Nature or Nurture?
There is a debate within psychology concerning you and me. Are we the product of our genetic/biological pre-wiring, some ask, or do our behaviours stem from external influences in our environment? Is it nature or nurture that makes us do what we do? Francis Galton (a contemporary and cousin of Charles Darwin) was convinced it was all nature, suggesting society could be improved by “better breeding.” Studies such as Bandura’s ‘Bobo Doll Experiment’ of the mid-twentieth century supported the theory that social behaviour is learned entirely through observation and imitation. Current thought is that neither heredity nor the environment act alone to make us behave the way we do—but rather they interact in a complex manner not yet fully understood.
In the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus faced a similar controversy. With clarity that was both unorthodox and unflinching, He challenged the Jewish teachers of the day who had come to Him with acrid criticism.
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” demanded the Pharisees. “They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
This may sound anything but significant to us, but to theses Jews tradition was everything (Remember Tevye in ‘The Fiddler on the Roof’?). Jewish life was orchestrated around a complex regimen of rituals known as the kashrut or kosher law, including symbolic washing of hands before eating. The Jewish teachers were censuring Jesus for allowing—perhaps even leading—His followers to violate what was most sacred to them: tradition.
“And why do you break the command of God,” countered Jesus, “for the sake of your tradition?”
Jesus went on to give them an example of their hypocrisy and injustice. He quoted the fifth commandment given to the people by God—“honour your father and mother,” a clear, straightforward command. Yet, he observed, you ‘teachers of the law’ have twisted your expectations of the people so that they must support you financially rather than supporting their aged and needy parents. What kind of tradition is that?
But He was not done with them yet. He wanted to help them escape from the corruption and delusion to which their external traditions had bound them. Without internal transformation tradition was only lip service.
“Listen and understand,” Jesus articulated carefully. “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’.”
We may not understand at first how shocking and offensive this comment would have been to the Jews—to any Jew. He was saying that all the Jewish traditions that require cleanliness—the kosher and traditional cleansing rituals—are misused and misunderstood if people think by observing them they become ‘righteous.’ The core problem of humanity is not dirty hands or germs ingested when eating pork. It is a foundational problem of the heart.
“Don’t you see,” added Jesus, “that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
Jesus is making a very clear statement about humanity’s condition in relationship to God. He’s saying that the nature of each of us is to reject God’s authority over our lives. All of us have deep within us a core of rebellion against God. Do you see that in your heart? I see it in mine. God is more concerned with that inner bent of heart than clean or dirty hands, good or evil deeds. The only solution—if we want to have that core problem corrected—is what Jesus offers. He offers the great exchange: we give up our autonomy, and He takes the rap for our sin. The kind of freedom we need comes at a cost.
But lives lived by that reality do begin to notice something: autonomy becomes increasing dependence upon God; selfishness gradually gives way to compassion for others; emotional chaos and confusion are more and more replaced by peace that passes understanding; internal commitment becomes authentic outward expressions of truth and goodness.
So we’re left with a choice. We can ride with the easy idea that if we do a few good deeds we can be ‘good enough’ for God. Or we can admit and accept what Jesus offers: a new heart. What do we want—external or internal?
(Photo credit: By T.K. Naliaka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36622513)