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Clean and Unclean

Peter Falk was an actor who spent his career playing a wide range of roles in comedy and drama. Most notably, he played an eccentric, rumpled but ever-triumphant detective in the hit television show Columbo. In real life, Falk had a glass eye, resulting from an operation to remove a cancerous tumor when he was three years old. In spite of his missing eye, he was a high school athlete. In one story he liked to tell, after being called out at third base during a baseball game, he removed his eye and handed it to the umpire. “You’ll do better with this,” he said.[1]

I think we are all just a bit like Peter Falk. We would all like to think we are the best umpires of our own lives, the best judges of whether we are safe or out, clean or unclean, righteous or unrighteous.

However, there is someone else, who in the Gospels asserts his right to be the ultimate umpire. His name is Jesus. Let us see what he has to say about being safe or being out, clean or unclean, from Mark 7:14-23….

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Jesus makes two points here. The first point is: nothing outside a person by going in can defile.

What sort of things were the Jews whom Jesus addressed concerned about? What things coming from the outside and going into them did they think would defile them?

Obviously, Jesus is talking about certain foods coming from the outside because he mentions it entering the stomach. From the stomach, as we know, food goes through the intestines and eventually out into the sewer.

Most people know that Jews are not allowed to eat pork. However, there were many other foods they were not allowed to eat according to Leviticus 11. Jews were not allowed to eat: camels, rock badgers, hares, pigs, shellfish, eagles, vultures, osprey, buzzards, kites, ravens, ostriches, nighthawks, sea gulls, hawks, owls, water hens, storks, herons, bats, winged insects that walk upon all fours, weasels, mice, lizards, geckos, crocodiles, chameleons, snakes, and the list goes on!

Now, in one fell swoop, Jesus tells his fellow Jews that none of these things can defile them. William Barclay writes about this,

Although it may not seem so now, this passage, when it was first spoken, was well-nigh the most revolutionary passage in the New Testament…. He declares that nothing that goes into a man can possibly defile him, for it is received only into his body which rids itself of it in the normal, physical way.

No Jew ever believed that and no orthodox Jew believes it yet.

There were Jews who had given up their lives because of their unwillingness to disobey the kosher laws. Therefore, the Jews and the Pharisees in particular must have wondered: how can Jesus be saying this? What is his point?

N. T. Wright explains:

The purity laws, he’s suggesting, point to the real need of humans for a deeper purity, a purity of motive. Eating meat, from crocodile to kangaroo, from pig to porcupine, won’t affect that….

The scriptures spoke of purity, and set up codes as signposts to it; Jesus was offering the reality. When you arrive at the destination you don’t need the signposts any more, not because they were worthless but precisely because they were correct.

In the passage we looked at last Sunday, we saw that the Pharisees were all concerned about the fact that Jesus and his disciples were not following the tradition of the elders regarding hand washing. Jesus called them hypocrites because they cared more for human tradition than what was most important, namely, a relationship with God.

Now Jesus attacks this Jewish religious practice of eating only kosher food. Here, Jesus is not simply addressing a human tradition, but something that was legislated in Scripture. By throwing out this tradition and basically saying it is no longer important, Jesus was asserting his right to be the final arbiter of what was important in Scripture and what was not, what was binding and what was no longer so.

Now, you may be thinking: “This Scripture is all about kosher foods. What does it have to do with me? After all, I eat pork and bacon and shellfish.” Well, I think what Jesus says here also has a more general application, and I think that application is this: Those who believe that things outside of them by going into them can defile are living an “outside in” sort of lifestyle. Religion to them is all about things on the surface.

Imagine a person who is told by their doctor that they are dying of cancer but that they can be cured if they will receive a strenuous course of chemotherapy and radiation. What would you think if that person went for a makeover instead of getting the chemo and radiation treatment? You would think they were crazy, would you not?

Yet, people who focus on the outside aspects of religion without attending to the interior part of their lives are just like that person dying of cancer. It is relatively easy to attend to externals in religion: attending services, reading the Bible, following dietary laws, even going through the motions of prayer. However, it is much harder to truly open our hearts to God and allow him to cleanse us on the inside.

This leads to the second point Jesus makes in this passage. He says that: the things that come out of a person are what defile that person.

What are these evil intentions that Jesus talks about?

The first word that is used in the Greek text is πορνεια. It comes from the root word πορνη—the word for prostitute. Metaphorically used the word can refer to idolatry.

The next word is κλοπαι, which means “theft”. Judas was a κλεπτες because he stole from the disciples’ common fund. My father was a κλεπτες. He had an interesting way of quoting Ephesians 4:28. Let him that stole steal, no more let him labor with his hands.” It is very important where you put the comma in that sentence!

The third kind of evil Jesus mentions is φονοι, which is the word for murders. Then there is μοιχειαι, which when translated means “adulteries,” or marital unfaithfulness.

Πλεονεξιαι comes from two Greek words that mean “to have more”. Thus, this word refers to greed.

Πονηριαι is translated as “wickedness” and refers to the person who is actively wicked, who desires to do harm. Satan is the evil one, the πονηρος.

Next comes δολος; it comes from the word for bait. This word can be used of a mousetrap and refers to capture by trickery or deceit. We probably all know the story of the time when the Greeks were besieging Troy and could not gain access. The Greeks sent the Trojans a present—a giant wooden horse. The Trojans opened their gates and took the wooden horse into their city. However, Greek soldiers were inside the horse and broke out during the night. By this means, the Greeks conquered Troy.

