Ask the Pastor – Matthew 15:11


What is the meaning of the text Matthew 15:11? Does it mean that we can eat anything we want?


While in debate with Jewish leaders over His disciples’ practice of eating without washing their hands, Jesus said, “What proceeds out of the mouth defiles the man.” (Matthew 15:11.) In the previous verse, Jesus said, “Hear me and understand.” In other words, “I am about to say something absolutely fundamental, and you must understand it.”

“It is not what goes into one’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of the mouth defiles him.” (Verse 11.) Their diligence in washing their hands was not a matter of removing physical dirt, but a matter of spiritual and moral cleanness. To them, holiness consisted in acts one might do or not do. So Jesus explained: “things that . . . come from the heart . . . defile the man.” (See Matthew 15:17–20; Mark 7:21, 22.) Defilement is not a matter of just what is external. “Unholiness” does not consist of actions. What “defiles” is what is in the heart. A mere act, of whatever character, is neither holy nor unholy in and of itself. Morality is not simply in the nature of the act itself but in what is in the heart of the “actor.”

Our heart is the source of all “evil” deeds. God judges our deeds according to what He finds in our hearts. God’s primary question is not, “What did you do?” but, “Why did you do it?” The evil attached to external action depends on the motive of the one doing it. “Good” deeds are not “good” if they arise from legalism or if done from improper motives.

As examples, consider the case of David eating the shewbread and the priests working on the Sabbath day. (See Matthew 12:3–5.) These deeds are not permitted under normal circumstances, but if the heart is right, then the deed is right before God. Jesus tells this as a follow-up to the issue of eating with defiled hands.

Learning this truth is crucial to our spiritual health. Churches are full of people who struggle with personal spirituality and their relationship with God. This mindset is a barrier to prayer, praise, and worship. This faulty self-judgment manifests itself in faulty judgment of others and has been directly responsible for countless church divisions.

God judges motives before He judges actions, and He grants mercy and grace to us when we do wrong things, if our hearts do not lean toward sin. God mitigates sin with grace, for those whose hearts are right. A vivid example of this is seen in His own mitigation of His indisputable law, “Thou shalt not kill,” and “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” (Exodus 20:13; Genesis 9:5, 6.) Notice that God says, “If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17.) His “law” on this cannot be more precisely and emphatically stated. Yet God provided “cities of refuge” for those who “killed” without malice. (See Numbers 35; Joshua 20, 21; 1 Chronicles 6.) Killing another human is the worst thing one could ever do. It is the ultimate breach of God’s fundamental law of love for others. Yet God’s first look is not at the act of taking another’s life. His first concern is the motive of the “killer.” I hope that this helps your understanding of this text.

Pastor Mike Baugher is a retired minister of the gospel. If you have a question you would like Pastor Mike to answer, e-mail it to:, or mail it to: LandMarks, Steps to Life, P. O. Box 782828, Wichita, KS 67278.