Matthew 15:10-28: “Ignore Them”

Sunday morning worship, August 19, 2018


Yesterday was palindrome day.  It was 81818 forwards and backwards.  Do you care? Does anyone really care? I grew up in a family and a church world where we cared about everything and it was important to be right. Successful debating was an honored art. So I trained myself in debate competitions in high school. In my journalism college I was trained to report the facts.  I needed multiple sources for anything I wrote, or I had to label it “opinion.” 


The Bible I studied in church taught, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15). In seminary we spent hours discussing, debating, studying individual words, certain phrases, and verses. In hermeneutics classes (the classes where we learned how to interpret the Bible) we were schooled to develop a consistent Biblical worldview and then first live it and secondly teach it. I remember being so uptight at Kent State that I felt if I misunderstood and lived by my misunderstanding of one part of the Bible I was going to Hell and burn forever. 


I was one of those “tender conscience” people who took everything seriously and seriously tried to live it. But no matter how hard I tried to live what I honestly believed, I always fell short.  I always felt guilty.  So every time a pastor, a preacher, or an evangelist hammered the pulpit and talked about sin, I felt I needed to be “saved” all over again.  I bet I’ve repented at an altar over 100 times.  I’ve cried myself to sleep more times than that.


Portions of Scripture like Matthew 7:13-14 still haunt me to a greater or lesser degree depending on how things are going in my life.  That passage reads: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” To this day I sometimes picture heaven filled with believers and at other times believe the reason Jesus hasn’t returned is because if He came now the new heaven and new earth would have so few people to populate it none of us would have neighbors we could see.


My devotional studies in 1 John 2 while in seminary made a big difference, but I am still growing in my understanding of that chapter. Let me share my devotional thoughts on two collections of verses in that chapter.


I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name…I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (12-14). 


John taught me there is a developmental pattern to our relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  When we are young in Christ what matters is entering into that relationship with God, what we call our salvation experience.  Our focus is on our sins and the distance we are from a right-way of living.  As we grow in our faith, our “young men” stage, our focus shifts.  We have won some battles over sin and we take up our spiritual swords and shields and are ready to fight those who seek to destroy or even ignore our faith.  We have a decent handle on the right way to live and we challenge others to join our “Christian soldiers” army.  But the final stage, the “fathers” stage, shifts our focus once again.  This time what is important is simply knowing God.


The second set of sentences are extremely important because they follow one another. Listen deeply, please: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (v1).


I’ve come to believe the whole Bible, even all of the strange and difficult verses to understand, have been written “so that we will not sin.” That’s why God gave Moses and the Israelites all of those laws.  God didn’t give the Pharisees the extra laws they came up as we shall soon see. But the very next set of words from John start with “But” and “if” or even “when.” Listen to this verse from the New International Reader’s Version: “My dear children, I’m writing this to you so that you will not sin. But suppose someone does sin. Then we have a friend who speaks to the Father for us. He is Jesus Christ, the Blameless One.”


When we sin we don’t become Jesus’ enemy.  When we sin, we don’t “lose our salvation.” Instead, when we sin we have an advocate, a friend, a go-between, a defense lawyer who will plead our case before God. When we sin, we have a helper who works with us to restore our relationship with our Father. Sin separates us from the Holiness of God. So any and every sin is and always will be evil.  It will always drive a wedge between us and our Father and work to harden our hearts.  But the goal, the essence of our faith is always on a restored relationship. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are always working in us and on our behalf to keep us in the center of God’s will.  That’s why “to know God is to love God.”


But we are still troubled, at least I have almost always been, by how we get people to experience the depth of this love relationship with the Father.  I know that was Jesus’ goal as well.  That’s why here in Matthew 15 when the Pharisees are ready to castigate Jesus and His apostles for eating their food without first going through the ceremonial washings,


Jesus told the Pharisees and the gathered crowd, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (vv10-11). Jesus’ disciples were upset with Jesus for offending the Pharisees.  They had been trained and taught by the Pharisees and still sought to follow their rules.  We know that all of his life Peter still struggled with the Pharisaic teachings. 


In Acts 10 God had to give Peter a vision of a sheet filled with all kinds of food that the Pharisees said was unfit to eat three separate times before Peter would understand that it was ok for Him to enter the home of the Gentile soldier Cornelius. Later in his ministry Peter still continued to struggle with Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles.


So when Jesus told the apostles, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (vv13-14). Peter struggled mightly to “leave them” or as the New Living Testament says, “ignore them.” All Peter could do is ask Jesus to once again explain what He was saying.


“Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  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’” (vv16-20).


As if to underscore this teaching, Matthew next introduces us to a Canaanite woman, a race of people that were to have been destroyed by Joshua in the book that carries his name, who had such “great faith” that Jesus granted her request to have her daughter healed. Despite being rebuffed on three separate occasions, this woman told Jesus she was willing, like a dog, to “eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v27).


So while the Pharisees and even the dull Peter were still struggling with not obeying ceremonial washing requirements because they wanted to be right, a desperate Canaanite women who didn’t care about being right cared about Jesus and her daughter was healed.


So I take us back to the importance of being right.  I admit I’m still more like Peter than I care to admit.  I still struggle to leave my upbringing behind me.  The Evangelical world has a nice, neat formula for getting “saved.”  We’ve codified it in gospel tracts like the 4 Spiritual Laws and Steps to Peace with God. 


While I won’t debate the validity of such teachings, I want to say they are misguided if not properly understood.  The Bible does teach a point at which we pass from death unto life, but the focus of the Gospel message is not on an initial salvation experience or even a momentary peace with God.  Jesus wanted followers, real disciples.


The gospel message that saves is rather, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).  We don’t have to spend our lives debating with people or even proving the validity of our Evangelical assertions.  Our job is what it has been since Andrew: “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus” (John 1:41-42).


People come to Christ because Jesus comes to them, they recognize that it is Jesus coming to them, and they respond positively to Jesus’ call, to His voice, to His invitation, not to our argument or our righteous lives. We can hinder people from coming to Christ by our lifestyles, but we can’t win people to Christ by an argument or our lives.  We “win” people to Christ when they meet Christ for themselves, when He calls them, and they respond.  What we can do to help is to help clarify whose voice is calling them.


We won’t clarify Christ’s voice by debating or by arguing or even by getting all the facts correct.  I’ve learned that the hard way.  I’ve spent my life gathering correct answers and codifying them in a worldview I spent time writing in a book not even you who know me best are in a hurry to read all the pages.  Why should someone who doesn’t know me want to read it unless they, too, are searching for Christ or Christ is calling to them and Jesus Himself directs them to read my book. 


The awe and wonder and mystery of life is that any of us are saved.  These same apostles when they heard Jesus’ teaching on the impact wealth has on our lives incredulously asked, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26). Ignore those who want to debate religion.  Ignore those who fight to be right.  Seek a personal and intimate relationship with God with everything you have and you will get the impossible.  Arguments and perfect lives don’t win people for Christ. Jesus calls and we respond. That’s how salvation comes.  Our job is simply to go find people and tell them what we have found.