The next word in Jesus’ list is ασελγεια. The Greeks defined this word as meaning a disposition of soul that resented all discipline. This refers to the sort of person who sins without a qualm and never hesitates to shock his fellow human beings.

The next word, which in the New Revised Standard Version is translated as envy, literally means an evil eye. This applies to the person who looks at the success and happiness of another and not only wants it for himself, but if he could, would cast a spell against the person who does have it.

Βλασφημια sounds almost exactly like our English word, blasphemy. When a person blasphemes another human being, he slanders him. When we blaspheme God, we insult him by trying to take his place.

Then there is the closely related word: υπερηφανια, which means arrogance or pride. C. S. Lewis calls this “the great sin”. This sin need never show itself. A man secretly may be comparing himself to others but outwardly trying to act humble. To have pride is to set oneself up as God; that is why pride has been called the chief of the vices.

The last word in Jesus’ list is αφροσυνη. This word does not refer to foolishness due to weakness or lack of intellect. It refers to moral folly. Thus, this word does not refer to a brainless fool but to a person who chooses to be a fool.

Jesus’ list reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ description of his own soul the first time he gave himself to honest self-examination:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

Matthew Mitchell illustrates how evil intentions come out of the heart….

I held up a bottle of water and then poured the water out on the platform. Then I asked our church family, “Why is there now water on the floor?” Everyone laughed nervously because the answer was so obvious.
Then I asked, “But why is there water on the floor and not Pepsi or Kool-Aid?” Now besides the fact that I would have gotten into major trouble with the custodian if I had poured Pepsi or Kool-Aid on the carpet, the truth is, there was water on the floor because there had been water in the bottle. Similarly, Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” What’s inside us determines what comes out of us.[2]

Now, here is a bit of good news, if only a bit. The person who is concerned about what comes out of their heart is seeking to live their life from the inside out. Though it is less than perfect, it is better to live from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

Thus, Jesus’ horrible list raises a question: If what comes out of our heart is evil, then what are we to do?

Jesus does not tell us what to do, at least not in this place in Mark’s Gospel. However, it is interesting to me that Paul has a list of evil deeds similar to that of Jesus. In Galatians 5:19-21 he writes,

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
You say, “Well how does that help? Paul has reminded me of what Jesus has already said about the evil that comes out of the heart.”
That is an honest response. It reminds me of the story of the family who had company for dinner. After dinner, they put all the food scraps in a big, black trash bag. Forgotten on the back porch, the trash the following morning was strewn across the deck and back yard. The family did not look forward to coming home to pick it all up after church.

During the worship service, the children’s sermon was about how it is important to try to keep God’s earth as good as it used to be in the Garden of Eden. The pastor had a black plastic trash bag and emptied it on the platform—coke cans, papers, and wrappers. He then asked the children, “Now, what does that look like?”

A boy from the family with the trash bag problem stood right up, hands on hips, and loudly said, “Well, it looks just like my house!”[3]

If we are honest, when we hear Jesus talk about the evil that comes out of the heart, or when we hear Paul talk about the works of the flesh, we will say, along with that little boy, “Well, that looks just like my house! Jesus and Paul are describing my heart.”
That is the bad news. However, the good news is that Paul also goes on to talk about what can get rid of this evil. He says, beginning in verse 22…
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Therefore, if you want to get rid of the evil that issues from the heart then you have to give yourself to Jesus and let him nail that evil to the cross on which he died. Then he will also give you his Holy Spirit to replace the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit.

Lowe’s Hardware has a commercial that shows a proud do-it-yourselfer installing a new ceiling fan in his family’s living room. After he confidently gives the fan one last little turn, he climbs off the aluminum ladder, and steps aside to turn on the switch. After he turns it on, he stands with his hands on his hips, satisfied with his brilliant, money-saving work. Within a second of the first rotation of the blades, the central motor sparks and the entire fan crashes to the floor, crushing a small table on its way down. The scene cuts away to the outside of the house, looking at the clear bay window of the room where the man stands. It’s quiet and bright outside. Suddenly, the ceiling fan comes flying through the picture window and lands in the yard, disrupting the peaceful moment. The words flash on the screen: “Need help?” An online version of the ad includes these words from Lowe’s: “Installation can be tricky. Come to Lowe’s. We’ve got all the tips and tools you need to get the job done right.”[4]

Removing the evil from our hearts and installing the fruit of the Spirit can also be tricky. To do it right, we need more than our own feeble human effort. We need the help of an expert. The only one I know capable of rooting out evil from the human heart and replacing it with the fruit of the Spirit is Jesus….

[1] Bruce Weber, “Peter Falk, Rumpled and Crafty Actor in Television’s ‘Columbo,’ Dies at 83,” The New York Times (6-24-11),
[2] Matthew C. Mitchell, Resisting Gossip: Winning the War of the Wagging Tongue (CLC Publications, 2013), pp. 39-40; Submitted by: Van Morris, Mt. Washington, Kentucky,
[3] Russell Brownworth, Thomasville, North Carolina; source: WBFJ Radio, call-in-show in Winston-Salem, NC (2-21-02)
[4] Submitted by Deron Smith, Springfield, Missouri,


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