Evil comes from within.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 February

Mark 7.14-16 • Matthew 15.10-11.

So Jesus is lunching with some Pharisee, who has a snit about how he and his students don’t ritually wash when they enter a home, and Jesus turns round and complains how some Pharisee rituals violate the Law.

Now you do recognize it’s a common weaselly debate tactic to change the subject by attacking your opponent, but you should realize Jesus is no weasel: This wasn’t changing the subject, but getting to the very heart of why the Pharisee complained about hand-washing. He wasn’t insisting on it ’cause it offended his sensibilities, his religion, his devotion. He was doing it because it didn’t look good, which is hypocrisy of course. Too much of Pharisee custom was about appearing to follow the Law, but really following custom; the Law not so much.

And as for ritual cleanliness, Jesus wanted to make it obvious the ritual didn’t make anybody or anything clean. The ritual—like all rituals, including Christian rituals—only represents what it purports to do. Ritual cleanliness represents spiritual cleanliness. It’s not the same thing. As proven by any hypocrite—who might be so physically clean you could lick chocolate pudding off his hands, but so nasty inside you never would.

So Jesus took a little break from dinner and went to bring this up with the public:

Mark 7.14-16 KWL
14 Calling the crowd again, Jesus told them, “Everyone listen to me, and put this together.
15 There’s nothing outside a person going in, which can make them ‘common.’
But what comes out of a person is what defiles the person.
[16 If anyone has hearing ears, hear me.”]
Matthew 15.10-11 KWL
10 Calling the crowd, Jesus told them, “Listen and put this together.
11 It’s not what goes into the mouth which makes a person ‘common.’
But what comes out of the mouth—this makes a person ‘common.’ ”

Mark 7.16 isn’t in the oldest copies of Mark; it first showed up in bibles in the 300s, and Jesus did say those words a number of other times. Mk 4.9, 4.23, Lk 8.8, 14.35

I remind you this idea that we’re corrupted from the outside-in: Wasn’t just a popular Pharisee belief. Humans have always taught it. Christians frequently still teach it. Every time we warn our kids about corrupting outside influences—“Be careful, little eyes, what you see”—it’s based on the idea evil comes from without. Not within.

It’s based on Pelagianism, the idea humans are basically good. Pelagians figure God created us and called us good, Ge 1.31 and it’s only pessimistic Christians like St. Augustine, corrupted by Plato’s ideas about how matter is bad, who overlaid his ideas into Christendom and invented total depravity—humans are too selfish and messed up to turn to God without his help. Humans may do evil, but that’s way different from claiming we inherently are evil, been that way since birth; they can’t accept that idea at all.

Well of course they can’t. ’Cause the human self-preservation instinct won’t allow us to believe anything negative about ourselves. No matter what evidence we’ve been shown to the contrary. No matter what Jesus, his apostles, and the scriptures teach us. We choose to believe what makes us feel good about ourselves—and reject history, commonsense, and all the sins we ourselves commit. That’s just how total our depravity is: It inherently makes us not wanna believe in it. It’s no wonder people don’t cry out to Jesus for help: Humanity is in serious denial about how badly we need a savior.

And even when Christians claim we believe in human depravity, some of us think the instant Jesus saved us, and the Holy Spirit entered us, we were cured of our depravity. We used to be self-centered and corrupt, but once we became Christian we’re good. We don’t need to unlearn bad behaviors and grow the Spirit’s fruit; we already have his fruit and are doing just fine. We don’t have to put on God’s new nature Cl 3.10, Ep 4.24 —it’s already on! And so we’re in the very same boat as Pelagians… but hey, at least we’re orthodox.

Yep, that’s also a product of our total depravity. There’s good reason theologians describe it as total: It’s everywhere.

Pharisee philosophy versus human instinct.

The Pharisees taught—and their intellectual descendants in rabbinic Judaism still teaches—humans aren’t inherently corrupt. Aren’t inherently selfish. Aren’t anything. We’re blank slates, born with the potential to be good or bad. So in every human there’s one or more ‏יֵצֶר/yechér, “mindsets” or “inclinations.” There’s the ‏יֵצֶר ‏‏טָב/yechér tóv, the good inclination; and the ‏יֵצֶר ‏‏רַע/yechér ra, the evil inclination. It’s up to us to decide which inclination to follow. God flooded the planet because humans chose to follow the evil inclination. Ge 6.5 But the evil inclination can be worn away—like water erodes stone—when we study the Law. Put the Law in you and you’re clean! Or put in nothing—worse, put in evil—and be unclean.

