‘Then there come to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying,’
Pharisees and Scribes (learned Teachers of the Law) now come down from Jerusalem to check on Jesus’ activities. It was in fact the responsibility of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin to check up on all who claimed to teach. Now it was Jesus’ turn. Their opposition would bring out the difference between what He had brought and what they could offer.
The adding of the words ‘from Jerusalem’ here heightens the sense of the opposition. He is now being opposed not only by his own country and by Herod, but by Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem was seen by all Jews as the centre of their religion, and as the source of truth. To Jerusalem they sent their Temple tax. To Jerusalem they made their pilgrimages. From Jerusalem they received their religious guidance. It was the centre of the Jewish world. So now Jesus was being opposed by the Teachers at the very centre of Judaism. (Mark mentions previous approaches from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22) which Matthew plays down (Matthew 12:24), but we are probably to see that this is a more official deputation, not just an investigative foray, compare Mark 7:1).
The Challenge From Jerusalem (15:1-9).
In chapters 11-12, after the discourse in chapter 10, Matthew had begun by drawing attention to the imprisonment of John (Matthew 11:2), spoke of the opposition of he Pharisees (Matthew 12:1-14), and led on to the approach of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 12:38), now after the discourse in chapter 13 he is repeating the pattern, but with an increase in intensity. He first describes the imprisonment and death of John in Matthew 14:1-12, and he now describes the arrival of Pharisees and Scribesfrom Jerusalem. (Note the change in order of Scribes and Pharisees following Matthew’s regular chiastic method). Their opposition is seen to be hotting up. Now they are no longer just seeking a sign, but are here to challenge His whole approach at what they see as one of the central points in their disagreement, the requirement for ritual washing. Along with the Sabbath, ritual washing was a central feature in their whole system. They had taken up the Scriptural teaching on washing with water and had expanded it into a daily process. It was their way of daily maintaining their ‘purity’ in the face of an ‘unclean’ world, because they saw themselves as God’s own people and separated off from both the riff raff among the Jews who ‘did not keep the Law’, and from the Gentiles who had no Law, and as therefore needing to maintain their separateness. But it was a ritually obtained separation, not a genuine separation in holiness of life. And as far as Jewish readers were involved it was necessary to demonstrate how Jesus had dealt with this question before progressing to His ministry to the Gentiles in Matthew 15:21 following. For otherwise they would have asked themselves how He could so easily accept Gentiles.
The importance of the passage is enormous because it emphasises that all tradition must be judged against the Scriptures. Jesus was counteracting what He saw as the latest ‘heresies’ by appeal to the Scriptures as the sole determining authority of what could be required of a man in God’s Name. He wanted to break through the surface ritual to the heart, and to bring out that what should be of most concern was right moral living springing from a true faith in God.
The passages that follow can also be seen as an illustration of the difference between ‘the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees’ and the righteousness required by Jesus (compare Matthew 5:20, and see also chapter 23), the former mainly ritualistic, the latter requiring obedience to God’s moral requirements.
a Then there come to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:1-2).
b And He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).
c “For God said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’ (Matthew 15:4 a).
d And, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death’.” (Matthew 15:4 b).
d “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or his mother, That by which you might have benefited from me is given to God’ (Matthew 15:5).
c “He need not honour his father” (Matthew 15:6 a).
b “And you have made void the word of God because of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6 b).
a “You hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men’ ” (Matthew 15:7-9).
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus is accused of transgressing the traditions of men, and in the parallel Jesus retaliates that their traditions of men are precisely that, and therefore their worship is in vain. In ‘b’ He accuses them of transgressing the commandment of God by their tradition, and in the parallel of voiding the word of God by their tradition. In ‘c’ He declares that God’s command is that they honour father and mother, and in the parallel their behaviour says that they need no honour their father. In ‘d’ to speak evil of father and mother is to incur the judgment, and in the parallel he describes how they speak evil towards their father and mother.
“Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
The challenge of the deputation was immediately concerning what they saw as His most important failure, that of maintaining ritual purity among His disciples in accordance with the rules laid down by the Elders (leading men of old) of the past. Their charge was not against Him as such, which suggests that He usually (although not always - Luke 11:38) scrupulously sought to follow the principles that they saw as necessary. He did not want to cause offence unnecessarily. The charge here was that He was lax in not ensuring that His disciples did the same, and must therefore take responsibility for it.
This was not describing a hygienic washing of hands to remove dirt, but a formal ceremony of pouring water over the hands in a certain way which was thought to remove ritual defilement resulting from contact with defiled people or things, and was repeated throughout the meal. The belief was apparently that ritual ‘uncleanness’ obtained through contact with an ‘unclean’ world (which did not ritually purify itself) could be passed on to the food, which when eaten then made the inside of a man ‘unclean’. This was not Scriptural teaching. It took Scriptural teaching to extremes. The closest the Scriptures came to this was that eating an animal that ‘died of itself’ rather than being properly slaughtered resulted in uncleanness. But there it was temporary uncleanness. The Pharisees saw the world as permanently unclean and feared partaking of that uncleanness when they ate. They overlooked the fact that Scripture had been concerned by its laws of uncleanness to inculcate wholesomeness of living to a fairly unsophisticated people, and to indicate that all that was in one way or another connected with death was unwholesome. They had instead turned the world into a permanently ritually unclean place.
Note on the Washing of Hands.
‘They do not wash their hands.’ This lay at the centre of the argument. It was not, of course, a question of whether to wash the hands before meals for hygienic purposes (although it undoubtedly aided hygiene), but was rather a question of ritual washing to remove ‘religious defilement’, that is, what resulted from contact with what was ritually doubtful and ceremonially unclean. Indeed they laid great stress on these requirements. But in fact this particular ritual washing described here was an addition to the Law, for it was nowhere commanded in the Old Testament.
So rather than being excited about this new interest in God which was being aroused by Jesus, and the new sense of sin which was bringing men to repentance and morally and spiritually changing their lives, they had come to drag Jesus down into the pool of detailed ritualism.
