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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Matthew 15



Verses 1-39

Chapter 15

CLEAN AND UNCLEAN (Matthew 15:1-9)

15:1-9 Then the Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem approached Jesus. "Why," they said, "do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? They do so transgress, because they do not wash their hands before they eat bread." Jesus answered them: "Why do you too transgress God's commandment, because of your tradition? For God said, 'Honour your father and your mother,' and, 'He who curses his father and mother, let him die'; but, as for you, you say, 'Whoever says to his father or his mother: "That by which you might have been helped by me is a dedicated gift," will certainly not honour his father and his mother, and is yet guiltless.' You have annulled the commandment of God through your tradition. Hypocrites, Isaiah in his prophecy described you well: 'This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. It is in vain that they reverence me; for it is man-made commandments that they teach as their teaching.'"

It is not too much to say that, however difficult and obscure this passage may seem to us, it is one of the most important passages in the whole gospel story. It represents a head-on clash between Jesus and the leaders of orthodox Jewish religion. Its opening sentence makes it clear that the Scribes and Pharisees had come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to put their questions to Jesus. On this occasion it need not be thought that the questions are malicious. The Scribes and Pharisees are not ill-naturedly seeking to entangle Jesus. They are genuinely bewildered; and in a very short time they are going to be genuinely outraged and shocked; for the basic importance of this passage is that it is not so much a clash between Jesus and the Pharisees in a personal way; it is something far more--it is the collision of two views of religion and two views of the demands of God.

Nor was there any possibility of a compromise, or even a working agreement, between these two views of religion. Inevitably the one had to destroy the other. Here, then, embedded in this passage, is one of the supreme religious contests in history. To understand it we must try to understand the background of Jewish Pharisaic and Scribal religion.

In this passage there meets us the whole conception of clean and unclean. We must be quite clear that this idea of cleanness and uncleanness has nothing to do with physical cleanness, or, except distantly, with hygiene. It is entirely a ceremonial matter. For a man to be clean was for him to be in a state where he might worship and approach God; for him to be unclean was for him to be in a state where such a worship and such an approach were impossible.

This uncleanness was contracted by contact with certain persons or things. For instance, a woman was unclean if she had a haemorrhage, even if that haemorrhage was her normal monthly period; she was unclean for a stated time after she had had a child; every dead body was unclean, and to touch it was to become unclean; every Gentile was unclean.

This uncleanness was transferable; it was, so to speak, infectious. For instance, if a mouse touched an earthenware vessel, that vessel was unclean and unless it was ritually washed and cleansed, everything put into it was unclean. The consequence was that anyone who touched that vessel, or who ate or drank from its contents became unclean; and in turn anyone who touched the person who had so become unclean also became unclean.

This is not only a Jewish idea; it occurs in other religions. To a high-caste Indian anyone not belonging to his own caste is unclean; if that person becomes a Christian, he is still more seriously unclean. Premanand tells us what happened to himself. He became a Christian; his family ejected him. Sometimes he used to come back to see his mother, who was broken-hearted at what she considered his apostasy, but still loved him dearly. Premanand says: "As soon as my father came to know that I was visiting my mother in the daytime while he was away at the office, he ordered the door-keeper, a stalwart up-country man, Ram Rup ... not to allow me to enter the house." Ram Rup was persuaded to slacken his vigilance. "At last my mother won over Ram Rup, the door-keeper, and I was allowed to enter her presence. The prejudice was so great that even the menial Hindu servants of the house would not wash the plates on which I was fed by my mother. Sometimes my aunt would purify the place and the seat on which I had sat by sprinkling Ganges water, or water mixed with cow dung." Premanand was unclean, and everything he touched became unclean.

We must note that there was nothing moral about this. The touching of certain things produced uncleanness; and this uncleanness debarred from the society of men and the presence of God. It was as if some special infection hung like an aura about certain persons and things. We may understand this a little better if we remember that even in western civilization this idea is not completely dead, although it works here mainly in reverse. There are still those who find in a four-leafed clover, or in some metal or wooden charm, or in a black cat, something which brings good fortune.

So, here is an idea which sees in religion something which consists in avoiding contact with certain things and people because they are unclean; and, then, if that contact should have been made, in taking the necessary ritual cleansing measures to rid oneself of the contracted uncleanness. But we must pursue this a little further.

