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(Re-)Reading Matthew Together: Jesus’s Table (Manners), Jesus’s Kingdom and Jesus’s People in Matthew 15

Tonight the Graduate Christian Fellowship will be looking at Matthew 15, a chapter of the Gospel that has long been a challenge to me.  The first half of the chapter narrates a clash between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees over Jesus and His disciples’ disregard for the “tradition of the elders” concerning mealtime ritual purity, or Toharoth as it is referred to in the Mishnah.  Verse 1 indicates that these scribes and Pharisees had come all the way from Jerusalem to Gennesaret to confront Jesus on this matter, which indicates both that it was a matter of great concern to them and also that Jesus and His disciples were not being bashful about their flouting of these (allegedly) time-honored traditions.

As to the Pharisees’ concern over this matter, a little context goes a long way.  The Pharisees were very particular about meals.  The Pharisees got their name, ha’parushim, from the verb parash, “to separate”: they were “the separate ones.”  The movement got this name because their understanding of holiness, qodesh, was deeply rooted in Exodus and Leviticus where holiness means something like being “set apart” or “separate.”  The Pharisees, out of their conviction that all Israel was called to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6), took the biblical priestly purity regulations (esp. Lev 21-22) to apply to pretty much every Jew.  For them, to be God’s holy people was to be a people set apart, and one of the key places where they lived this apart-ness out was at their meals.  For them, meals, all meals, were sacred affairs and so we find that of the 341 texts attributed to the chief rabbis of Jesus’ day, Hillel and Shammai, some 229 of them pertain to regulating meals.  For the Pharisees table fellowship, or chavurah, was a central place where they embodied and exemplified their vision for a renewed Israel and a restored Holy Land, freed from both pagan oppression and defilement.

So the Pharisees were not just nitpicking when they questioned Jesus about He and His disciples’ table manners.  They saw quite rightly that Jesus was calling the entire Pharisaic program into question and was offering an alternative chavurah and with it an alternative vision of who and what the people of God were called to be and do.  Indeed, my sense is that Jesus intended His table manners and those of his disciples to provoke a response from the Pharisees.  He is picking a fight by encouraging His disciples to break with the tradition of the elders, to not do what they had probably been brought up to do.

And a fight is precisely what He gets.  In verses 3-11 He goes toe-to-toe with His Pharisaic detractors in a heated halakhic debate, pointing out inconsistencies in their practice of the Torah and painting them with the same brush with which the prophet Isaiah had painted their unfaithful ancestors.  Jesus’ closing argument is less an argument than a cryptic but inevitably inflammatory proverb:

Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.

The Pharisees, naturally, are scandalized.  What exactly is He implying?  You just can’t talk that way!  This man is bound to lead people astray.  What about keshrut, the dietary laws of the Torah?  What do you mean “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person”?  Of course what you eat can defile you!  Go read Leviticus 11!

What’s Jesus’s game here?  What is He trying to accomplish with all this provocative behavior and this offensive speech?  The disciples were wondering this very thing (apparently Jesus had not yet let them in on why He was having them disregard the traditions of the elders) and so they said to Him, “You do know that the Pharisees  were offended when they heard this saying, right?”  Jesus explains that these Pharisees are not the plants God has planted (cp. 3:10; 12:33-36; 13:36-43) and that they are blind guides unworthy of a following.  Peter, as usual, speaks up and asks Him, “Explain the parable to us.”

“The parable.”  The harsh saying, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person,” is not a solemn, straightforward theological axiom; it is a parable, a mashal as it would have been called in Hebrew or Aramaic.  Parables are by their very nature polysemous, cryptic, and patient of multiple interpretations–they don’t necessarily mean what they, on the surface, seem to mean–and frequently in the Gospels Jesus only shares the meaning of His parables with those He trusts.  So what does this parable mean?

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?   But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.   For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus’s parable, despite first impressions, is not really about the validity of the Torah‘s dietary laws (Mark is another issue; cp. Mark 7:19b, which Matthew has excised), but rather about reorienting our thinking about purity and defilement, holiness and unholiness as being fundamentally about the heart rather than about ostensible and separatistic practices.

This reorientation towards cardiac-holiness is something Jesus began unpacking in the Sermon on the Mount where He set out His counter-cultural Kingdom ethic and which He has revisited several times more throughout the course of the Gospel.  This, you see, is what the Kingdom looks like.  The Biblical hope for Israel’s restoration was not simply that Israel would be redeemed from pagan oppression and granted political self-governance, but that Israel would be renewed through and through; God would circumcise their hearts (Deut 30:6), He would write His Torah on their hearts (Jer 31:33), He would replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek 36:26-27; cf. Rom 2:12ff; 2 Cor 3:1-6, etc.).

Jesus’s table fellowship and table manners embody an alternative vision of the Kingdom, one radically opposed to that of the Pharisees.  They are an enacted parable of the coming Kingdom.  It is neither a table nor a Kingdom that makes fine distinctions.  It is neither a table nor a Kingdom where one’s holiness is measured in terms of one’s separateness from the unwashed masses or even from the rot-gut sinners.  Rather, it is a table and a Kingdom where, first and foremost, outcasts are welcomed, offenders are forgiven, enemies are cared for, people are seen as people, needs are met, and hearts are transformed.  It is a table and a Kingdom that does not separate the ritually holy from unholiness but is beacon of counter-cultural heart holiness in an unholy world.

I think there can be little doubt that we are to imitate Jesus’s table manners, which means that some of the questions before us as we read this passage are these: When we fellowship with one another, are we embodying a vision of holiness as separation or holiness as counter-cultural, radical love?  When we fellowship with one another, are we acting as a holy huddle or as a redeeming influence?  When we fellowship with one another, are we being transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds?

The Pharisees were right at least in this: Table manners matter.  We are how we eat together as much as we are what we eat (cf. Gal 2:12-14).  Every meal and every meeting embodies–is an enacted parable of–a vision of the Kingdom.  So the really difficult question before us, the one that Jesus’s clash with the Pharisees brings out in full relief is this: What does our life together really say about what the Kingdom is and is all about?

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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