Of what then did such defilement consist? To the Pharisees all Gentiles were unclean for a start, for they did not observe any of the rules of ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ (Leviticus 11-15) and were not careful about contact with dead things. Furthermore anything touched by them also became unclean (hollow vessels only if touched on the inside). And similar defilement was seen, although not to the same extent, as being connected with ‘sinners’. A ‘sinner’ was someone who did not tithe rightly or who did not follow the strict purification requirements of the Pharisees, or someone whose occupation resulted in regular uncleanness (e.g. a tanner). Thus while such people may mainly have observed the requirements of the Books of Moses, they did not do so in the terms laid down by the Pharisees. To come in contact with either of these two groups, Gentiles and ‘sinners’, was thus to be defiled. So their views necessarily excluded them from close contact with the majority of people.
According to them if a man went to the marketplace he may well accidentally be ‘contaminated’ by contact with such people (although he would make every effort to avoid them) and would therefore need afterwards to make himself clean in accordance with the teachings of the Pharisees. But the idea had been added that that uncleanness could then be passed on to the food that they ate and thus become internal. In order to avoid this therefore they needed to follow out the procedures for ritual washing before they ate each part of their meals. It was a world of religious isolation.
It should be carefully observed that this argument is not about the strict Levitical requirements with respect to cleanness. The Levitical requirements were mainly involved in a rather complicated way with the avoidance of anything tainted by death (or blood). God was the living God, and the wholesome way was the way of life. So anyone who touched a dead body became unclean, as did anyone who touched a woman after child birth or a skin-diseased person, or a woman during her period, or a leper, or an unclean animal. And anyone who touched anyone who had touched any of these was unclean, and so on. If such an unclean person had touched cups, or pots (measures) or brass vessels these utensils too might have become unclean depending on where they were touched. These too had to be specially cleansed. And of course, if there was any doubt at all they had to be cleansed. In some cases, such as contact specifically with death, the cleansing took seven days, for others it only lasted until the evening, but these ideas were not primarily what the argument was about. Both sets of people, disciples and Pharisees, conformed with these requirements. There was no dispute about that. It was the question of daily ritual washings of the hands that was in question here, and whether a man could become ‘unclean’ as a result of the food that he ate, and of whether such things should be central to the teaching concerning the Kingly Rule of God.
The Pharisees believed that because of the possibility of unknown contamination by persons who were ritually unclean, and the way that that could be passed on, it was necessary to wash both before every meal and in between courses. And this involved a very complicated process. The water for washing had to be taken from large stone jars which had been kept ‘clean’ so that the water itself was kept clean. Such water could be used for no other purpose. First all dirt had to be removed (a good principle). Then the hands might be held with the fingers pointed upwards and water was poured over them and had to run down to at least the wrist. Then while the hands were wet each had to be cleansed, seemingly with ‘the fist’ of the other. Probably by the joint action of rubbing the palm over the fist. But the water was now unclean so the hands were then held downwards and water poured over them again so that it began at the wrists and ran off the end of the fingers. That was one way of doing it. Alternately this might all be done by dipping the hands up to the wrist in a vessel containing clean water, again apparently rubbing on ‘the fist’. Then the hands were clean.
And if you went on a journey you had to ensure that you had the means to do this. This was what the Pharisees required, and this was what these accused disciples had failed to do (the phrase ‘your disciples’ may not necessarily mean that the twelve were included. ‘Disciples’ can mean the twelve, but it can also include the wider group. It is not a strictly defined number).
‘The traditions of the elders.’ These included past decisions of scribes, some made long before the time of Christ, on the teaching in the first five books of the Bible (‘The Torah or Law’). These formed the oral law and were remembered by rote and passed on, and would subsequently be recorded (as considerably expanded later) in the Mishnah in the second century AD. They covered many aspects of life in great detail and had to be assiduously learned by the pious Jew to ensure he always did the ‘right’ thing. The question was not necessarily of being morally right as we shall see, but of being religiously right. There were over six hundred of these ‘instructions’. Some were very helpful, but others were at the best pedantic and at the worst ridiculous. (So by citing some of these instructions we can make the Rabbis appear very wise, for they said some very sensible things, or totally foolish because they had often allowed themselves to stray into saying things that seemed right at the time but were in fact rather inane, as can so easily happen to regulations when pressed too far).
What began as a helpful interpretation of Scripture had slowly developed into a hotchpotch of regulations which so interpreted the Law as to make it seemingly attainable, although only with great effort, and crowded out consideration of more important matters. And sadly it was often a manipulation of the Law in order to enable them to ‘keep the covenant’ faithfully, and establish their own righteousness to their own satisfaction.
Paul had been like this. He pointed out that he had striven to attain ‘the righteousness of the Law’ and had seen himself as almost there, as blameless (Philippians 3:6). And then he had come across the commandment, “You shall not covet” and had looked in his heart and had discovered that he was still guilty (Romans 7:7), and that all his carefully built up righteousness had come crashing down. He had recognised that all his careful observances of ritual law had not made his heart and will pure, and that all his efforts had therefore been in vain.
End of note.
‘And he answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?”
The Scribes had asked Him why He transgressed the traditions of the great elders of the past, the revered Teachers of old. As mentioned above these were, among other things, Rabbinic interpretations of the Law (that is, pronouncements by Teachers as to what the Law required), and in the case in point had in mind ritual washings. His counter-reply was powerful. ‘Why did they transgress the commandmentsof Godby following those traditions?’. His point is that it was far more important to follow God’s clearly stated commandment than to follow doubtful traditions of men, and especially so when that tradition actually contradicts the Law. And He then proceeds to give an example
“For God said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’, and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death’.”
He points out that God had declared that a man must honour his father and mother and must not say anything that might result in their harm. Indeed were they to do so they should be subject to capital punishment. Theoretically all his listeners would have agreed with those injunctions. Had He stopped there they would all have solemnly agreed that they believed that as well. But He then points out that in fact they were failing to keep these injunctions because of certain rulings that they had passed, thus invalidating God’s word.
a “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or his mother, ‘That by which you might have benefited from me is given to God’, he need not honour his father.”
