Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 23’

We’re back in Matthew 23:25-26 today. Our title is “On washing dishes (#2). How to make our possessions clean and acceptable to God.” As we saw last week Matthew 23 is a really intense critique of the scribes and Pharisees. Our verses constitute the fifth of seven woes, or pronouncements of judgment against them. And this one has to do with washing dishes and their overemphasis on outward ritual purity.

25Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Now, this passage can be read in two ways, because Jesus is making two points simultaneously. We have already seen the first, which is that –

The dishes represent the Pharisees

That is, in talking about the dishes, Jesus is making a point about the Pharisees and their spirituality. He is saying that the Pharisees have an excessive focus on the outside, in terms of being ritually pure. They have many rules beyond even what Moses taught about what defiles someone through contact and how to wash in water to be made pure. But inside their hearts are full of “greed and self-indulgence.” In other words, outward ritual purity doesn’t fix the problem of moral impurity in the heart. A focus on the outside does not reach into the heart.

By contrast, Jesus teaches us to begin first on the inside, which is where the real problem lies; the moral impurity in our hearts. And he teaches us this “(in order) that the outside may also become clean.” That is, if we begin within, with a new heart, then our words and deeds will also be clean and acceptable to God. For as the heart goes – the inside, so goes our behavior – the outside.

Today, we look at a second way to read these verses, where –

The dishes are simply dishes

Let’s look at this in four points. 1. Jesus says, “You clean the outside of the cup and the plate.” They clean the outside of the dishes so that they are meticulously ritually pure.

2. “But inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” The “they” here refers to the plate and the cup. So Jesus is saying that the inside or the contents of the cup and the plate are full of greed and self-indulgence. He’s saying, the Pharisees have more food than they need – they have an excess. And they are keeping it for themselves. Their dishes are full of greed and self-indulgence.

What’s the solution? 3. “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate.” Jesus is saying, do what is right with the contents of the dishes. As opposed to being greedy and self-indulgent and keeping all your food and drink for yourselves, share your food and drink with the needy.

Luke’s version confirms this reading, when it says at this point, “Give for alms those things that are within” – Luke 11:41. That is, give to the needy from what you have inside your cup and plate.

4. “(In order) that the outside also may be clean.” Here we see the completion of Jesus’ turning of the concern from one of ritual purity to one of moral purity. And he is saying that our dishes can be morally unclean or clean. If we keep the excess food and drink that is in our dishes, our dishes are morally impure before God. But if we share from what is in our cup and our plate, this will make the cup and the plate morally clean and acceptable to God. As Luke 11:41 says, “and behold everything is clean for you.”

This leads to a question –

Are your dishes clean and acceptable to God?

We can wash them so that they are sparkling clean, but are they clean before God? It all depends on what you do with them. If you have more than you need in terms of food and are you keeping it for yourself; that is, are you greedy and self-indulgent, or as Jesus says it, our dishes full of greed and self-indulgence, then they are defiled before God. But if we share with the needy, they are truly clean. This is an important question to ask given our context of abundance and prosperity.

Now, Jesus would not just apply this to dishes. He would certainly apply it to all that we can be greedy and self-indulgent about. So we can ask more broadly – Are your possessions clean and acceptable to God? Not just your dishes, but your closets, your house, your garage your storage shed – and whatever else you own.

If we are greedy and self-indulgent with what we own, keeping it all for ourselves, then what we own is impure before God. But if we share, for instance, what is in our closets – our clothes, then these possessions become clean and acceptable to God.

But first –

We need new hearts

And this is where the two readings of this passage come together. For us to share from the inside of our dishes, we must first cleanse our hearts of our greed and self-indulgence, we must cleanse the inside of us. We must repent and let God give us a new heart in this regard, and then we will be willing to joyfully share with others in need.

Once the heart is taken care of, the right outward actions, sharing with the needy will come forth. Then our hearts and our actions will be clean before God. And as we share from what is in our dishes, or whatever we own – they will be clean and acceptable to God. Where is your heart???

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Our message is entitled “On washing dishes. Transformation begins within and works its way out.” Out text comes from Matthew 23:25-26, if you would like to turn in your bibles. I want to share on this today and also next week, because Jesus is making two overlapping points, simultaneously. So we will look at the first today and the second, next week, Lord willing.