THE FOODS WHICH ENTER INTO A MAN (Matthew 15:1-9 continued)

The laws of cleanness and uncleanness had a further wide area of application. They laid down what a man might eat, and what he might not eat. Broadly speaking all fruit and vegetables were clean. But, in regard to living creatures, the laws were strict. These laws are in Leviticus 11:1-47 .

We may briefly summarize them. Of beasts only those can be eaten who part the hoof and chew the cud. That is why no Jew can eat the flesh of the pig, the rabbit, or the hare. In no case may the flesh of an animal which has died a natural death be eaten (Deuteronomy 14:21). In all cases the blood must be drained from the carcass; the orthodox Jew still buys his meat from a kosher butcher, who sells only meat so treated. Ordinary fat upon the flesh might be eaten, but the fat on the kidneys and on the entrails of the abdomen, which we call suet, might not be eaten. In regard to sea food, only sea creatures which have both fins and scales may be eaten. This means that shellfish, such as lobsters, are unclean. All insects are unclean, with one exception, locusts. In the case of animals and fish there is a standard test, as we have seen, of what might be eaten, and what might not be eaten. In the case of birds there is no such test; and the list of unclean and forbidden birds is in Leviticus 11:13-21.

There were certain identifiable reasons for all this.

(i) The refusal to touch dead bodies, or to eat the flesh of an animal which had died from natural causes, may well have had something to do with the belief in evil spirits. It would be easy to think of a demon as taking up residence in such a body, and so gaining entry into the body of the eater.

(ii) Certain animals were sacred in other religions; for instance, the cat and the crocodile were sacred to the Egyptians; and it would be very natural for the Jews to regard as unclean any animal which another nation worshipped. The animal would then be reckoned a kind of idol and therefore dangerously unclean.

(iii) As Dr. Rendle Short points out in his most helpful book, The Bible and Modern Medicine, certain of the regulations were in fact wise from the point of view of health and hygiene. Dr. Short writes: "True, we eat the pig, the rabbit and the hare, but these animals are liable to parastic infections and are safe only if the food is well-cooked. The pig is an unclean feeder, and harbours two worms, trichina and a tape worm, which may be passed on to man. The danger is minimal under present conditions in this country, but it would have been far otherwise in Palestine of old, and such food was better avoided." The prohibition of eating anything with blood in it comes from the fact that the blood is the life in Jewish thought. This is a natural thought, for, as blood flows away, life ebbs away. And the life belongs to God, and to God alone. The same idea explains the prohibition of eating the fat. The fat is the richest part of the carcase, and the richest part must be given to God. In some cases, although they are few, there was sound sense behind the prohibitions and the food laws.

(iv) There remain a large number of cases in which things and beasts and animals were unclean for no reason at all except that they were. Taboos are always inexplicable; they are simply superstitions, by which certain living things came to be connected with good or with bad fortune, with cleanness or uncleanness.

These things would not in themselves matter very much, but the trouble and the tragedy were that they had become to the Scribes and Pharisees matters of life and death. To serve God, to be religious, was to observe these good laws. If we put it in the following way, we will see the result. To the Pharisaic mind the prohibition of eating rabbit's or pig's flesh was just as much a commandment of God as the prohibition of adultery; it was therefore just as much a sin to eat pork or rabbit as to seduce a woman and enjoy illegal sexual intercourse. Religion had got itself mixed up with all kinds of external rules and regulations; and, since it is much easier both to observe rules and regulations and to check up on those who do not, these rules and regulations had become religion to the orthodox Jews.

THE WAYS OF CLEANSING (Matthew 15:1-9 continued)

Now we come to the particular impact of this on the passage we are studying. It was clearly impossible to avoid all kinds of ceremonial uncleanness. A man might himself avoid unclean things, but how could he possibly know when on the street he had touched someone who was unclean? This was further complicated by the fact that there were Gentiles in Palestine, and the very dust touched by a Gentile foot became unclean.

To combat uncleanness an elaborate system of washings was worked out. These washings became ever more elaborate. At first there was a hand-washing on rising in the morning. Then there grew up an elaborate system of hand-washing whose use was at first confined to the priests in the Temple before they ate that part of the sacrifice which was their perquisite. Later these complicated washings came to be demanded by the strictest of the orthodox Jews for themselves and for all who claimed to be truly religious.

Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah outlines the most elaborate of these washings. Water jars were kept ready to be used before a meal. The minimum amount of water to be used was a quarter of a log, which is defined as enough to fill one and a half egg-shells. The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upwards, and must run up the arm as far as the wrist. It must drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands, and, if it ran down the fingers again, it would again render them unclean. The process was repeated with the hands held in the opposite direction, with the fingers pointing down; and then finally each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A really strict Jew would do all this, not only before a meal, but also between each of the courses.

The question of the Jewish orthodox leaders to Jesus is:

"Why do your disciples not observe the laws of washing

which our tradition lays down?"

They speak of the tradition of the elders. To the Jew the Law had two sections. There was the written Law which was contained in scripture itself; and there was the oral Law, which consisted of the developments, such as those in hand-washing, which the Scribes and the experts had worked out through the generations; and all these developments were the tradition of the elders, and were regarded as just as much, if not more, binding than the written Law. Again we must stop to remember the salient point--to the orthodox Jew all this ritual ceremony was religion; this is what, as they believed, God demanded. To do these things was to please God, and to be a good man. To put it in another way, all this business of ritual washing was regarded as just as important and just as binding as the Ten Commandments themselves. Religion had become identified with a host of external regulations. It was as important to wash the hands in a certain way as to obey the commandment: "Thou shalt not covet."

BREAKING GOD'S LAW TO KEEP MAN'S LAW (Matthew 15:1-9 continued)

Jesus did not answer the question of the Pharisees directly. What he did was to take an example of the operation of the oral and ceremonial law to show how its observance so far from being obedience to the Law of God, could become actual contradiction of that Law.

Jesus says that the Law of God lays it down that a man shall honour his father and his mother; then he goes on to say that if a man says, "It is a gift," he is free from the duty of honouring his father and his mother. If we look at the parallel passage in Mark, we see that the phrase is: "It is Corban (korban, Greek #2878; Hebrew #7133)." What is the meaning of this obscure passage to us? In point of fact it can have two meanings, because Corban (korban, Greek #2878) has two meanings.

(i) Corban (korban, Greek #2878) can mean that which is dedicated to God. Now suppose that a man had a father or mother in poverty and in need; and suppose that his poor parent came to him with a request for help. There was a way in which the man could avoid giving any help. He could, as it were, officially dedicate all his money and all his property to God and to the Temple; his property would then be Corban (korban, Greek #2878), God-dedicated; then he could say to his father or mother: "I'm very sorry, I can give you nothing; all my belongings are dedicated to God." He could use a ritual practice to evade the basic duty of helping and honouring his father and mother. He could take a scribal regulation to wipe out one of the Ten Commandments.

(ii) But Corban (korban, Greek #2878) has another meaning, and it may well be that it is this second meaning which is at issue here. Corban (korban, Greek #2878) was used as an oath. A man might say to his father or mother: "Corban (korban, Greek #2878), if anything I have will ever be used to help you." Now suppose this man to have remorse of conscience; suppose him to have made the refusal in a moment of anger, or temper, or even of irritation; suppose him to have second and kinder and more filial thoughts, and to feel that after all there was a duty to help his parents. In such a case any reasonable person would say that that man had undergone a genuine repentance, and that his change of mind was a good thing; and that since he was now prepared to do the right thing and obey the Law of God he should be encouraged to follow that line.

The strict Scribe said, "No. Our Law says that no oath can ever be broken." He would quote Numbers 30:2 : "When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth." The Scribe would legalistically argue: "You took an oath; and for no reason can you ever break it." That is to say, the Scribe would hold a man to a reckless oath, taken in a moment of passion, an oath which actually compelled a man to break the higher law of humanity and of God.

That is what Jesus meant. He meant: "You are using your scribal interpretations, your traditions, to compel a man to dishonour his father and mother, even when he himself has repented and has seen the better way."

The strange and tragic thing was that the Scribes and Pharisees of the day were actually going against what the greatest Jewish teachers had said. Rabbi Eliezer said, "The door is opened for a man on account of his father and his mother," and he meant that, if any man had sworn an oath which dishonoured his father and his mother, and had then repented of it, the door was open to him to change his mind and to take a different way, even if an oath had been sworn. As so often, Jesus was not presenting men with unknown truth; he was reminding them of things that God had already told them, and that they had already known but had forgotten, because they had come to prefer their own man-made ingenuities to the great simplicities of the Law of God.