He points to one ruling whereby a man could withhold his wealth from helping his father and mother. By dedicating his wealth to the Temple in terms of an oath (without actually having to give anything, and ensuring that the oath would at some time terminate) he could point out that he could no longer give it away to them because it was the Temple’s. For the rule was that while he could use for himself what was kept under oath, he could not give it away. However, Jesus said, the use of the Temple in this way was to make a mockery of God’s commandment. They were using faithfulness to the very God Who had commanded them to honour father and mother as a reason why they should not do so, and that not honestly, but as a result of deviousness. This is, of course, a simplification of the situation, but as there was no comeback it would seem that they could not deny the truth of what He was saying. Thus clearly some such behaviour was well known. The Rabbis would indeed later legislate so that this excuse could no longer be used, possibly recognising the truth in what Jesus had said.
“And you have made void the word of God because of your tradition.”
Thus, He declares, they have made God’s clear word void by their own tradition. They have avoided a clear command of God, by making use of their tradition.
“You hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, “This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.”
He then brings His verdict on them from the Scriptures. Once again it is Isaiah that is in mind and specifically cited. For Isaiah had spoken of men who honoured God with their lips, while being far from Him and His will in their hearts, just like these men were. They talked as though God meant a great deal to them, and then behaved as if He meant nothing at all. And Isaiah had then declared that because of it their worship was in vain, because the teaching that they taught was that of men, not of God.
‘Of you.’ That is, of you who claim to be God’s people Israel. He is conjoining His hearers with those of old, for the Scriptures speak to all. They were no different in this way than their forefathers.
The quotation is probably based on a Hebrew text available to Matthew which was fairly close to that on which LXX was based, examples of which are found at Qumran.
‘You hypocrites.’ They pretended one thing, while the truth was quite different. They put on a show of godliness without it being true godliness.
Jesus Stresses That It Is What Is Within A Man That Defiles Him, And Not What Enters Him From Outside.
Jesus now goes to the root of the question of religious defilement. The Pharisees saw it in terms of the laws of cleanness and uncleanness, and by applying those to their utmost limit. Jesus in contrast stresses that such things affect men little. What is most important to God is what is within a man, the things which fashion his attitudes and behaviour.
The fact must not be overlooked that the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (e.g. Leviticus 11-15) had been very important to Israel. They had not only undoubtedly prevented a good deal of disease, but they had inculcated the ideas of positive uprightness and wholesomeness of life. At one end of the spectrum was the living God, at the other was death and unwholesomeness. The One was to be approached, and they must seek to be like Him, and the other was to be avoided. In days when hygienic cleanliness had been very much a secondary consideration, especially under the conditions in which men in those days lived, this had made Israel unique among the nations as a nation that sought after wholesomeness. But by the time of Jesus this had become no longer quite so relevant. What was now more important was what was in men’s hearts. And that is what Jesus now proceeds to deal with.
But nothing brings out more the sensible nature of the laws of uncleanness than working in a hospital. Let the standards of ‘cleanliness’ drop and the hospital becomes a place of death, just as could so easily have happened to the camp of Israel. The difference is that we recognise better the reasons that in this case lie behind it.
a And he called to him the crowd, and said to them, “Hear, and understand” (Matthew 15:10).
b “It is not what enters into the mouth which defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11 a).
c “But what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11 b).
d Then the disciples came, and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?” (Matthew 15:12).
e But he answered and said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant, will be rooted up” (Matthew 15:13).
f “Let them alone. They are blind guides” (Matthew 15:14 a).
e “And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14 b).
d And Peter answered and said to him, “Declare to us the parable.” And he said, “Are you also even yet without understanding?” (Matthew 15:15-16).
c “Do you not perceive that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the digestive system, and is cast out into the draught? But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings. These are the things which defile the man” (17-19b).
b “But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (Matthew 15:20 b).
a And Jesus went out from there, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon
Note that in ‘a’ He called to Him the crowds, and in the parallel He went from there and withdrew. In ‘b’ He declares that what enters the mouth does not defile a man, while in the parallel eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man. In ‘c’ it is what proceeds from the mouth that defiles a man, and in the parallel a full explanation of why that is so is given. In ‘d’ the Pharisees are said to have stumbled at this saying, and in the parallel the disciples also want an explanation. In ‘e’ the Pharisees have not been planted by His heavenly Father and will be rooted up, and in the parallel they are blind guides and will fall into the pit. Centrally the Pharisees are to be left alone because they are blind guides.
‘And he called to him the crowd, and said to them, “Hear, and understand.” ’
Jesus first calls the crowd, who have been aware of His spat with the Pharisees and Scribes, but who had probably been standing back out of respect for them. After all these were the great Teachers of the Law. And He calls them to come and listen to what He now has to say. He stresses to them the necessity for deep thought. They are to listen, and make sure that they understand. It is as important as that. For if they do not they will continue with their old superstitions.
“It is not what enters into the mouth which defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”
Genuine religious defilement in the eyes of God is not caused by what men eat, but by what is inside a man and comes out in what he says. As He has previously warned, ‘For every idle word that a man shall speak, he will give account of it in the Day of Judgment’ (Matthew 12:36). It is such words that reveal what is truly in a man’s heart. If the question is, ‘How are we to tell what a man is really like?’, the reply is, ‘Listen, not to his prepared words, but to his idle words’, his words spoken when he is off guard. Then we will know what is truly in his heart.
So Jesus is bringing out the lesson that the most defiling thing about a man is his sinfulness. It is found in what he thinks, and reasons and wills. It is not found in what has been made unclean by touch. By this Jesus was seeking to turn people from an obsession with religious ritual, to genuine godliness of living. His point is that God was most pleased when His people lived righteously and compassionately, as the prophets had constantly said. (See e.g. Isaiah 1:11-20; Micah 6:8).