It’s similar to what Aristotle of Athens taught: Humans are a tabula rasa, an erased tablet, and have to learn everything from scratch. And largely that’s true. But some things are instinctive. Self-preservation is a common instinct, and selfishness simply takes that instinct too far. Our willingness to let others be hurt, or even actively hurt others, for our own comfort—for our own entertainment—all stems from putting that instinct ahead of absolutely everything.

Instincts come from within. That’s why evil also comes from within. We’re not inherently good. Left to our own devices, we’ll be selfish, not selfless.

Thats why the scriptures order us to fight our selfish tendencies and resist temptation. Yeah, we’re born with a bent towards sin, but we don’t have to surrender to that nature: We have to put on the new nature the Holy Spirit provides us. We have to pursue the Spirit’s things instead of the flesh’s works. We Christians do have an advantage over pagans: We have the Spirit, and the Spirit empowers us to know better and do better. But if we never take him up on his help, we’re not better.

So that’s the idea Jesus introduced to the crowd. Things don’t make us clean or unclean by going from the outside-in. They only reveal our existing problem. Or, if we’ve been working on the problem, our growing righteousness. But both of ’em come from the inside-out.

Yes we need to avoid the temptations we can’t resist. Not because they corrupt us, but because we know we’re already corrupt. If I can’t control myself around alcohol, and keep drinking it till I pass out, the misbehavior is my fault, not the alcohol’s. Blaming the alcohol is like a child molester blaming the children. The problem comes from within us, not the things we desire. It has nothing to do with what we put in.

Embarrassingly, the proof of Jesus’s statement came from the Pharisees’ own behavior. They made a point of strictly keeping away from sinners, from anything they considered immoral. (And they complained when Jesus didn’t do likewise.) They made it quite obvious, in their ritual washing, how devout they were. How they prayed, how they quoted lots of bible, how they followed customs, how they dressed the part. Yet they manipulated the Law in order to justify themselves, and stick it to others. It invalidated every bit of ritual they did.

God doesn’t care to interact with a person full of greed and evil plans. Lk 11.39 As Christian—or Pharisee—a person might claim to be, as devout as they may pretend to be, God knows what’s in every heart. He knows when we’re true followers—or when we’re nothing more than pagans putting on an show. And he doesn’t care for the show.

Our blind spots.

Y’notice when Jesus went out to call the crowd, they were within earshot. The Pharisees critiquing Jesus didn’t do it privately: They might’ve been in someone’s house, but they were likely in the courtyard—an open yard surrounded by the rooms of the house—where anybody could hear what was going on. Probably because it was the biggest space in the house. Possibly because, like most hypocrites, they the public to overhear Rabbi Jesus and his students having lunch with them.

Critiquing Jesus publicly wasn’t at all what he taught us Christians to do. We’re to correct one another privately. But then again, the Pharisees weren’t following Jesus like his students did. Or do.

Now if you’re gonna accuse or correct anyone—private or public—you’d better have your case together. You’ll look foolish if you don’t. Trial lawyers and politicians tend to double-check their own weak spots before they stand in court, in Congress, or go on TV programs, ’cause they know their opponents will find those spots and hammer away at them. Unless of course they have no idea they have weak spots—and our politicians are regularly caught by surprise by them.

Here Jesus poked Pharisees right in their weak spot: They assumed since the rabbi hadn’t taught his students ritual washing, he must not be much of a rabbi. They didn’t realize Jesus knew the Law so well—and Pharisee customs so well—he could take both of them apart and expose their frauds. And for that matter, had they known the Law as well as Jesus, they’d have already caught their errors before Jesus had to say anything.

Hence the Pharisees totally didn’t see how their behavior was inconsistent religion. They imagined they were consistent—they were very careful to follow their customs. Problem is, their customs never came from God. He only told ’em to obey his commands. “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up,” Jesus says later in this story. Mt 15.13 KJV The Father hadn’t planted Pharisee customs. Their religion wasn’t God’s religion.

So… how’e we doing?

Are we so focused on the expectations of our own Christian culture, we’ve lost sight of what God really expects of us? Does our “Christianity” get at all in the way of following Christ? Does our desire to conform to what everyone else is doing, lead us astray from doing what the Father’s doing? Have we made certain our religion is entirely shaped like Jesus?

Christ Almighty!