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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 15

 

 

Verses 1-39


The Traditions of the Elders. The Canaanitish Woman. Feeding the Four Thousand

1-20. Unwashed hands and the traditions of the elders (Mark 7:1). In this important controversy Jesus defined His position, (1) towards rabbinical traditions about the Law; (2) towards the Law itself. The first part of our Lord's discourse (Matthew 15:3-9) is addressed to the Pharisees. In it He admits (or at least does not dispute) the binding character of the Law itself, but denies the authority of rabbinical tradition, and that on two grounds: (1) that it had no divine authority; (2) that instead of forming 'a hedge round the Law,' and assisting its observance, as it professed to do, it really abrogated it, by affording pretexts for its evasion. The second part of the discourse (Matthew 15:10-20), addressed to the disciples and the multitude, carries the argument a step farther. Our Lord lays down the principle (Mark 7:15) that 'there is nothing from without a man, which entering in can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man'; that is to say, that the whole ceremonial Law, with its distinctions of meats, its ablutions, its sacrifices, and its round of external observances, is no longer binding, and is about to be vabolished. At the time our Lord's line of argument was probably as distasteful to His own disciples as to the Pharisees. Long after this (Acts 10:14) St. Peter was so far from accepting it that he resisted the divine voice that bade him eat 'unclean' food, and hold familiar intercourse with Gentiles. But the lesson was learnt at last. In the second Gospel there is a note, due either to Peter or to his secretary Mark, which correctly glosses our Lord's words: 'This he said, making all meats clean' (Mark 7:19 RV).

St. Mark's account of this incident is fuller than St. Matthew's, and contains notes upon such Jewish usages as would not be understood by Gentile readers. St. Matthew's account, however, though shorter, usefully supplements St. Mark's in several important particulars.

1. Were of Jerusalem] RV 'come from Jerusalem.' The active hostility of the hierarchy, strikingly manifested by the sending of these emissaries, is explained by the fact (known to us only from the Fourth Gospel) that Jesus had already preached in Jerusalem, and defied the authorities there.

2. The tradition of the elders] The 'elders' are mainly the scribes, but include also the old heroes of the nation, Moses, Joshua, and the prophets, to whom certain of the rabbinical ordinances were ascribed. The scribes regarded their traditions as equal or superior in authority to the Law of God. For instance, they said, 'The words of the scribes are lovely, above the words of the Law; for the words of the Law are weighty and light, but the words of the scribes are all weighty.'. 'The words of the elders are weightier than the words of the prophets.'. 'He that shall say, There are no phylacteries, transgressing the words of the Law, is not guilty. But he that shall say, There are five divisions in a phylactery, adding to the words of the scribes, is guilty': see on Matthew 23:5.

They wash not their hands] The penalty for this neglect was excommunication by the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Eleazar ben Hazar was excommunicated, 'because he undervalued the washing of hands,' and dying unreconciled, was carried to the grave with a stone laid upon his bier, 'whence you may learn (say they) that the Sanhedrin stones the very coffin of every excommunicate person that dies in his excommunication.' The intricate details of the rabbinical ablutions are not worth describing, but a quotation from the Talmud will show the spirit in which they were performed: 'Whosoever hath his dwelling-place in the land of Israel, and eateth his common food in cleanness (i.e. with washed hands), and speaks the holy language (i.e. Hebrew), and recites his phylacteries morning and evening, let him be confident that he shall obtain the life of the world to come.' There was a special devil (Shibta), who was said to torment those who ate with unwashed hands.

4. See Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16.

5. But ye say, etc.] RV 'But ye say, Whoever shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is given to God he shall not honour his father (or, his mother).' It is a gift] Mk 'it is Corban.' 'Corban,' meaning originally a sacrifice or a gift to God, was used in NT. times as a mere word of vowing, without implying that the thing vowed would actually be offered or given to God. Thus a man Would say, 'Corban to me is wine for such a time,' meaning that he took a vow to abstain from wine. Or a man would say to a friend, 'Corban to me for such a time is whatsoever I might be profited by thee,' meaning that for such a time he vowed that he would receive neither hospitality nor any other benefit from his friend. Similarly, if a son said to his father or mother, 'Corban is whatsoever thou mightest have profited by me,' he took a vow not to assist his father or mother in any way, however much they might require it. A vow of this kind was held by the scribes to excuse a man from the duty of supporting his parents, and thus by their tradition they made void the word of God.

6. Honour not his father] RV 'shall not honour his father,' i.e. shall not be obliged to support his father.

8. See Isaiah 29:13. The passage, which is paraphrased rather than quoted, appears in the same form in St. Mark.

11. See Matthew 15:17-20, and prefatory remarks.

14. They be blind leaders] referring to the scribes and Pharisees. It is a proverbial expression occurring again Luke 6:39.

15. Peter] as usual he is spokesman of the Twelve. St. Mark (i.e. Peter), perhaps from modesty, does not mention Peter here.

17-20. Purity is to be sought in the soul, not in externals. See prefatory remarks.

21-28. The Canaanitish woman (Mark 7:24). The two accounts are, however, independent.