Then the disciples came, and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?” ’
The disciples then approached Jesus and explained to Him that He had ‘offended’ the Pharisees. They had clearly not dared to face Him with it, for they could not confute what He said, and they were afraid that He might say more. But they spoke loudly enough behind His back. His words had, as it were, ‘tripped them up’ and ‘made them stumble’ (skandalizo), with the result that they were furiously angry. The disciples were concerned because they had still not fully lost their awe of the Pharisees and the Scribes, for from earliest days they had been brought up to respect and admire them as godly men. Thus they possibly felt that Jesus was offending them unnecessarily. But Jesus knew that what was now in the balance was the whole of what He had come to do. There was no question of compromise here.
The Pharisees and Scribes were at this stage taking Judaism up a side road of ritualistic practise that could only lead to a dead end of total sterility, something that they were partly saved from by the destruction of Jerusalem which brought about a total rethink of their position, and probably, although they would have hated to admit it, partly by the influence of Jesus, for some would certainly have taken note of His strictures and recognised the truth in them sufficiently to partly revise their views, even if not wholly. Thus while ritual still retained great importance, they did not in the end lose sight of the importance of moral behaviour towards non-Jews.
‘But he answered and said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant, will be rooted up.” ’
Jesus reply here may well have had the parable of the tares (darnel) in mind (Matthew 13:38-40). Every plant which has not been planted by His heavenly Father must be rooted up, (for those planted by the Lord see Psalms 1:3; Isaiah 60:21; Isaiah 61:3; For rooting up see Ezekiel 17:9). When it came to God’s truth there was no place for the Pharisees unless they changed their whole attitude. Men must now turn from the ritual which had been built up to a full response to the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Thus unless the Pharisees came under the Kingly Rule of Heaven by responding to Him, they would have to be removed from their place.
God’s solution, however, is simple (if difficult) and is described here. Look at what comes out of the inner man in behaviour. If that is right other things will begin to fall into place. But if that is wrong, all the rest is a waste of time. There can be no true religion without true morality. God's solution, however, is simple (if difficult) and is described here. Look at what comes out of the inner man in behaviour. If that is right other things will begin to fall into place. But if that is wrong, all the rest is a waste of time. There can be no true religion without true morality.
Here then was a clear indication that Pharisaic belief as a whole was not of God’s planting. What was required therefore was a turning back to the Scriptures. It was those who responded to God’s true Servant, and who obeyed Him and His words, who would become ‘trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord’ (Isaiah 61:3). For they would reveal the true righteousness. They would be the ‘sons of the Kingly Rule’ who were planted by God (Matthew 13:38), who would ‘seek first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). It was they, who served God from the heart, who were really doing what God wanted.
“Let them alone. They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
In contrast the Pharisees must be left to themselves, for they are blind guides, and anyone who follows them will, with them, fall into a ditch. It would seem that the Pharisees did actually claim to be ‘guides to the blind’. But Jesus’ picture is vivid. There was a great deal of blindness in the ancient world, and very little help for the blind. The blind very often did lead the blind, for no one else would. And the consequence would often be disastrous for there were many unseen pits around. In the same way, says Jesus, these men who claimed that they could see, and who offered to lead those who were religiously blind, were in fact blind and would only lead men into a spiritual ditch. And that is why He was revealing their blindness. ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who see not might see, and that those who see may become (be revealed as) blind’ (see John 9:39-41). This idea of spiritual blindness is a constant theme of Jesus (Matthew 13:15; Matthew 23:16; Matthew 23:24; John 9:39-41), as it was of the prophets.
‘And Peter answered and said to him, “Declare to us the parable.” ’
That the disciples were wrestling with this problem was understandable. For years they had grown up believing that in general the Pharisees’ way was the right way, even if they had nor fully followed it. They had grown up recognising the importance of ritual for their lives as being of prime importance. It was therefore difficult for them to thrust all that aside and see everything from a new perspective. And if they were to do so they must ensure that they had got it right. So Peter, on their behalf, bravely speaks up again, asks for an explanation of Jesus’ words, and has to take the gentle rebuke addressed to them all. Here ‘parable’ simply means ‘a saying’, although a saying with an inner meaning. The problem was, what did Jesus really mean?
‘And he said, “Are you also even yet without understanding?” ’
Jesus words are a gentle rebuke to them all. Do they still not understand after all this time. Are they still so bound to ritualistic ideas? The cloak of ritualism is hard to throw off, for it gives comfort to men even when they do not deserve comfort. But ritual is intended to turn men’s hearts and minds away from itself to the lessons that lie behind it. Once it becomes an end in itself it is dead, and ministers death. And that was what had happened with many of the Pharisees. The doctrine of the need for the washing of hands so as to prevent uncleanness passing through the mouth into a person was totally false and based on false conceptions.
“Do you not perceive that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the digestive system, and is cast out into the draught?”
So His disciples need to recognise that when something is eaten it goes through the digestive system, and that what then remains, leaves their bodies as waste and goes into the latrine. It takes no uncleanness in and it leaves no uncleanness behind. Thus it cannot cause religious defilement. (This has nothing to do with whether it can cause physical problems). So the idea that food can pass on religious contamination is to be seen as a fallacy.
“But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man.”
On the other hand the things which can really defile a man religiously and morally (parallel ideas in those days) are the things that are revealed by what comes from the mouth in the words that a man speaks (compare Matthew 12:36-37). For it is they which come from the heart, and demonstrate what is in the heart. They, as it were, reproduce what is in the inner man.
‘Out of the mouth.’ This is in contrast with what goes in at the mouth earlier. What comes out of the mouth reveals the evil thoughts of men. The list that follows does not specifically keep the mouth in mind, but Jesus was well aware that in the end all these sins would in one way or another result in words which would reveal an evil heart.
“For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings.”
Here ‘evil thoughts’ is probably a summary of what is then given in detail. Thus the idea here is that evil thoughts come from the ‘heart’ (that is, from the mind and will and inner being of a man). And that these evil thoughts then reveal themselves in such behaviour as murder, adultery, all sexually irresponsible behaviour, theft, and false witness. Note that here in Matthew these follow the order of the second section of the ten commandments, and much of what is in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5. They are then followed by ‘railings’ (‘blasphemia’ - injurious speech whether of God or men) which replaces ‘covetousness’, but this may contain within it the idea that men do in fact rail against God and man because they do not get what they want. Thus their covetousness is revealed by what comes from their mouths. All this includes the idea in James that the tongue can be ‘a little member --- set on fire by Hell’ (James 3:5-6) because of the harm that it can do. Notice also that adultery has been expanded to include all irresponsible sexual behaviour. Men murder, and hate, and destroy each other, and as they do so their tongues will reveal it in various ways. And they behave sexually irresponsibly, and steal, and cheat, and cannot be trusted, and belabour others and thereby again reveal themselves for what they are. And all of them will in one way or another result in words that come from the mouth. So it is not the world that contaminates them. It is they who contaminate the world.
