O How We Have Been Defiled!
And [Jesus] called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10-11 ESV)
These verses come in the middle of a story familiar to many Christians. It is often celebrated for its declaration that all foods are clean because, in Mark’s version, the author adds the comment, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19c). The point of this text, however, is not that you can eat a ham sandwich. In celebrating this rather enjoyable secondary point, we may have missed the vital purpose of the passage. Therefore, while celebrating our freedom to eat, we may still be defiled!
While celebrating our freedom to eat, we may still be defiled!
Weighed and Wanting
The last two years (2020, 2021) have tested the church. To borrow a phrase from Daniel, we “have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan. 5:27 ESV), and I believe that the truths from Matthew 15 reveal the source of the problem.
I don’t claim to understand the whole picture, but from my experience it is clear that between the pandemic and all that accompanied it, the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and not least of all the political rancor of the 2020 election cycle, in these last two years the church hasn’t fared much, if any, better than the world.
How can I make such a claim? Because “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth” (Matt. 15:11 ESV). What is it that comes out of the mouth that defiles a person?
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matt. 15:19-20 ESV)
At the risk of stating the obvious: Since these verses are Jesus’ explanation for what he meant when he said that what comes out of the mouth defiles a person, we must understand that evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander come out through the mouth in words.
We must understand that evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander come out through the mouth in words.
Early Church Application of These Words
James, the earthly brother of our Lord, applied these words of Jesus when he suggested that the true measure of the spiritually mature person is that they do not stumble in what they say. In fact, the tongue (what we say) guides the whole course of our lives, either setting the world ablaze with the fires of hell or bringing wisdom from heaven through words that are “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” These latter words are sown in peace and therefore make peace, raising a harvest of righteousness (James 3:2-18 ESV).
Peter, the first among the apostles of the Lord, hammers away at this point in his first epistle. I had not noticed how significantly Peter focused on sins of the tongue until we recently began a series in 1 Peter as a church. Peter explicitly addresses sins of speech throughout (1 Pet. 2:1, 22-23; 3:1, 9-10, 16-17; 4:5, 9, 11), not to mention the many places he implicitly mentions them.
Peter and James echo the same understanding which Jesus communicated in Matthew 15, yet when we examine the speech of many believers toward one another or to others through the course of the events in the last two years, the church has defiled itself through words of slander, malice, evil speech, grumbling, mocking, false accusations, gossip, hatred and therefore murder. In these things the church has its own internal version of cancel culture in which we verbally cancel anyone who holds a different opinion than us on matters related to the pandemic, the racial conversation, or politics. Whether we practice such things does not seem to be determined by which side of the issues one is on.
Bringing It Home
On both sides of these national discussions, I think the words 70-year-old Karl Barth used to describe his regrets over how he had communicated early in his career might apply to the church. He describes his error: “I believe it consisted in the fact that we were wrong exactly where we were right, that at first we did not know how to carry through with sufficient care and thoroughness the new knowledge of the deity of God which was so exciting both to us and to others.” Barth realized that his opponents were not entirely wrong, nor was he entirely correct. He proclaimed plainly God’s wholly otherness (transcendence), but in doing so may have lost sight of God with us (imminence) through the incarnation (what he called the humanity of God).
Christians on both sides of our current cultural discussions have points at which they are correct, but because we too frequently cling to being “right” so tenaciously, and lack care for our ideological opponents, we may well assault them in the name of Christ. We have exalted ideas and forgotten the people we are speaking to or about.
It is not difficult to call to mind Christians on both sides of the political aisle that speak maliciously and mockingly of Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Our speech has been more informed by the ethos of Saturday Night Live than the cross of our Lord Jesus.
The cross of Jesus teaches us to speak words that are “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” The cross teaches us to be willing to suffer wrong and not retaliate. Jesus brought peace through his death on a cross (Col. 1:20), and so it teaches us to bring peace as we pick up our cross and deny ourselves. It is only by this way of thinking that our speech can truly be “gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
The cross of Jesus teaches us to speak words that are “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
However, these things have not described much of the speech of many Christians during these times. We are defiled by our speech. While it is true that eating pork cannot make one unclean, speaking maliciously or mockingly can and does make one unclean. Therefore we have been weighed and found wanting. May the Lord give us the grace of repentance and guide us in paths of righteousness as we go forward.
I encourage each of us to prayerfully consider where our speech has defiled us. Bring these things to the Lord, confessing and forsaking them. Then, pray each day that you would be filled with the wisdom from above and not from below (James 3:15-18), and therefore have speech informed by the same. Lord, Your name must be hallowed in our lives and not defamed by our behavior.
Live the Gospel,
 Listed here in the order in which they became public conversation. Although the killing of Arbery occurred in February 2020, the video was released on May 5, 2020.
 Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, quoted in The Essential Karl Barth: a Reader and Commentary, Keith L. Johnson (98).