Here is the clash and the collision; here is the contest between two kinds of religion and two kinds of worship. To the Scribes and Pharisees religion was the observance of certain outward rules and regulations and rituals, such as the correct way to wash the hands before eating; it was the strict observance of a legalistic outlook on all life. To Jesus religion was a thing which had its seat in the heart; it was a thing which issued in compassion and kindness, which are above and beyond the law.

To the Scribes and Pharisees worship was ritual, ceremony law; to Jesus worship was the clean heart and the loving life. Here is the clash. And that clash still exists. What is worship? Even today there are many who would say that worship is not worship unless it is carried out by a priest ordained in a certain succession, in a building consecrated in a certain way, and from a liturgy laid down by a certain Church. And all these things are externals.

One of the greatest definitions of worship ever laid down was laid down by William Temple: "To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God." We must have a care lest we stand aghast at the apparent blindness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, lest we are shocked by their insistence on outward ceremonial, and at the same time be ourselves guilty of the same fault in our own way. Religion can never be founded on any ceremonies or ritual; religion must always be founded on personal relationships between man and God.


15:10-20 Jesus called the crowd and said to them: "Listen and understand. It is not that which goes into the mouth which defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, that defiles a man." Then his disciples came to him and said, "Do you know that when the Pharisees heard your saying, they were shocked by it?" He answered: "Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant will be rooted up. Let them be. They are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both of them will fall into the ditch." Peter said to him, "Tell us what this dark saying means." He said, "Are you even yet without understanding? Do you not know that everything which goes into a man's mouth goes down into the stomach, and is evacuated out into the drain? But that which comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and it is these things which defile a man. For from the heart come pernicious thoughts, acts of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, slander. It is these things which defile a man. To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."

It may well be held that for a Jew this was the most startling thing Jesus ever said. For in this saying he does not only condemn Scribal and Pharisaic ritual and ceremonial religion; he actually wipes out large sections of the book of Leviticus. This is not a contradiction of the tradition of the elders alone; this is a contradiction of scripture itself. This saying of Jesus cancels all the food laws of the Old Testament. Quite possibly these laws might still stand as matters of health and hygiene and common-sense and medical wisdom; but they could never again stand as matters of religion. Once and for all Jesus lays it down that what matters is not the state of a man's ritual observance, but the state of a man's heart.

No wonder the Scribes and Pharisees were shocked. The very ground of their religion was cut from beneath their feet. This statement was not simply alarming; it was revolutionary. If Jesus was right, their whole theory of religion was wrong. They identified religion and pleasing God with the observing of rules and regulations which had to do with cleanness and with uncleanness, with what a man ate and with how he washed his hands before he ate it; Jesus identified religion with the state of a man's heart, and said bluntly that these Pharisaic and Scribal regulations had nothing to do with religion. Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind guides who had no idea of the way to God, and that, if people followed them, all they could expect was to stray off the road and to fall into the ditch. And Jesus was profoundly right.

(i) If religion consists in external regulations and observances it is two things. It is far too easy. It is very much easier to abstain from certain foods and to wash the hands in a certain way than it is to love the unlovely and the unlovable, and to help the needy at the cost of one's own time and money and comfort and pleasure.

We have still not fully learned this lesson. To go to church regularly, to give liberally to the church, to be a member of a Bible reading circle are all external things. They are means towards religion; but they are not religion. We can never too often remind ourselves that religion consists in personal relationships and in an attitude to God and our fellow-men.

Further, if religion consists in external observances, it is quite misleading. Many a man has a faultless life in externals but has the bitterest and the most evil thoughts within his heart. The teaching of Jesus is that not all the outward observances in the world can atone for a heart where pride and bitterness and lust hold sway.

(ii) It is Jesus' teaching that the part of a man that matters is his heart. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). As Burns had it in the Epistle to Davie:

"The heart aye's the part aye

That makes us right or wrang."

What matters to God is not so much how we act, but why we act; not so much what we actually do, but what we wish in our heart of hearts to do. "Man," as Aquinas had it, "sees the deed, but God sees the intention."