Thus it is the evil thoughts within a person, which result in evil actions and in evil words, which are the true measure of uncleanness.
“These are the things which defile the man. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”
It is such things that really defile a person. But eating with unwashed hands (while not a good idea hygienically) cannot defile the inner man. Thus Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are concentrating attention in the wrong place. They think of themselves as pure, and as all the problems being outside in the ‘world’. Thus they think that by ritual they will be able to keep themselves acceptable to God. But the truth is the opposite. The real problem with ‘uncleanness’ is that it is within our hearts because we are ‘evil’ (Matthew 7:11; Matthew 7:17-18; Matthew 9:4; Matthew 12:34), that is, are ungodlike, and ruled by passion and prejudice and false belief. It is true that we are to keep ourselves free from the taint of the world (1 John 2:15-17) but in the end our main problem is with ourselves. Thus while we do need cleansing, it will not be accomplished with water. For in fact in the Old Testament water never ‘cleanses’. Unless conjoined with sacrifices water is only ever preparatory to cleansing and ‘bathing’ is regularly accompanied by the phrase ‘and will not be clean until the evening’. Thus the Pharisees had actually to twist a basic premise of Scripture in order to suit their purpose.
‘But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.’ As Matthew often does he sums up by referring back to what started the incident (see Matthew 15:2). Compare Matthew 12:45 with Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:12 with Matthew 16:6. He is not suggesting that the whole incident has been limited to this question, but that the initial question has been answered.
Note On Cleanness and Uncleanness.
It will be noted that Jesus is not here commenting on the Levitical laws of cleanness and uncleanness which are not in question. Nor is He oversetting them. He is concerned with a ritual which has grown up in the tradition, which is actually misrepresenting the significance of the genuine ritual. He considers therefore that the attitude of the Pharisees towards ritual is basically at fault. Thus He does not discuss which ritual is valid and which is not. Rather His answer gets to the root of the question as to what should be of prime importance in a person’s life with God. Given that a person wants to please God, and be pleasing to Him, His whole point is that the Pharisees’ concentration on the wrong things has led them totally astray. They have made ritual the arbiter of everything else, and in order to bolster their position have introduced false ritual. In their view it is right ritual that determines people’s standing with God. He on the other hand makes the attitude of the heart central. His point is that God looks not at the externals but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The purpose of any ritual was, in fact, to make people have the right attitude of heart. While it accomplishes that, therefore, it may be retained. But the logic of that is that once the ritual failed in bringing about the right attitude of heart it should be dispensed with, which is why later that is what happened. Once people had in Jesus the Great Example (Hebrews 12:1-2), the lesser examples could fall away, and that would then include the wider ritual also.
The Scribes and Pharisees had introduced the new ritual of the washing of hands because they had the wrong idea about the ritual. Nowhere had the old ritual suggested that men were constantly being defiled day by day, as a result of general contacts. It had dealt with uncleanness arising from specific known cases. Nor had it suggested that that uncleanness could be removed by bathing in water. Bathing in water was in fact preparatory to other methods of dealing with uncleanness. It removed external dirt from the flesh (compare 1 Peter 3:21) so that men could then wait on God. There was in fact no instant way of removing ritual uncleanness. Such removal always required the passage of time.
The purpose of the laws of cleanness and uncleanness was in order to bring out the wholesomeness and perfection of the living God. At the other end of the spectrum was the sphere of death and unwholesomeness. Within the spectrum were different levels of uncleanness which related to death and blood, and different levels of unwholesomeness. Its purpose was in order to encourage people to live wholesome lives, and to avoid what was unwholesome. Thus clean creatures lived in the right sphere and avoided the dust of death. Unclean creatures lived in unwholesome spheres and were connected with the dust of death. Skin disease was a living death and must not come within the camp. Sexual excretions were a giving out of life, thus rendering a person closer to death, or in the case of blood were a direct giving out of life. Eating animals whose blood had not been offered to God was to partake of death. To touch what was dead resulted in being contaminated by death. And so on. But in most cases, once an unclean situation had been remedied, being restored simply mainly required the passage of a certain length of time in isolation after washing in water, sometimes connected with other ritual.
Jesus did not criticise these ideas. To Him wholesome living was important. It was a very different matter when He considered the ideas of the Scribes and Pharisees. They contributed not to wholesomeness but to superstition and prejudice, and suggested that water could wash away uncleanness. However, there is no doubt that His treatment of their misrepresentation brought out the non-necessity for the laws of uncleanness (as Mark 7:19 b discerns) once His own death and resurrection had produced a better example for men to look to. People who could look to the crucified and risen Christ no longer needed examples of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. In that they had all the lessons that they needed. Thus in Acts 10 God revealed to Peter that the laws of uncleanness need no longer apply.
End of note.
‘And Jesus went out from there, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon.’
Aware of opposition growing all around Jesus now withdrew again and moved into the areas around Tyre and Sidon. These were in non-Jewish territory to the north of Palestine, and outside the jurisdiction of Herod and the influence of the Jerusalem Scribes. Tyre and Sidon were two seaports on the Mediterranean coast in Phoenicia. Jesus had earlier spoken of them as cities which would have believed had they seen the Messianic works performed that were performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida (Matthew 11:21-22). This may in fact be partly why Matthew mentions their names, for now one of their residents will be given that opportunity, but the main reason is in order to signal the new turn that Jesus’ ministry is taking. From now on He will spend much less time in Galilee.
