We’re blessed to have some apple trees in our back garden, and – despite my total lack of gardening skills – these trees have proved very fruitful (pardon the pun) over the years. Nowadays we turn most of them straightaway into juice (and you’ll see why in the next paragraph) – but in years gone by, we would fill up large plastic tubs with our produce, and store them in the cool of the garage to eat through the winter.
I remember about 3-4 years ago wanting to start a new tub of apples around December-time. We’d just finished one box, and there was a big sealed tub ready for consumption. I’d filled it myself and was looking forward to starting the new batch. However, when I opened it, what I found was, frankly, a gooey mess. Virtually the whole tub was rotten. One apple in the middle had gone bad weeks earlier, and ruined the rest.
‘A rotten apple spoils the barrel,’ is a popular old saying for good reason. It is quite literally true. But it’s also a fair reflection of the human condition. Think of an entire classroom affected by one disruptive child, or a whole street where neighbours live in fear of one violent family. We see it in our hearts, too. It is easy to allow rotten things to dwell there – the sort of things Jesus talks about in verse 22 of today’s passage: malice, deceit, envy, slander…. rotten apples poisoning the barrel of our hearts.
Over the last two reflections we’ve looked at how Jesus has challenged the Pharisees for fixating on exterior regulations rather than internal values, with the effect that they find themselves trying to wriggle out of the more demanding of these ‘rules’. Today, he draws his teaching together by calling us to pay attention to the true source of our righteousness (or unrighteousness). The heart of the matter, he says, is the matter of the heart. It’s what comes out of the heart which determines the kind of life that we live. So, the wise follower will pay most attention to what’s going on in their inner life.
It’s worth clarifying that, when Jesus says that it doesn’t really matter what goes into to you (v15), he was referring specifically to what we eat, which was the presenting issue. There are plenty of other passages in scripture cautioning us to be careful about what we consume in other ways: i.e. spiritually, or with our eyes or minds. But, as far as food goes, what Jesus says here would have been truly shocking (radically liberating!) to his hearers, having grown up with stringent regulations to follow.
For us too, let’s stay determined to keep our hearts clean. We know how easily the rot sets in – let’s pray for Jesus’ life-giving Spirit to wash us clean and keep transforming us, daily, from the inside out.