Clean heart, clean mind

Matthew 23:13–28

How do you make antifreeze? You steal her blanket!

That’s a joke. It’s a childish joke, but for a native speaker it’s still funny. When you translate it into Korean it just doesn’t make any sense. This kind of joke is a pun. It relies on two words sounding the same but having different meanings. In this case the word antifreeze sounds like ‘aunty freeze’. How do you make aunty freeze? You steal her blanket!

I hope it doesn’t offend you to have a silly pun in a sermon, because Jesus liked puns. He used them in his sermons, but you wouldn’t notice them in our translation. Jesus often talked about very ordinary things to make his points. He talked in today’s reading about drinking a glass of water, washing the dishes, and decorating.

When they drank a glass of water, strict Jews would strain the water first. A dead insect would make the water impure, so they couldn’t drink it. Leviticus 11:23–24 says that anyone touching a dead insect is unclean until the evening. In general, Pharisees had altered the meaning to apply only to insects larger than a lentil. The strict Pharisees whom Jesus is talking too would strain the water to remove even invisible insects such as gnats.

In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, gnat is gamla and camel is gamal. It’s a pun. Verse 24 actually says: “You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gamla, but you swallow a gamal!”

They strain out the smallest impure creature, but leave the largest untouched. Leviticus 11:4 specifically says the camel is unclean and must not be eaten.

As for washing the dishes, this is again important to Pharisees for ritual purity. They would wash themselves and their dishes together in a ritual bath. Pharisees of the school of Shammai, the majority, said that it was enough for the outside of the cup to be clean. It didn’t matter if the inside were dirty. The minority group, the followers of Hillel, said the inside had to be cleaned first.

In verse 25, Jesus takes sides with the minority group on this point about washing dishes.

In verse 27, Jesus moves on to a much greater impurity. Far worse than touching a dead insect or not doing the dishes properly is touching a corpse. You wouldn’t be ceremonially impure just until evening, but for an entire week.

Numbers 19:11, “All those who touch a dead human body will be ceremonially unclean for seven days.”

The Pharisees interpreted this verse to mean that they would be ceremonially impure if their shadow even touched a grave. This was why all the religious Jews refused to help the traveller in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, and instead walked around him.

This law created a problem. How would people know that their shadow had touched a grave?

The solution was to mark the graves with stones. We still do this today, though now we do it in memory of those who have passed. To distinguish stones that marked graves from other random stones, they were painted white with whitewash. They were painted once a year, in much the same way that tombs in Korea are trimmed and tidied once a year.

Equally the whitewashing refers to making tombs look nicer. They are clean and even attractive monuments, but inside there is still a corpse and they will still make you unclean.

Is Jesus saying they shouldn’t maintain their tombs, or strain their drinking water? Is he teaching them to wash their dishes properly?

Obviously that is not Jesus’ point. Jesus has much more important things to teach us.

Jesus appears here to be teaching a lesson in how to live faithfully. Jesus is telling the religious people that they way they currently live is backwards. The kingdom way is what Jesus is teaching his disciples.

Now think about this for a moment. How do you answer the question, Am I a Christian?

This is a form of the eternal question of whether we are living according to the will of God. Are you a Christian because you attend church every Sunday? Are you still a Christian if you miss church once a month? Do you have to belong to a specific denomination to be a Christian? Can you be a Christian if you drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, watch porn, steal, or murder? Am I a Christian?

Jesus seems to be saying that the person who tithes, attends church regularly, and never watches porn is the same as the person who paints tombs and strains gnats.

How do we answer the question, Am I a Christian? We cannot look at the externals. To answer this question we have to look at the human heart. The answer to this question is in your heart.

Your heart is the focal point of your spiritual formation. We’ve always known on some level that this is how the question will be decided when we appear before God. We haven’t often lived like that. In our daily lives we’ve measured ourselves by external standards just like the Pharisees to whom Jesus was talking.

What Jesus was telling them is what he is telling us today. Our goal is obedience or conformity to Christ. We’ve been told many times that we “must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” We’ve been taught that the way to love God is to obey him in all things. We know that we have to submit to him totally in every area of life.

What we’ve often missed is that our obedience and our conformity has to come out of a transformed life.

Jesus said in John 13:34, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”

The love we are to have for others is a result of being loved by Jesus. We are changed by our relationship with Jesus. As Jesus loves us and changes us, we start to love others. As a result of our growing relationship with Jesus, we naturally produce the fruit of obedience. To obey is a result of having a relationship with Jesus.

When the external manifestation of Christlikeness is made the focus, we become trapped in legalism and pointless divisions. This life of discipleship is not about how we dress, how we behave or our membership of any organization.

This doesn’t mean we sit around and do nothing, there has to be human effort. It does mean that becoming Christlike is not a result of human effort. Becoming Christlike is a result of Christ at work within us. It is a gift of grace. We interact with the Holy Spirit living within us, and the Holy Spirit changes us.

We are not called to act according to a set of standards that we call good behaviour. We are called to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, so that the good behaviour is a natural result.

God is changing our hearts. God is changing our spirits.

The world seeks to force people into different forms of behaviour to solve social issues. It seeks to force Christian bakers to sell cakes to anyone. It seeks to force people to not kill each other or steal from each other.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that it doesn’t work. Straining gnats, washing cups, painting tombs is not the answer.

The only answer is new hearts. 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life.”

You are a Christian if Christ lives in your heart and you interact with him constantly.

Amen 아멘

About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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