It is Jesus' teaching--and it is a teaching which condemns every one of us--that no man can call himself good because he observes external rules and regulations; he can call himself good only when his heart is pure. That very fact is the end of pride, and the reason why every one of us can say only, "God be merciful to me a sinner."


15:21-28 And Jesus left there, and withdrew to the districts of Tyre and Sidon. And, look you, a Canaanite woman from these parts came and cried, "Have pity upon me, Sir, Son of David! My daughter is grievously afflicted by a demon." But he answered her not a word. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she is shrieking behind us." Jesus answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." She came and knelt in entreaty before him. "Lord," she said, "help me!" Jesus answered, "It is not right to take the children's bread, and to throw it to the pet dogs." She said, "True, Lord, but even the dogs eat of the pieces which fall from their master's table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was restored to health from that hour.

There are tremendous implications in this passage. Apart from anything else, it describes the only occasion on which Jesus was ever outside of Jewish territory. The supreme significance of the passage is that it fore-shadows the going out of the gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all the barriers.

For Jesus this was a time of deliberate withdrawal. The end was coming near; and he wished some time of quiet when he could prepare for the end. It was not so much that he wished to prepare himself, although that purpose was also in his mind, but rather that he wished some time in which he could prepare his disciples against the day of the Cross. There were things which he must tell them, and which he must compel them to understand.

There was no place in Palestine where he could be sure of privacy; wherever he went, the crowds would find him. So he went right north through Galilee until he came to the land of Tyre and Sidon where the Phoenicians dwelt. There, at least for a time, he would be safe from the malignant hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees, and from the dangerous popularity of the people, for no Jew would be likely to follow him into Gentile territory.

This passage shows us Jesus seeking a time of quiet before the turmoil of the end. This is not in any sense a picture of him running away; it is a picture of him preparing himself and his disciples for the final and decisive battle which lay so close ahead.

But even in these foreign parts Jesus was not to be free from the clamant demand of human need. There was a woman who had a daughter who was grievously afflicted. She must have heard somehow of the wonderful things which Jesus could do; and she followed him and his disciples crying desperately for help. At first Jesus seemed to pay no attention to her. The disciples were embarrassed. "Give her what she wants," they said, "and be rid of her." The reaction of the disciples was not really compassion at all; it was the reverse; to them the woman was a nuisance, and all they wanted was to be rid of her as quickly as possible. To grant a request to get rid of a person who is, or may become, a nuisance is a common enough reaction; but it is very different from the response of Christian love and pity and compassion.

But to Jesus there was a problem here. That he was moved with compassion for this woman we cannot for a moment doubt. But she was a Gentile. Not only was she a Gentile; she belonged to the old Canaanite stock, and the Canaanites were the ancestral enemies of the Jews. Even at that very time, or not much later, Josephus could write: "Of the Phoenicians, the Tyrians have the most ill-feeling towards us." We have already seen that, if Jesus was to have any effect, he had to limit his objectives like a wise general. He had to begin with the Jews; and here was a Gentile crying for mercy. There was only one thing for him to do; he must awaken true faith in the heart of this woman.

So Jesus at last turned to her: "It is not right to take the children's bread and to throw it to the pet dogs." To call a person a dog was a deadly and a contemptuous insult. The Jew spoke with arrogant insolence about "Gentile dogs," "infidel dogs," and later "Christian dogs." In those days the dogs were the unclean scavengers of the street-lean, savage, often diseased. But there are two things to remember.

The tone and the look with which a thing is said make all the difference. A thing which seems hard can be said with a disarming smile. We can call a friend "an old villain", or "a rascal", with a smile and a tone which take an the sting out of it and fill it with affection. We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus' face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.

Second, it is the diminutive word for dogs (kunaria, Greek #2952) which is used, and the kunaria (Greek #2952) were not the street dogs, but the little household pets, very different from the pariah dogs who roamed the streets and probed in the refuse heaps.

The woman was a Greek; she was quick to see, and she had all a Greek's ready wit. "True," she said, "but even the dogs get their share of the crumbs which fall from their master's table." And Jesus' eyes lit up with joy at such an indomitable faith; and he granted her the blessing and the healing which she so much desired.

THE FAITH WHICH WON THE BLESSING (Matthew 15:21-28 continued)

There are certain things about this woman which we must note.