21. Departed] RV 'withdrew.' The withdrawal was due to the hostility of the Pharisees, and the alienation of friends caused by the speech in the synagogue of Capernaum (John 6:66). Celsus (the heathen opponent of Christianity, 170 a.d.) blamed Christ's policy of withdrawal from danger as cowardly. Origen well replied that it was part of Christ's education of the disciples, 'teaching them not at random, or unseasonably, or without sufficient object, to encounter dangers.'

Into the coasts (RV 'parts') of Tyre and Sidon] According to St. Mark (Mark 7:24, Mark 7:31), Jesus made a long sojourn on heathen soil, passing near Tyre, then along the coast to Sidon, through which He passed, then across country to the sources of the Jordan, then through Decapolis to the E. shore of the lake.

22. A woman of Canaan] RV 'a Canaanitish woman.' She was one of that nation which the Jews had been bidden to exterminate, and was therefore more hateful than an ordinary heathen. St. Mark calls her 'a Greek, a Syrophœnician by race'; i.e. she spoke Greek, but belonged by race to those Syrians who dwelt in Phœnicia. The Phœnicians were of Canaanite descent. Thou Son of David] How did she know that Jesus was descended from David? Not because she was a proselyte, for below she is called 'a dog,' i.e. a heathen. Probably because the fame of Jesus, and the popular title by which He was known, had spread far beyond the confines of Galilee: see on Matthew 1:1; Matthew 12:23.

23. Send her away] viz. by granting her request and healing her daughter.

26. The children are the Jews; the dogs are the Gentiles. Christ here speaks as a Jew, not yet revealing His true sentiments towards the Gentiles, for which see Matthew 8:11; John 4:23; Acts 10:28, etc. The rabbis often spoke of the Gentiles as dogs, e.g. 'He who eats with an idolater is like one who eats with a dog, for as a dog is uncircumcised, so also is an idolater.' 'The nations of the world are compared to dogs.' 'The holy convocation belongs to you, to yon, not to the dogs, to you, not to them that are without.' Yet Jesus, in adopting the contemptuous expression, slightly softens it. He says not 'dogs,' but 'little dogs,' i.e. household, favourite dogs, and the woman cleverly catches at the expression, arguing that if the Gentiles are household dogs, then it is only right that they should be fed with the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.

27. Truth, Lord; yet the dogs (RV 'Yea, Lord: for even the dogs') eat the crumbs, etc.] The ancients sometimes used, instead of a napkin, soft pieces of bread to wipe their hands upon. These fragments were then thrown to the dogs. Masters'] i.e. the Jews. The woman is humble. She is willing to be called a dog, and to acknowledge the Jews as masters.

28. O woman, great is thy faith, etc.] Why did Jesus speak to her so harshly, and wait so long before granting her request? (1) To test the strength of her faith; (2) to teach her the lesson that persistence and importunity in prayer will finally meet their reward; (3) to teach the disciples that greater faith was often to be found among the heathen than in Israel.

The miracle is interesting as one of the rare cases in which the ministrations of Christ were extended to a pure heathen. It is one of the few 'preludes of the larger mercy which was in store, first drops of that gracious shower which should one day water the whole earth.' In St. Mark's version our Lord gives a clear intimation of the future call of the Gentiles, by saying, 'Let the children first be filled.'

29-31. Various healings (Mark 7:31-37). St. Mark here inserts the healing of a deaf man with an impediment in his speech.

29. Unto the sea] According to St. Mark, to the E. side of it, where the population was mainly heathen. A mountain] RV 'the mountain.'

31. The God of Israel] implying that the multitudes were mainly heathen.

32-39. Feeding the four thousand (Mark 8:1). The multitudes in this case being heathen (see Matthew 15:31), the miracle is no bare repetition of the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13). That symbolised the communication of Christ to Israel, but this symbolised His communication to the Gentile world.

Several recent commentators regard this miracle as only another version of the feeding of the five thousand. They argue, (1) that Jesus would not have repeated a miracle; (2) that the apostles would not have said, 'Whence should we have so many loaves in a desert place, as to fill so great a multitude?' if Jesus had worked a similar miracle before. These arguments would be weighty if the two miracles occurred in different Gospels, or were derived from different sources. But this is not the case. The two miracles occur both in St. Matthew and St. Mark, the common matter of which Gospels is by general consent assigned to Peter himself. Peter's narrative also contains a saying of Jesus in which the two miracles are expressly distinguished: see Matthew 16:9; Mark 8:19.

37. Seven baskets (Gk. spurides) full] In the other miracle there were 'twelve baskets (Gk. kophinoi) full.' The difference in the baskets is perhaps to be accounted for by the different nationality of the multitudes. The 'kophinos' was well known as the provision-basket of the Jews. Juvenal, the Roman poet (100-130 a.d.), speaks of the Jews going about in heathen countries carrying a 'kophinos' to hold their food, and a bundle of hay for their bed, to avoid the pollution of Gentile food and bedding. The capacity of the 'kophinos' was about two gallons. The 'spuris' was probably larger. In a 'spuris' St. Paul was let down from the wall of Damascus (Acts 9:25), though St. Paul himself uses a different word (2 Corinthians 11:33).

39. Magdala] RV 'Magadan.' St. Mark says 'Dalmanutha.' Neither of these places can be located with certainty. According to Eusebius (4th cent.), Magadan was near Gerasa, i.e. on the E. side of the lake, and not, as might have been expected, on the W.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 15:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/matthew-15.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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