The whole of Matthew 23 is a scathing rebuke of the Scribes and Pharisees. It’s very intense! In this section of the chapter Jesus is pronouncing seven woes against them, and this is the fifth one, and it starts with a focus ritual purity. Now ritual purity is not a topic that non-Jews like us understand very well. Mark, however, helps us out a bit in 7:3-4 of his Gospel. He says, parenthetically, For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches. – Mark 7:3-4

This is not about good hygiene, or physical cleanliness, it’s about ritual or ceremonial purity before God. God is pure and if you want to be acceptable to God you need to be pure. And so you don’t want to be defiled by unclean things. The Old Testament has a number of instructions about this (e.g. Leviticus 11:32-38) and the Pharisees added many more such regulations, called here “the tradition of the elders.” With this background in mind, let’s look at our verses –

25Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Our passage has to do with washing dishe or at least that’s where it begins. But as usual with issues of ritual purity and impurity, Jesus turns the discussion into one about moral purity and impurity (as in Matthew 15).

The text turns on a fundamental difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in terms of the relationship between the inside and the outside and  where one should focus between the two to be pleasing to God. From the point of view of –

The Pharisees

The problem is an outer one, defilement from external sources. It could be things – like touching a dead body, or people – close contact with sinners, tax collectors and Gentiles.The solution is to regulate outward behavior to ensure separation from defilement. You need to be clear about what can be touched or not. And if there is contamination, which water rituals are needed to get rid of the impurity. The goal is to be clean and acceptable to God by being externally pure in these ways.

If you ask the Pharisees, this is the key to renewal among the people of God. And it includes how you wash your dishes to maintain ritual purity.


– for his part, rejected the traditions of the elders that the Pharisees added to Mosaic teaching, but he is not saying that Jews should not follow Moses. He is rather trying to get them to see that they have a wrong focus. They are fixated on lesser things.

The real problem is an inner one – an evil heart. In Matthew 15:11 he says, “it is not what goes into the mouth (from the outside) that defiles a person (morally), but what comes out of the mouth (from the inside); this defiles a person.” He goes on in Matthew 15:18-19 to say, “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.” Human hearts are full of sin and are thus morally impure. And so Jesus’ focus in v. 26 in our passage is on “the inside.”

The solution is a clean heart. Cleaning the outside by being ritually pure does not reach into the heart to deal with the moral impurity that is there, for instance, greed and self-indulgence, which Jesus highlights regarding the Pharisees.

The heart has to be changed. Jesus said in Matthew 12:33-35. Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.

He is saying, make the tree good and it’s fruit will be good. If you have a good treasure in your heart, what comes out, your words will be good. As the heart goes, so goes our words and deeds. Make the inside right and the outside will become right.

So that’s why Jesus says in v. 26 of our passage, “First, clean the inside . . . that (in order that) the outside also may be clean.” First, begin within and if you begin within, the outside will follow.

The goal is to be clean and acceptable to God, not by a rigorous focus on outward ritual purity, but by having a  new heart that brings forth right behavior. Jesus is specifically talking about his core message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:17. We repent by turning away from our moral evil. And then we receive the blessings of the kingdom – salvation – forgiveness for our sins and the Holy Spirit, who comes within and gives us a new heart. (As promised by Ezekiel 36:25-27)

If you ask Jesus, this is what will bring renewal and salvation to the people of God, the coming of the kingdom that he brings.

Jesus’ point to the Pharisees

As I said, this passage can be read in two ways. Today our focus is on how the dishes represent the Pharisees. The parallel to our verses in Luke 11:39 confirms this reading when it says, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” He’s not talking just about dishes here anymore.

Jesus is saying, You look great on the outside. You are ritually pure beyond what even Moses taught and you look morally pure too (although what is in the heart always slips out here and there – Matthew 6:2-4, etc.). But inside your hearts are full of moral evil – here he talks about greed and self-indulgence. And your focus on the outside will never fix this. First, clean your hearts from these evils, and then right behavior will follow; a new heart will fix it. And you will be truly clean and acceptable to God.

The message for us

As people, we struggle with things like “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” as Jesus talks about in Matthew 15, and more, because our hearts are evil too. And this evil defiles us before God so that we can’t be in relationship with God, who is pure.

The message for us is don’t be like the Pharisees and focus on what is external, thinking that this will bring internal change. Because we are just dealing with the symptom of the problem, not the root of the problem – our evil hearts. The answer is a new heart within, which we find through repentance and the reception of a new heart by the Spirit of God working within us. This happens when we first become believers, bu it is also a life-long journey of dying to those parts of us that lead us to sin and finding new life and the Spirit makes us new more and more.

Real change begins within and then moves outward to transform our behavior. Deal with the root and the fruit will follow. [Now, none of this means that outward discipline is not needed in our struggle against sin and in our desire to live godly lives. As long as this is coming from a changed heart and not trying to create a changed heart it is normal and good.]

Next week we will look at how our dishes and closets and houses and cars and whatever else we own – can be clean and acceptable before God.

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