All of us are astounded when we meet someone who sees basic things in ways that are completely different from the way we see them. They can look at the exact situation I look at and see something completely different. Thus I wonder how could he possibly see what he sees, and he wonders how could I possibly see what I see.

My first introduction to this truth came through my involvement in mission work in West Africa. I actually thought I was well prepared to do that work because I loved people and was devoted to God's word. Actually, I was poorly prepared to do that work because I did not understand a basic fact: people who come from different cultures use different thought processes.

May I use two illustrations. The first illustration is based on the word "missionary." To most of us that is a good word. Twenty-five years ago it was a very good word in the church in this culture. To us (and those who sent us) it was a word that said love, compassion, caring, sacrifice, and devotion.

But to many who received us, it was a terrible word. "Do you think we are an ignorant people? Do you think we are the kind of people who need missionaries? Do you think we are uneducated? Do you think the way to help us is by destroying the values and relationships we honor?" The concepts involved in the word "missionary" insult many people.

Second illustration: I thought everyone used and followed the same thought process, just used different languages to think as they thought in the same ways. Was I ever wrong! There are many different ways to think. If all a person does is master another language, he or she still will not communicate well if he or she does not learn how to think like other people think.

The ruling counsel of a sizable village charged one of our mature students with a crime. I asked and received permission to attend the hearing. I listened for about an hour as they discussed the crime this student committed on a specific date. On that date at the time he was accused of committing the crime, he was in school, not in the village.

I politely asked for permission to speak and explained he was in school. They politely listened, thanked me, and continued their discussion.

The student was Nigerian. The village was Camerounian. The counsel was offended because they felt the student acted disrespectfully to Camerounians. This was the way they addressed and corrected the situation.

Ridiculous? Not at all! They just did not use my Western logic to address their problems. The student knew what was happening and why. The counsel knew what was happening and why. I was the one who did not understand what was happening and why. I did not think the way they thought.

Before you decide that is ridiculous, force yourself to remember in this culture a time when you rejected someone because he or she did not think your thoughts in the way you think.

This evening I call your attention to Matthew 15.

  1. The Pharisees and scribes confronted Jesus with a serious religious question.
    1. To use our words, they said, "Explain yourself. For generations, in accordance with the teachings of those long respected, we have religiously purified our hands before we ate. Why do you not require your disciples to practice this?"
      1. First, we need to place the issue in clear focus.
        1. Jesus did not oppose all tradition because all tradition is bad.
        2. Jesus opposed a specific kind of tradition: tradition that contradicts God's commands (teachings).
      2. Second, we need to understand their concern.
        1. Many Jews went through a religious ceremony of purifying their hands before they ate.
        2. The purpose seemingly was to protect them from accidentally defiling themselves before God when they ate.
      3. Third, we need to understand Jesus' reply.
        1. "Why are you guilty of doing what you accuse me of doing?"
        2. "The ten commandments instruct you to take care of your aging parents."
        3. "You say that if a person makes a pledge to the temple, your pledge to the temple takes precedence over one of God's commandments."
        4. "That is hypocrisy! As Isaiah the Prophet said: you use good words when you talk, but that is all it is--just words. Your heart is not in what you say. You consider human rules to be more important than God's teachings."
        5. "God knows it, so your worship is just words and an insult to God."
    2. Jesus then asked the multitude of people to listen to him and understand.
      1. "It is not what you put in your mouth that makes you impure before God."
      2. "It is what comes out of your mouth that makes you impure before God."
      3. From its beginning hundreds of years before, Israel thought keeping the dietary code in Leviticus 11 was an essential key to purity.
        1. Purity long had been a procedure, a ritual.
        2. Jesus said purity involves much more than adopting what you conclude are the right procedures.
    3. Jesus' disciples then said to Jesus, "Don't you realize what you just said offended the Pharisees?"
      1. The Pharisees were the symbols of devotion and knowledge of God's word.
      2. Jesus answered by making two statements:
        1. "If God did not plant it, it will be uprooted."
        2. "Blind people make horrible guides."
    4. Peter then asked for an explanation.
      1. Jesus' first response: "You mean you do not understand either?"
      2. Jesus' second response:
        1. "When you eat food, the body will eliminate it--the act of eating does not change your spiritual condition."
        2. "But what you say comes from your heart, and this does reveal your spiritual condition."
        3. "That does defile you before God."
        4. "From your heart comes evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, stealing, deceitfulness, and slandering, and these things defile you before God.
        5. "Failing to ceremonially purify your hands before you eat will not make you spiritually impure, but letting evil live in your heart and express itself in your life will make you spiritually impure."

  2. I want to encourage you to do some in-depth thinking about the situation and the problem Jesus addressed.
    1. First, think about the Pharisees.
      1. It is very easy to stereotype these men as a group of "bad people," "religious villains."
        1. That stereotype is misleading.
        2. These were devoutly religious people who totally disagreed with Jesus' approach to God or his emphasis in Judaism.
        3. In their understanding of scripture, Jesus was teaching error.
      2. Consider:
        1. Did the Pharisees believe in the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ? Yes.
        2. Did they believe that God's word was inspired, the truth, the living will of God? Yes.
        3. Did they believe that God's word was the final authority in all religious discussions? Yes.
        4. Did they believe that Israelites had to obey God and do precisely what God said do? Yes.
        5. Did they believe that God's word could be applied to any situation that arose as the world changed? Yes.
      3. Then what was the problem between these people and Jesus?
        1. The Pharisees tended to equate obedience with following the correct procedures.
        2. They determined correct procedures by:
          1. Applying God's word to every situation.
          2. By considering what had happened in the past important.
          3. This was the way they answered two questions: what and how.
        3. What occurred in Matthew 15 illustrates how they thought and what they did.
          1. What does God expect in His people? Purity or cleanliness; that is what God's word said.
          2. In the matter of diet, how can an Israelite be pure? He or she ate the right foods, and he or she ate them in the correct manner.
          3. What was the correct manner? The past said an Israelite must go through the religious ceremony of hand washing prior to a meal.
          4. Was their intention evil or ungodly? No.
      4. Their approach to obeying God and following God illustrates a problem that always plagues conservative approaches to obeying God "by just doing what God said."
        1. Such people want to do what God said for us to do, and that is good.
        2. In our zeal and dedication, too often we do not distinguish between what God said and what we think or conclude.
        3. In our zeal and dedication, too often we reduce obedience to God to what should be done and how it is done.
        4. Too often this is the result: we place too much emphasis on how and not enough emphasis on motives.
        5. When we do that, we easily become procedural and ritualistic; we attach more significance to what is done than why it is done.
    2. There are two extremes we always must keep in our awareness with the understanding that neither extreme accomplishes God's purposes.
      1. Extreme # 1: reducing obedience to God to procedures.
      2. Extreme # 2: declaring that how we do things is unimportant as long as the heart is right.

Jesus did not endorse either extreme. Jesus said justifying your religious procedures at the expense of ignoring God's purposes misses the point of belonging to God. It is not enough to control what your body does. One must give his or her heart to God. The key problem is what is in a person's heart. The origin of evil in a person is his or her heart. It is not enough to control the body by following the right procedures. A Christian belongs to God inside and out.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 8 September 2002

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