(i) First and foremost, she had love. As Bengel said of her, "She made the misery of her child her own." Heathen she might be, but in her heart there was that love for her child which is always the reflection of God's love for his children. It was love which made her approach this stranger; it was love which made her accept his silence and yet still appeal; it was love which made her suffer the apparent rebuffs; it was love which made her able to see the compassion beyond and behind the words of Jesus. The driving force of this woman's heart was love; and there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer God than that very thing.

(ii) This woman had faith. (a) It was a faith which grew in contact with Jesus. She began by calling him Son of David; that was a popular title, a political title. It was a title which looked on Jesus as a great and powerful wonder worker, but which looked on him in terms of earthly power and glory. She came asking a boon of one whom she took to be a great and powerful man. She came with a kind of superstition as she might have come to any magician. She ended by calling Jesus Lord.

Jesus, as it were, compelled her to look at himself, and in him she saw something that was not expressible in earthly terms at all, but was nothing less than divine. That is precisely what Jesus wanted to awaken in her before he granted her request. He wanted her to see that a request to a great man must be turned into a prayer to the living God. We can see this woman's faith growing as she is confronted with Christ, until she glimpsed him, however distantly, for what he was.

(b) It was a faith which worshipped. She began by following; she ended upon her knees, She began with a request; she ended in prayer. Whenever we come to Jesus, we must come first with adoration of his majesty, and only then with the statement of our own need.

(iii) This woman had indomitable persistence. She was undiscourageable. So many people, it has been said, pray really because they do not wish to miss a chance. They do not really believe in prayer; they have only the feeling that something might just possibly happen. This woman came because Jesus was not just a possible helper; he was her only hope. She came with a passionate hope, a clamant sense of need, and a refusal to be discouraged. She had the one supremely effective quality in prayer--she was in deadly earnest. Prayer for her was no ritual form; it was the outpouring of the passionate desire of her soul, which somehow felt that she could not--and must not--and need not--take no for an answer.

(iv) This woman had the gift of cheerfulness. She was in the midst of trouble; she was passionately in earnest; and yet she could smile. She had a certain sunny-heartedness about her. God loves the cheerful faith, the faith in whose eyes there is always the light of hope, the faith with a smile which can light the gloom.

This woman brought to Christ a gallant and an audacious love, a faith which grew until it worshipped at the feet of the divine, an indomitable persistence springing from an unconquerable hope, a cheerfulness which would not be dismayed. That is the approach which cannot help finding an answer to its prayers.

THE BREAD OF LIFE (Matthew 15:29-39)

15:29-39 And Jesus left there, and went to the Sea of Galilee; and he went up into a mountain, and he was sitting there; and great crowds came to him, bringing with them people who were lame and blind and deaf and maimed, and laid them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd were amazed when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed restored to soundness, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they praised the God of Israel.

Jesus called his disciples to him. "My heart is sorry for the crowd," he said, "because they have stayed with me now for three days, and they have nothing to eat. I do not wish to send them away hungry in case they collapse on the road." The disciples said to him, "Where could we find enough loaves in a desert place to satisfy such a crowd?" Jesus said to them, "How many loaves have you?" They said, "Seven, and a few little fishes." He gave orders to the crowd to sit down on the ground, and he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and, when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they gathered what remained of the fragments, seven hampers fun. Those who ate were four thousand men, apart from women and children. When he had sent the crowds away, he embarked on the boat, and went to the district of Magadan.

We have already seen that when Jesus set out on his journey to the districts of the Phoenicians, he was entering upon a period of deliberate withdrawal that he might prepare himself and his disciples for the last days which lay ahead. One of the difficulties about the gospels is that they do not give us any definite indication of times and dates; these we have to work out for ourselves, using such hints as the story may give us. When we do, we find that Jesus' period of retiral with his disciples was very much longer than we might think from a casual reading of the story.

When Jesus fed the five thousand (Matthew 14:15-21; Mark 6:31-44), it was the spring time, for at no other time would the grass be green in that hot land (Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:39). After his discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees he withdrew to the districts of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24; Matthew 15:21). That in itself was no small journey on foot.

