Our little part of the world is covered with small cemeteries. I expect there may be 50-100 cemeteries within 10 miles of my house. I was introduced to the tradition of Decorations shortly after moving to Alabama in February 1996.
For the uninformed, “Decoration” is part and parcel with Homecoming for country churches in our area that have a cemetery. Every church has a specific Sunday each year for Homecoming or Decoration. On Saturday, church members and others with people buried in the cemetery get together and spruce up the church cemetery. Every tombstone is carefully manicured and is topped with a spray of flowers. I must admit, these cemeteries are beautiful to behold in the days following Decoration.
But despite the fresh cut grass and beautiful flowers, there is one thing that cannot be hidden. This property is full of dead men’s bones. What is beautiful on the outside is corrupted at its very core.
In today’s reading, Jesus shows us how the true source of defilement comes from within and not from without. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish tradition held that a man was defiled if he walked across a tomb or grave. Thus, great care was given to whitewash these places as a warning to passersby not to get too close lest they become defiled. (In reality, this was a perversion of the Law in Numbers 5:2.)
Like the whitewashed tombs that were beautiful on the outside but were filled with the defilement of death, the Jews concerned themselves with the outward appearance of piety and devotion while giving no thought to pursuing purity within. So long as what was outside was clean, everything was fine.
Jesus’ illustration not only rebuked that attitude, it served to set aside on the specific laws of Moses, namely, the food laws forbidding some types of meat. Jesus used this same truth to illustrate to Peter the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Gospel or Church Age (Acts 10:9-16). Paul later reaffirmed this same principle in 1 Timothy 4:5. And THAT’S why I get to eat catfish and pulled pork Bar-B-Q!
Getting back to the primary intent of the text, our words and deeds are first rooted in our hearts before they are made manifest to the world. Nothing comes out of my mouth that wasn’t first in my heart. Take care to fill your heart with good things (cf Phil 4:8)!