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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 15

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-20

A Debate Over What Is "Pure" and "Impure"

(15:1-20; see Mark 7:1-23)

The Pharisees and scribes who question Jesus come "from Jerusalem." Doubtless they have been charged with keeping an eye on these Galileans whose piety was considered not strict enough, and particularly on this new rabbi who had too much to say. The attack was based on the fact that the disciples did not wash their hands before meals. Jesus counterattacked by posing another question, a device very similar to rabbinic methods of argument. To "tradition" he opposed "the commandment of God."

Tradition," or "the tradition of the elders," is a standard term to designate the oral tradition which little by little was created as a kind of jurisprudence for the purpose of explaining and adapting the Mosaic Law to the needs of the time. In this fashion some very strict ritual prescriptions were developed with regard to the ablutions which should precede eating in order to avoid all ceremonial defilement (see Mark 7:3-4). In his reply Jesus alluded to another tradition: one could declare "Corban" that is, devoted to God the goods which ought to have been used to aid his parents. This was a vow which discharged him who pronounced it from family obligations, yet did not deprive him of the use of his goods! Jesus set over against such traditions the Word of God the fifth commandment of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:12) and the severe judgment which follows in Exodus 21:17. He also applied to his questioners a word of Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13): they honor God in words but not in heart. Verses 10-11 take up again the heart of the question posed by the scribes. It is not foods which defile a man but that which "comes out of the mouth" evil words.

The disciples inform Jesus of the "scandal" which his words provoked (vs. 12). The word means literally "something which causes to stumble." But Jesus is not troubled. God knows his own, and all that he has not planted will be uprooted. His will be the sorting, his the harvest! u Let them alone." The Pharisees are "blind." They do not discern the signs of the coming Kingdom. That is why they "fall" and involve others in their ruin.

The parable of verse 11 seems clear; nevertheless, the disciples ask for an explanation (vss. 15-20; compare Matthew 13:10-16). Could their desire for an explanation be rooted in the manner in which Jesus rejects established traditions, such as those concerning ritual ablutions? There is something so revolutionary in his attitude that their minds have difficulty in following him. Jesus explains that nothing exterior can defile a man, but only that which comes "out of the heart." Verse 19 recalls the Ten Commandments. Here, as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes behind the act to the thought which has prompted it (Matthew 5:21-48). To all exterior practices he sets in opposition the conversion of the heart which is the mark of the New Age (see Jeremiah 31:33). Here again, it is because Jesus inaugurates the New Age that he can free his own from bondage to tradition. Religious conformity can be only a mask thrown over the wickedness of the heart.

Verses 21-28

The Faith of a Gentile (15:21-28)

There is perhaps a deliberate contrast here between this story and the preceding one, between the unbelief of the "officials" of Israel and the humble faith of this Gentile. Matthew recounts in a singularly vivid but much more brutal fashion than Mark (see Mark 7:24-30) the impatience of the disciples and the harshness of Jesus 1 replies. Jesus has once more withdrawn to a distance from the Galilean crowds. He has crossed the Syrian frontier, no doubt to search for a little bit of silence and calm with his disciples.

The saying of verse 24, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" brings to mind a similar word spoken at the time of the sending of the Twelve on their mission (Matthew 10:5-6). We have seen in that connection that it did not involve any racial exclusivism but was solely a question of priority in time. In the Messianic Age the gathering of Israel must precede and prepare for the gathering of the nations. It is to the children of the election and the promise that the grace of God must first be offered, because of the vocation which is theirs and the responsibility which it entails. But here the prayer of the woman is made entreatingly. It is the true cry of faith: "Lord, help me." Jesus still withstands the request. Or can it be that he wishes to test this newborn faith? "It is not fair to take the children’s bread . . ." The woman accepts this priority of the "children"; she only asks for "the crumbs," Her humility matches that of the centurion, "I am not worthy" (Matthew 8:8). That Gentile man and this Gentile woman count upon the liberating word as pure grace with no justification whatever. It is in this that their faith is "great" Are they not given to Jesus by the Father as the first fruits of the future harvest?

Verses 29-39

Various Healings and the Second Miracle of Loaves (15:29-39)

We have seen that Matthew likes to frame his particular stories in more general descriptions designed to make the abundance of Jesus’ activity and his success with the crowds stand out (Matthew 14:34-36; also 4:23-25; 9:35). The description in verses 30-31 recalls Isaiah 35:5-6. The crowds were in admiration and "glorified the God of Israel" They recognized the hand of the Living God in Jesus’ activity, and to him their praises went forth (Matthew 5:16).

These healings take place in "the hills." Jesus is at a distance from the villages, perhaps with a desire to flee publicity. But "the hills" are for the evangelists a reminder of Sinai. It is on a mountain that God traditionally reveals his presence and his power, it is there that he speaks and acts (Matthew 5:1; Matthew 14:23; Matthew 15:29; Matthew 17:1-2; Mark 3:13).

The story in verses 32-39 reminds us in detail, almost to the exact figures, of the story in 14:15-21. Jesus is moved with "compassion" for this crowd which has just passed "three days" without anything "to eat," and he feeds them. The question naturally arises whether we do not have here a slightly different version of the same event. The story confronts us at one and the same time with an act of human compassion and a Messianic act wherein the great power of the Lord is revealed (see Mark 8:1-9).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 15". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-15.html.
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