For the next note of time and place we go to Mark 7:31 "Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis." That was a strange way of travelling. Sidon is north of Tyre; the Sea of Galilee is south of Tyre; and the Decapolis was a confederation of ten Greek cities on the east of the Sea of Galilee. That is to say Jesus went north in order to go south. It is as if to get from one end of the base of a triangle to the other he went right round by the apex. It is as if he went from Edinburgh to Glasgow by way of Perth, or from Bristol to London by way of Manchester. It is clear that Jesus deliberately lengthened out this journey to have as long as possible with his disciples before the last journey to Jerusalem.

Finally he came to the Decapolis, where, as we learn from Mark (Mark 7:31), the incidents of our passage happened. Here we get our next hint. On this occasion when the crowd were bidden to sit down, they sat on the ground (epi (Greek #1909), ten (Greek #3588), gen (Greek #1093), on the earth; it was by this time high summer and the grass was scorched, leaving only the bare earth.

That is to say, this northern journey took Jesus almost six months. We know nothing about what happened in the course of these six months; but we can be perfectly sure that they were the most important six months through which the disciples ever lived; for in them Jesus deliberately taught and instructed them, and opened their minds to the truth. It is a thing to remember that the disciples had six months apart with Jesus before the testing time came.

Many scholars think that the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand are different versions of the same incident; but that is not so. As we have seen, the date is different; the first took place in the spring, the second in the summer. The people and the place are different. The feeding of the four thousand took place in Decapolis. Decapolis literally means ten cities, and the Decapolis was a loose federation of ten free Greek cities. On this occasion there would be many Gentiles present, perhaps more Gentiles than Jews. It is that fact that explains the curious phrase in Matthew 15:31, "They glorified the God of Israel." To the Gentile crowds this was a demonstration of the power of the God of Israel. There is another curious little hint of difference. In the feeding of the five thousand the baskets which were used to take up the fragments are called kophinoi (Greek #2894); in the feeding of the four thousand they are called sphurides (Greek #4711). The kophinos (Greek #2894) was a narrow-necked, flask-shaped basket which Jews often carried with them, for a Jew often carried his own food, lest he should be compelled to eat food which had been touched by Gentile hands and was therefore unclean. The sphuris (Greek #4711) was much more like a hamper; it could be big enough to carry a man, and it was a kind of basket that a Gentile would use.

The wonder of this story is that in these healings and in this feeding of the hungry, we see the mercy and the compassion of Jesus going out to the Gentiles. Here is a kind of symbol and foretaste that the bread of God was not to be confined to the Jews; that the Gentiles were also to have their share of him who is the living bread.

THE GRACIOUSNESS OF JESUS (Matthew 15:29-39 continued)

In this passage we see fully displayed the graciousness and the sheer kindness of Jesus Christ. We see him relieving every kind of human need.

(i) We see him curing physical disability. The lame, the maimed, the blind and the dumb are laid at his feet and cured. Jesus is infinitely concerned with the bodily pain of the world; and those who bring men health and healing are still doing the work of Jesus Christ.

(ii) We see him concerned for the tired. The people are tired and he wants to strengthen their feet for a long, hard road. Jesus is infinitely concerned for the world's wayfarers, for the world's toilers, for those whose eyes are weary and whose hands are tired.

(iii) We see him feeding the hungry. We see him giving all he has to relieve physical hunger and physical need. Jesus is infinitely concerned for men's bodies, just as he is for their souls.

Here we see the power and the compassion of God going out to meet the many needs of the human situation.

In writing of this passage Edersheim has a lovely thought: he points out that in three successive stages of his ministry, Jesus ended each stage by setting a meal before his people. First, there was the feeding of the five thousand; that came at the end of his ministry in Galilee, for Jesus was never to teach and preach and heal in Galilee again. Second, there was this feeding of the four thousand. This came at the end of his brief ministry to the Gentiles, beyond the bounds of Palestine--first in the districts of Tyre and Sidon and then in the Decapolis. Third and last, there was the Last Supper in Jerusalem, when Jesus came to the final stage of the days of his flesh.

Here indeed is a lovely thought. Jesus always left men with strength for the way; always he gathered men to him to feed them with the living bread. Always he gave them himself before he moved on. And still he comes to us offering us also the bread which will satisfy the immortal hunger of the human soul, and in the strength of which we shall be able to go all the days of our life.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 15:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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Friday, January 17th, 2020
the First Week after Epiphany
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