Out of the Heart Comes Law-Breaking

Typically the Ten Commandments are divided into ones dealing with our relationship to God (Commandments 1-4) and our relationship to others (Commandments 5-10). In Matthew 15, Jesus engages Pharisees who fail to see their law-breaking hearts. Over the course of the chapter, Jesus references the second category of the Ten Commandments, and in order.

15:5-6, “But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” Later in the same chapter, Jesus tells his disciples, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (15:19).

Let’s take them one by one.

  • Fifth commandment: “honor” your parents
  • Sixth commandment: do not “murder”
  • Seventh commandment: do not commit “adultery” or “sexual immorality”
  • Eighth commandment: do not engage in “theft”
  • Ninth commandment: do not bear “false witness”
  • Tenth commandment: do not covet, which may be manifested in “slander” 

Jesus shows that breaking God’s law begins inwardly. The phrase “evil thoughts” confirms the inner source of the acts which follow it. Given the order of the commandments and their correspondence to the Old Testament list in Exodus 20, the reader may be surprised that the last word in 15:19 is “slander” rather than “covetousness.” Yet perhaps Jesus uses “slander” as a manifestation of covetousness. Since Jesus in some way alludes to Commandments 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, it is plausible to expect the final term to relate to Commandment 10, right?

Jesus’ words are a corrective challenge to the Pharisees’ complaint that his disciples break God’s law by not washing their hands when they eat (Matt 15:1-2). Countering the notions of the religious leaders, Jesus showed that keeping God’s law is fundamentally a heart issue. And if the Law of Moses is a mirror, we are all guilty of breaking it.

But the heart of Jesus was different. If the Law of Moses was a mirror, Jesus’ life perfectly reflected it. He never spoke or did what was evil. From his heart never came evil thoughts. Irrespective of washed or unwashed hands, in the midst of sinners Jesus was the only one truly clean.