Matthew 15:11 – …it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.

Many understand this verse to mean Jesus declared all animals clean to eat. However, that interpretation raises some significant questions.

Let’s review what the law of God says.

You shall not eat any abomination [ṯō·w·‘ê·ḇāh, Strong’s Hebrew 8441]” (Deuteronomy 14:3). God then proceeds to name animals that are an abomination to eat in verses 7-19.

Strongs defines the Hebrew word translated to abomination as, “something disgusting (morally), i.e. (as noun) an abhorrence; especially idolatry or (concretely) an idol — abominable (custom, thing), abomination.’

For comparison, here are the other sins referred to as an abomination using the same Hebrew word by the same Biblical author.

  • Forbidden same-family and same-sex sexual unions – Leviticus 18
  • Burning children as an offering to Molech and other practices in service to idols – Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 18:10
  • Acts of homosexuality – Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13
  • Worshiping carved images – Deuteronomy 7:25-26, Deuteronomy 17:2-7
  • Worshiping God the way other nations worship idols – Deuteronomy 12:30-31
  • Drawing people to worship other Gods – Deuteronomy 13:12-15
  • Sacrificing an animal with a blemish – Deuteronomy 17:1
  • Practicing divination – Deuteronomy 18:10
  • Fortune telling – Deuteronomy 18:10
  • Interpreting omens – Deuteronomy 18:10
  • Sorcery – Deuteronomy 18:10
  • Charmer, medium, necromancy, inquiring of the dead – Deuteronomy 18:11
  • Crossdressing – Deuteronomy 22:5
  • Paying a vow with income from prostitution – Deuteronomy 23:18
  • Taking back the wife you divorced after she has been subsequently divorced by her next husband – Deuteronomy 24:1-4
  • Dishonest business practices – Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Was Jesus saying it was now okay to eat that which his Father declared an abomination? Was Jesus abrogating his Father’s law?

If Jesus did announce a change in the law, he would have been breaking the law (sinning) and contradicting himself.

You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32)

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)

The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” (Psalm 119:160)

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6)

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-19)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38)

To avoid creating contradictions, we need to consider the possibility of another interpretation. Immediate context gives clarity. This all began with the Pharisees calling out the disciples for violating one of their traditions.

Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” (Matthew 15:2)

The parallel account in Mark 7 provides further detail.

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, 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.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 

Let’s review what the law actually says about handwashing so we know what’s behind the dialog. The law of Moses did mention hand washing, but never in reference to mealtime.

The LORD said to Moses, “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the LORD, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die.” (Exodus 30:17-20) See also Exodus 40:30-32.

Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening.” (Leviticus 15:11)

And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley,” (Deuteronomy 21:6)

Jesus and his disciples didn’t break the Father’s law by eating with unwashed hands. So what did Jesus mean? We don’t have to look far. He gives the interpretation just a few verses later.

But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 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. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:15-20)

Jesus was not abrogating his Father’s law. Rather, he was chastising the Pharisees for having hearts full of evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness and slander. 

Here’s a paraphrase of verse 11 using the interpretation given by Jesus: 

Eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person. It’s what comes out of the heart that defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11 – Jeff’s Paraphrase)

See also Mark 7:15

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    Matthew 12:1-2 “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.

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    Mark 7:15 – “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”