It will have been noticed that (except in the mouth of Jesus - Matthew 11:21-24; Matthew 12:41) Matthew names no towns apart from Capernaum. He seems rather to favour districts, and even then it is seemingly in order to indicate movement between Jewish and Gentile territory. That is the case with this reference to the parts of Tyre and Sidon. Other similar references are as follows:
‘Coming to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes’ (Matthew 8:28). Here He was coming to Gentile territory, and from there they ‘crossed over and came to His own city’ (Matthew 9:1), which explains how He returned to Galilee.
‘Crossing over they came to the land, to Gennesaret’ in Galilee (Matthew 14:34). This indicates that they had come from Gentile territory, which they had reached earlier by boat (Matthew 14:13), and which was on ‘the other side’ (Matthew 14:22).
‘Entering into the boat they came into the borders of Magadan’ (Matthew 15:39). This again indicates that they had come from Gentile territory, territory which had been reached after leaving Tyre and Sidon, by going via ‘the Sea of Galilee’ (Matthew 15:29) and the regions of Decapolis (Mark 7:31).
‘The disciples came to the other side -- Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi’ (Matthew 16:5; Matthew 16:13). This again indicates a venture into Gentile territory, after which they returned to Galilee (Matthew 17:22).
This suggests that the reason for mentioning the names is so as to indicate when He is in Gentile territory. This being the case it points to four visits to Gentile territory, Matthew 8:28 to Matthew 9:1; Matthew 14:13-34; Matthew 15:21-39; Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:22. Thus this one that now follows is the third, and longest such visit. It will be noted that in Matthew (but not in Mark) ‘the other side’ is always in Gentile territory.
‘And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from those borders, and cried, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David. My daughter is grievously vexed with a demon.” ’
While Jesus was in the region of Tyre and Sidon a woman came from her home and approached the area where He was. The fact that she ‘cried out’ and that later the disciples said that she ‘cries after us’ (Matthew 15:23) suggests that she did not come too close. Perhaps as a Canaanite and a woman she was afraid to approach a Jewish prophet. But she was nevertheless not to be denied, and she cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David. My daughter is grievously vexed with a demon.”
Matthew alone calls her a Canaanite, and to Jewish readers that would speak volumes. For the Canaanites were the hereditary enemies of Israel, and were forbidden any part in the congregation of Israel. They were either to be driven out or cut off. Thus this woman had less right even than the Gentiles to expect help from a Jewish prophet.
Her cry to Him as ‘the Son of David’ in connection with a case of demon possession suggests that she connected Him with Solomon, who had had close ties with Tyre and Sidon, and who had a reputation for remedies which aided those possessed by evil spirits (see Titles of Jesus in the Introduction). He too was regularly called a ‘son of David’. This is in fact more likely than that she was specifically using a Messianic title, although to many Jews it may well have been a Messianic title, for it is found as such in the Psalms of Solomon. Thus this may be seen as one of a number of examples in Scripture of ‘unconscious prophecy’. For the title with ‘Lord’ added compare Matthew 20:30-31, and contrast Matthew 9:27. On her lips ‘Lord’ used in this way must be given a high significance. It was the Gentile way of addressing supreme rulers and deities. She is thus paying Jesus due honour, and acknowledging His high status and connections.
Jesus Begins To Move Towards The Gentiles (15:22-28).
Jesus now moves for safety and quiet towards Tyre and Sidon. There were many Jews in the area who had shown an interest in hearing Him (see Mark 3:8; Luke 6:17) and it may be that it was His intention to minister to them. But it may simply be that He was only wanting rest and quiet (Mark 7:24). Then, however, if we take His own words as genuinely representing His thinking, He had a ‘life-changing’ experience. For He was approached by a Canaanite woman and her words brought home to Him that he must now expand His ministry. It appears that He realised from this experience that His Father was now showing Him that He must go among the Gentiles, (in fulfilment of Matthew 12:18; Matthew 12:21; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6). It was not a question of having come to a decision and then changing His mind, but of a willingness to wait for an indication from the Father as to what He should do, something that we should all constantly do when facing difficult decisions, especially spiritual ones.
a And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from those borders, and cried, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David. My daughter is grievously vexed with a demon” (Matthew 15:22).
b But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she continually calls after us” (Matthew 15:23).
c And he answered and said, “I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
d But she came and worshipped him, saying, “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25).
c And he answered and said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).
b But she said, “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).
a Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you even as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15:28).
Note that in ‘a’ the woman pleads for the healing of her daughter, and in the parallel Jesus grants her healing in response to her faith. In ‘b’ Jesus does not answer her and the disciples call for her to be sent away, and in the parallel her plea is the right to be heard and to come near because she is like a pet dog coming to its master’s table. In ‘c’ Jesus points out that He has come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and in the parallel He points out that He has brought the children’s bread which is not for others. Centrally in ‘d’ she worships Him and cries, ‘Lord, help me’.
‘But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she continually calls after us.” ’
Jesus did not answer her. We should note in this regard that she was not addressing Him face to face but calling from a distance, so that there was nothing impolite about it. No doubt in fact Jesus often heard people calling things out from a distance, and could not respond to all who did so. But there was another time when Jesus did not answer, and that was in the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:6). It suggests therefore deep thought in the face of a dilemma. He was not quite sure what to do, for the reason shortly to be given, and was no doubt praying to His Father for guidance. Meanwhile she continued to call after them, and the disciples seemingly saw no reason why He should not do as she asked and send her away. Indeed they were clearly getting very embarrassed. They were in foreign parts and she was drawing too much attention to them.
‘And he answered and said, “I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” ’
Jesus then turned in response to His disciples’ requests and gave the reason for His lack of response. He declared, “I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Compare for these words the commentary on Matthew 10:6). But what did He mean by this, and why did He say it at this moment? It in fact points to His dilemma.
· If He does what this woman asks He will be opening the way to many Gentiles who will then feel that they too can bring their sick ones to be healed by the Jewish prophet. Thus He will begin to be seen as a healer, and not as a Jewish Prophet. And credit for the healings will then be given to their own gods, a complete contradiction to His mission.
· The consequences could then be that the ministry to those who are aware of their ‘lostness’ in Israel, the healing of whom is the purpose for which He was sent, will be hindered. In their eyes His ministry will be tarnished.
