This post follows one from last month where we looked at a common misconception about Jesus. I was reading in Mark the other day (it’s what we’re teaching in the high school here at CCA) and ran into a story that made me think of another misconception about Jesus. This one basically says that the core of Jesus’ message was love and justice. These are the “weightier” matters he rebuked the religious leaders about neglecting. He was unconcerned with discussing people’s personal morality, especially their sexual morality, and would have accepted anyone regardless of the choices they made about how to live their life.
Again, this is one of the prevailing images of Jesus in our culture today. So when we as Christians discuss any kind of biblical view of morality, we’re accused of misrepresenting our own Messiah! But is this picture of Jesus accurate?
Much more could be said about this, but for today I just wanted to highlight one passage from Mark 7. Jesus is confronted by the religious leaders about His disciples’ failure to wash their hands according to the special ritual prescribed by the tradition of the day.
5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” 6 He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:‘ This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” 9 He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, 13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
First, it should be said here that there is a danger we need to watch our for, and it is what Jesus chastises the Pharisees for in this passage: adding to God’s word and teaching traditions as divine commandments. So in all our discussions of personal morality, we should seek to keep our thinking and language very biblical so we don’t fall into this same trap. We shouldn’t lay burdens on people that God never created. But the next section is where we get to our topic:
14 When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: 15 There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. 16 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” 17 When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. 18 So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?”
Here Jesus goes deeper than we might have expected in His explanation of His opposition to the Pharisees and scribes. And even here, he seems to be going in the direction of the way our culture sees Him: “It’s not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside that counts.” This is true in a certain way. But the key to understanding what Jesus means when He talks this way is in verse 15. The issues, Jesus says, is not simply what “counts” but what “defiles.”
“Defiles” is a moral word. It carries the idea that certain things are morally (and therefore spiritually) polluting, and therefore repugnant to God. In other words, Jesus was not simply preaching a message of mass acceptance for any and all kinds of behavior. So what, exactly, are the things that “defile” a person? He explains in the next verses:
20 And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man.
It is safe to say, then, that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” is too simplistic to capture Jesus’ thought. There are things that happen “on the outside” that He’s very concerned about. Things that can defile. But it’s not where those things happen that’s most important, its where they come from.
21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”
Here’s where Jesus tells us which things defile. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it makes an important point for our generation. Jesus says that when these things are conceived in the heart, and then come out, through the body, they defile. They are morally repugnant and spiritually damaging. He is against them. Look again at the list. Notice the categories He’s working with:
- Sexual morality (Adulteries, fornications, lewdness)
- Wanting other people’s things (thefts, covetousness, evil eye)
- Lying (deceit)
- Anger and violence (murder)
- Speech (blasphemy)
These activities (these “choices people make about how to live their life”) affect whether in God’s eyes they are defiled or not. In fact, Jesus’ teaching throughout the Gospel’s is very clear: we are all defiled, because we all have these things living in our hearts and often coming out of us as actions as well. He doesn’t say, “If it’s your personal choice then that’s cool with me.” Instead, He says, “admit it, the defilements of heart and body are all over you, so I’ll die and take the penalty for your defilement. I’ll become defiled by what defiles you. Then, by trusting what I did for you, you can become clean in a way that ritual hand washing can never cleanse you.”
You see, the larger issue was that the Pharisees thought that the rituals cleansed them. Jesus’ point was that our defilement runs way deeper than that. There’s a lot more in the Gospels that speaks to these same issues, but for now we can just say that it’s simply not historically accurate to say Jesus thought matters of personal morality are unimportant. In fact, they’re so important to Him that they’re a matter of life and death.