"But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” Matthew 15:18-20, NIV
You never know what’s going to happen during an all-age service at church. Particularly when the preacher asks questions.
I once preached at an all-age service on the passage at the top of this post. It’s about the time when the Pharisees criticised Jesus and his disciples for failing to wash their hands ritually before eating. This ritual was their way of modelling cleaning ourselves from the world’s moral contamination. But Jesus replied, startlingly, that the real contamination comes from inside us, not out there.
So, after putting some pictures up on the screen, and explaining the Pharisaical hand-washing, I asked the question: “What’s wrong with their method?”
Normally it’s children who answer these questions, but this time a gentleman on the front row spoke up. I’ll never forget it. “The problem’s not out there, it’s in here!”, he said, pointing to himself.
It turned out that he was an ex-con, and he knew only too well the horrors of his inward depravity. I agreed with him, but he didn’t seem satisfied. He asked another public question: “What can I do about it?” I was so glad to be able to carry on with the talk and tell him, and the rest of the crowd there, about Christ’s work for us (dying on the cross to take away the guilt of all who trust him) and his work in us (by His Spirit, changing us from the inside out).
Later that day I heard about another visitor to the very same service who’d reacted in exactly the opposite way. He’d been incensed. This man, a retired ambassador from a former Eastern Bloc (pre 1989) country, was a communist. His dogma had no place for Jesus’ account of human nature, in which sin lives in us like an infection. He had no place for the idea that we are each personally responsible for our sin, which comes from within.
So: two different reactions - one from a very respectable person, the other from a person of disrepute. Yet who got it right?
Surely, if we are realistic about the world, we have to agree with Jesus. How else do we explain humanity’s habitual addiction to war? How do we explain, on a much more mundane level, the family holiday which was spoilt by that horrible argument, even though we were in a place that felt like paradise? How do we explain the need to lock our doors and password our computers? Why did we need “Me too?” to help us guard our interactions? Why do we need the restraints of so much law?
Jesus tells the truth, not to depress us, but to make us face reality, and find the solution He’s provided.