Thus He feels that what this woman is asking is outside His mission, and it was something that required deep thought. It had been one thing to heal Gentiles who were in deep sympathy with Judaism while He was among the Jews in Galilee, where the full credit would go to the God of Israel, it would be quite another to do it in a Gentile environment when the credit could go anywhere, and false ideas and beliefs could be fostered. And to Him truth is central. At present His ministry is to those of the house of Israel who are like sheep without a shepherd, and He knows that that ministry is not yet complete, and must not be hindered. He had to walk step by step with His Father. He was not here as a Wisdom teacher. He was here as a Prophet, yes, and more than a Prophet. This is a salutary reminder to us that Jesus did not in His earthly life have precognition of everything and instantly know what to do (compare the temptations). As He lived out His life He was rather dependent on what His Father revealed to Him and on the Scriptures. Furthermore He was conscious that He had come to this place for peace and quiet, not in order to arouse the neighbourhood. He did not want the floodgates to open. It was not yet time.
There may also be the thought here that He cannot grant her request when by doing so He may be allowing her to go back to give thanks to her pagan gods. What part has she in the son of David and in the God of Israel?
‘I was -- sent.’ Notice the indication of His consciousness of His mission. He is One Who has been sent on a particular mission. It was a phrase intended to raise questions in the mind of those who heard it.
‘But she came and worshipped him, saying, “Lord, help me” ’
But then He is put on the spot, for with great boldness, and no doubt a sense of despair at His not replying, she came close and fell before Him, worshipping Him, and crying, ‘Lord, help me.’ This put her appeal in a different light. A personal appeal like this was a different matter, and one that He found difficult to resist. And yet even now He could not respond to her unless she recognised exactly on what terms. She had to be made to recognise what she was asking, and Whom she was asking it from. But it seems that His thoughts were now clarified, and that His Father had shown Him what He is to do.
‘And he answered and said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” ’
So He turns to the woman and says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The picture is vivid. The family is sitting at their meal with the family dogs lying underneath. Would it be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs? We cannot doubt that He Himself has in mind here the bread with which He had fed the five thousand and more at their ‘family’ meal, and its deeper significance as offering life to Israel. But the woman will recognise more that He is talking of the spiritual food which He offers to the Jews (compare Isaiah 55:2). It is the equivalent of ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22). Nor, however, can we doubt that His demeanour encouraged her to reply. She would see hope from the smile on His face and the compassion in His eyes.
We must not see ‘dogs’ as demeaning, except in so far as they indicated the difference between those who thought rightly, in contrast with the heedless (compare the idea of the son of man and the wild beasts in Daniel 7). The point Jesus is making is of non-relationship. The dogs are not part of the family. And the woman recognises it for what it is. He is telling her that they have no relationship to the master of the house, and therefore have no right to food from the table. (It is in fact doubtful as to how far Gentiles were generally seen as ‘dogs’ at this time, and how far the idea grew up later, but compare Matthew 7:6).
‘But she said, “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” ’
She knows precisely what He means. He is a Jewish prophet, and His ministry is to the Jews. They are the ‘children’ of His God, and she acknowledges both this, and their right. What He says is true. But then she points out that the dogs under the table are allowed crumbs from the table. This would also include bread on which they had wiped their fingers. Thus the master considers it right to give such crumbs to dogs. Will not the God of Israel then give His crumbs to her?
‘Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you even as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.’
Impressed by her faith, and aware that she has now acknowledged where any benefit will come from, Jesus replies with commendation. “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you even as you wish.” This is the second time that Jesus has been impressed by the faith of a Gentile (see Matthew 8:19). And her daughter was healed from that hour (compare Matthew 8:13 b).
There are parallel echoes here to Matthew 8:5-13 where the Gentile centurion also demonstrated great faith, and His servant was healed at a distance ‘in that hour’. They are thus both seen to be on a parallel. Does this then mean that her faith, and that of the centurion, were greater than that of the disciples who were of ‘little faith’? The comparison is not fair. The disciples are seen as ‘of little faith’ in the face of great obstacles (Matthew 14:31; Matthew 17:20). His point there was that their faith was small compared with what it should have been, but it was nevertheless a faith that kept them following Him faithfully, and was great enough to enabled them to perform wonders in His Name. Thus their faith and hers must be seen as measured on a different basis.
But there seems little doubt from what follows that this incident has opened Jesus’ eyes to the further outreach that His Father has now shown Him that He must engage in. And He is thus not described as returning to Jewish territory until Matthew 15:39. It would seem therefore that the ministry that follows is intended by Matthew to be seen as on Gentile territory, fulfilling the words of Matthew 12:18; Matthew 12:21. That the crowds which will be mentioned included many Jews we need not doubt, for all the areas around Galilee were well inhabited with Jews. But nor can we doubt that they would have included many Gentiles, who would be in the majority in these areas. It would not be true to human nature not to recognise that a wonder-worker of such magnitude would not be an object of interest to all. And as we shall see there are in fact hints of the fact in the stories that follow.
‘And Jesus departed from there, and came alongside the sea of Galilee, and he went up into the mountain, and sat there.’
Having gone northwards through the regions of Sidon, Jesus then moved eastwards and made for the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, where He again ‘went up into the mountain’. Possibly His aim had been to circumvent Galilee. Going up into ‘the mountain’ always signifies in Matthew a deeply spiritual time, compare Matthew 5:1; Matthew 14:23; Matthew 28:16; and see also Matthew 17:1. And there He ‘sat down’, to teach.
Ministry in Gentile Territory (15:29-31).
There is every reason to think that this is in Gentile territory, for Matthew usually makes a return to Jewish territory clear, and that does not occur until Matthew 15:39. Mark 7:31 also confirms that this return to the Sea of Galilee was via the environs of Sidon ‘through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’. This suggests a detour, first going northwards towards Sidon, then eastwards, going past the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, through Gaulanitis, and into Decapolis, a semi-independent group of ten Greek cities. Furthermore it must be seen as significant that the crowds ‘glorify the God of Israel’, a phrase found only here. In the light of what has happened previously and the general context this gives the impression of Gentile response. Like the Canaanite woman they too acknowledge the God of Israel as their healer.
