s Divine Law. They claimed that righteousness and holiness were dependent upon undergoing the ritual cleansings, as the traditions of the elders required. But as you heard last week, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Divine Law cannot be set aside by man-made traditions, especially those which attribute holiness to keeping the word of man.
This week, you heard Jesus explain that the dietary laws of the Old Testament were abrogated by Him. What a person eats and drinks will not make that individual unholy or unclean. Why is that so? Jesus tells you: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” The Gospel Writer tells you: “Thus He declared all foods clean.” The food consumed by you goes into the stomach and eventually ends up outside of you. It doesn’t go to the heart, it doesn’t go to the center of your being. Even what ‘goes down the wrong pipe’ never reaches the soul; food can’t make the soul unholy or unclean.
Jesus identifies the heart as the place where holiness or lack thereof is found: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” The heart of man is a dirty, slimy, cruddy place. So it has been since the moment of the Fall into sin. Rather than loving the Lord with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength, there was just the opposite: mankind loved himself with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. There was no love to be found for the Lord God’s commandments, for His way of life, for His will.
Because of that lack of true fear, love, and trust in God, humanity was defiled. The unclean heart led to unclean thoughts and acts, that list of sins which Jesus described. Thus, there was no holiness to be found in humanity. Everything which originated from the unclean heart defiled the mind, body, and soul. Consumed food made no difference: for what entered the stomach had no effect on the heart.
But the Lord God has to offer will make the heart clean. So it was for the ancient Israelites, those who had the dietary laws. The Lord God’s commandments, decrees, and statutes—the Covenant that He made with them—set them apart, made them holy. His words brought them salvation, gave them the way of life, made them a new people with great promises to hold on to. The Lord God declared them His people—forgiven, reconciled to Him, holy and held guiltless.
So Moses instructed the ancient Israelites to hear what the Lord God said, to have His words enter their unclean hearts and change them: “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the just decrees that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.”
But Moses’ instructions to listen also included the instruction to hold onto what the Lord God had done and had declared: “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” What the Lord God gave to the Israelites to make them holy was to be preserved by them. That which cleansed their hearts was to remain in their hearts. As it cleansed their hearts, so it would make their actions holy, as Moses described: “Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”
Because your hearts are the same as the Israelites’, the same as Jesus describes, you need to have the Lord God make them clean. What comes out of you defiles you. For out of your hearts come evil thoughts, including the same list of sins of which Jesus spoke. That is the condition of natural man, the way that all people are, including you, prior to the Lord God’s work in them. So the source of evil—the dirty, slimy, cruddy hearts—must be cleansed.
What can do such a task? Not what is taken in by the stomach, but what the heart is given to consume. You are given the words of Gospel from Jesus to consume. The Holy Spirit comes in and sanctifies you, bleaching your souls, so that you are made holy. You are given new will, new desire. Instead of a lack of love, you now treasure the Lord God’s commandments, His way of life, His bidding. The Psalmist’s praise for the Lord God’s decrees becomes true for you: “Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of Your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”
The Lord God’s testimonies are wonderful. They declare you to be righteous. They remove your guilt. They promise you everlasting life. That is why your souls keep them. Only by receiving them is light given to your darkened hearts. Only by receiving them is understanding given to your ignorant hearts. And through this, new life is created. Your hearts are no longer only the center of evil, but are the source of good, as they are regenerated and renewed.
But you do have the same admonition given to you as Moses gave to the Israelites: “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” Though your eyes have not seen what Jesus has done, you do have the witness of His apostles about His actions. That witness needs to be kept. The testimonies about Jesus need to be maintained. They also need to be passed down. For only by hearing the words and works of Jesus is eternal life given to you. Only by having the Holy Spirit working through that testimony are you made holy.
Jesus’ words are right: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him.” But what goes into you can make you holy. The Gospel of Christ which goes into your ears through the proclaimed word and into your mouths through the Lord’s Supper removes your defilement. For such things do not enter your stomach, they enter your hearts. And so the evil thoughts are turned to good; lack of love and faith is replaced with plenty. Through the Spirit’s work, you can grow in virtue and your new, good intents can come to completion. So it shall be, as you keep the words of the Lord in your hearts.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.