Cups and Dishes

Matthew 23:25, 26

Practical expressions of religious purity frequently are strange. Perhaps the strangest expressions of purity are found in what devout persons focus on as “essential for purity.” Examples are plentiful. In some religions, people reason themselves to this conclusion: “The essential way to express my devotion to religious purity is to destroy people who disagree with me.” Jesus rejected that thinking in Matthew 48 by declaring such thinking cannot reflect God. Or some reason: “I can give more to God if I exploit the poor and helpless.” Jeremiah 22:3 rejected the idea that injustice reflected God. Always there are religious people involved in unmarried sexual affairs while they ardently argue religious convictions not stressed in scripture. Paul declared in Colossians 3:1-5 under no circumstance did sexual impurity reflect God.

The scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 would declare [without hesitation!] they were among God’s truly devout people. As devout people, they would declare they possessed an excellent understanding of purity. They knew what mattered in God’s purity concerns! They insisted only kosher food prepared according to religious purity regulations be eaten! See Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14:1-21, and Acts 10:9-16. As a matter of “sound practice based on sound theology,” they insisted every devout Israelite religiously purify his/her hands through hand washing purification rituals before eating (Matthew 15:1, 2). They strictly enforced all purification rites associated with food. See Mark 7:3, 4. If a cup, pitcher, or pan was used for the purpose of preparing food, those vessels first must be purified! Since eating was associated with worship in Judaism and idolatry, correctly eating protected Israelites from the impurity of honoring false gods! See Exodus 20:1-6.

The situation Jesus described would produce a loud, spirited protest from the scribes and Pharisees! If the situation Jesus presented concerned a food vessel’s purity, the scribes and Pharisees would quickly declare the entire vessel – inside and out! – must be pure. Yet, these same people frequently argued that what really mattered in Israelites was the external! Jesus rejected this thinking in Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus declared inward contempt for people resulted in the act of murder, inward lust resulted in the act of adultery, inward artificial distinctions in vows resulted in the act of deceit, inward desires for vengeance resulted in acts of injustice, and inward human hate could not reflect the acts of a merciful God. Thus inward human impurity cannot reflect the purity of God’s nature and character.

If these scribes and Pharisees were served a meal in a Jewish home in cups, bowls, and plates meticulously washed on the outside but untouched on the inside, they would be insulted. They would have expressed their outrage in religious terms. While we of today would object on basis of poor hygiene, they would object on the religious basis of impurity. To them, such was a serious religious insult to them and to God.

Jesus said it was ridiculous to regard dishes impure because of inner contamination, but declare a person pure only because of the outside. He said inwardly these scribes and Pharisees were full of robbery and self-indulgence. Jesus endorsed the ancient concept of purity. In this concept, he stressed three things:

  1. Purity begins inside.
  2. The outward act must reflect an inward reality.
  3. To be concerned only with the external is to assure impurity before God.

Years ago a poplar song stated a person could not be arrested for what he was thinking. Jesus’ concept of purity loudly disagrees! Hundreds of years prior to Jesus, Proverbs 23:7 said, “For as he [a man] thinks within himself, so he is.” The internal mattered to God before the Pharisees existed!

Saul, the first human king over all twelve tribes of Israel, was personally selected by God (see 1 Samuel 9-10:1, 24). Saul’s first failure to surrender to God occurred because his heart did not belong to God (see 1 Samuel 13:8-14 and note verse 14). Saul’s failure to follow God’s instructions regarding the Amalekites resulted in God’s rejection of Saul as Israel’s King (see 1 Samuel 15; please note the interesting statement about God in verse 35). In selecting Saul’s replacement, God’s primary concern was the man’s heart. In this selection God specifically stated He examines the heart (see 1 Samuel 16:7).

The person God selected to be Israel’s second king was David. Hundreds of years later, David was still known as “the man after God’s own heart” in Acts 13:22). Was David perfect? Certainly not! Did David surrender to temptation? Without doubt! Did David commit some horrible sins? Absolutely! Then why could David be considered “a man after God’s own heart”? Though David made some terrible mistakes, never did David doubt who possessed his heart. David always repented, never arrogantly persisted in rebellion when the evil was brought to his attention. Contrast Saul and David – Saul arrogantly persisted in his rebellion! Saul’s initial response to his evil was self-justification, not repentance.

This is the point: Jesus’ concept of purity was as old as Israel (see Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6). The scribes and Pharisees’ concept of purity misunderstood God and His concerns.

Thought Questions and Discussions:

  1. Discuss this statement: people frequently wish to restrict discussions of purity to theological convictions without including personal behavior.
  2. Discuss how the scribes & Pharisees often restricted purity discussions to food.
  3. Would the “cleaning the outside of the cup” practice have outraged the scribes and Pharisees? Explain answer.
  4. How does Matthew 5:21-48 reveal Jesus’ concept of purity?
  5. What three things did Jesus’ concept of purity stress?
  6. Saul had a “heart” problem. Internally he did not belong to God. Illustrate that truth.
  7. Explain why David was a person after God’s own heart.
  8. Why does Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6 declare the importance of internal purity?
  9. State the scribes and Pharisees’ concept of purity.
  10. State Jesus’ concept of purity.

Bonus Question:

  • Why does the scribes and Pharisees’ concept of purity create problems in today’s congregations?