This may also be seen as confirmed in the account that follows of the feeding of four thousand. Whereas five thousand spoke of the covenant people, four thousand speaks of the nations of the world, for ‘four’ is the number that depicts the world. It is further confirmed by the seven loaves and the seven baskets. These contrast with the five loaves and the twelve baskets. Seven was a sacred number in all nations, five and twelve had special significance for Israel. There were four rivers that watered the world from Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). Four ‘world’ kings who came against the five who were in covenant with Abraham in the land (Genesis 14:9). Four wild beasts signified world empires (Daniel 2; Daniel 7). There are four directions, north, south, east and west (Genesis 28:14; Deuteronomy 3:27; Psalms 107:3; Isaiah 43:5-6); four winds of Heaven (Daniel 8:8; Daniel 11:4, and compare Matthew 24:31); four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12; Revelation 7:1).
So we have good reason for seeing that Matthew is indicating that all this activity is taking place in Gentile territory, including the feeding of the four thousand. We do not know how many disciples had been with Jesus prior to this time, perhaps a good number, but this period of travel would clearly have given the opportunity for much solid teaching, and also the opportunity for these disciples to experience a deeper personal relationship with Jesus. They had seen and experienced much. Jesus now wanted them to enter more deeply into Who He is.
a Jesus departed from there, and came alongside the sea of Galilee, and He went up into the mountain, and sat there (Matthew 15:29).
b And there came to Him great crowds, having with them the lame, blind (Matthew 15:30 a).
c Dumb, maimed, and many others (Matthew 15:30 b).
d And they cast them down at His feet, and He healed them (Matthew 15:30 b).
c Insomuch that the crowd wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole (Matthew 15:31 a)
b And lame walking, and the blind seeing (Matthew 15:31 b).
a And they glorified the God of Israel (Matthew 15:31 c).
Note how in ‘a’ Jesus went up into the mountain and sat there, and in the parallel they glorified the God of Israel. In ‘b’ the lame and blind were healed, and in the parallel they were seen to be healed. In ‘c’ the dumb and maimed were healed, and in the parallel the dumb and maimed were seen to be healed. Centrally in ‘d’ is the fact that they cast them down at His feet and He healed them.
‘And there came to him great crowds, having with them the lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and they cast them down at his feet, and he healed them,’
That much has happened during the period that has past since the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter becomes clear here, for there are now great crowds gathered to hear Him in Gentile territory, and the fact that they come up into the mountain to hear Him, as the disciples had done in Matthew 5:1, suggests a certain level of commitment. And there they brought to Him all their disabled. As we have already seen previously, Matthew tends to depict Jesus’ work as the Servant in terms of healing and making whole (Matthew 8:17; compare Matthew 14:35-36; Matthew 10:1). To Him Jesus work is that of healing both body and soul. And the healings mentioned here echo the Messianic signs that Jesus had drawn John’s attention to in Matthew 11:5. There may also be a reference to Zechariah 11:16 where the faithless shepherd does not heal ‘the maimed’. The healing of the maimed is thus there connected with the work of a faithful shepherd. So His Messianic ministry and making whole is now reaching out among the Gentiles (Matthew 12:18; Matthew 12:21). But along with it is undoubtedly the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35; Matthew 13:1-52; Isaiah 61:1-3).
‘Insomuch that the crowd wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, and lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they glorified the God of Israel.’
And once these crowds saw the wonderful things that He was doing, the dumb speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking and the blind seeing (Isaiah 35:5-6), ‘they glorified the God of Israel’ (compare Psalms 72:18, but there it is accompanied by God’s Name. Similarly had this been intended to be seen on the lips of Jews we would have expected, ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’. See Luke 1:68). This last expression, which is unique as far as the Gospels is concerned, suggests, in context, the response of Gentiles. Like the Canaanite woman they had come to feed at His table. Thus Matthew, having in mind Jesus’ words that He has come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, emphasises that these people acknowledged the ‘God of Israel’ as their Benefactor. The crowds must therefore probably be seen as a combination of both Jews from areas outside Galilee, and of Gentiles. In view of this it must therefore be seen as quite significant that for those who have come and have been with Him there for ‘three days’ He now provides ‘bread from Heaven’. He is ready and willing to feed this mixed crowd who have proved so responsive to His teaching as He fed the Jewish gathering earlier (Matthew 14:13-21),and the initiative comes from Him. (It was not likely to come from the disciples who probably at first saw the number of Gentiles gathered there with disapproval).
‘And Jesus called to him his disciples, and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they continue with me now three days and have nothing to eat, and I would not send them away fasting, lest it happen that they faint on the way.” ’
Jesus expresses His compassion for the crowd who have been listening him for a couple of days or so (‘three days’ is a general expression indicating anything from one and a half to five days, see its use in Joshua 2-3) and so have run out of any food that they had brought with them some time before.
In the previous incident of feeding the crowds, the disciples had sought that Jesus would send the crowds, who were far from home, to the neighbouring villages for food so that they could eat, only to discover that He expected them to be able to feed them. But in this case it is Jesus Who draws attention to the situation. And He declares that He is filled with compassion for the crowds because they have been with Him in the mountain for three days, and have run out of food to such an extent that they have not eaten for some time. Thus if He sent them home they might not make it through faintness. This was a clear expression of the deep interest of the crowds. It may well also have been a test to see what kind of response His disciples would make.
The question was, had their faith increased sufficiently since the last time for them to be able to do something now, and had they also learned the lesson of the Canaanite woman, so that they would recognise that God would feed the Gentile believers too? The disciples had, however, probably seen the former feeding as a one-off, and even more they would not consider that this mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles could expect similar treatment. For while it was expected that the Messiah would provide manna from Heaven for Jews, it was certainly not expected for Gentiles. Thus the situation would be seen by them as very different. They had forgotten that Jesus had already demonstrated that He would take of the children’s bread and give it to the ‘dogs’.
Note Jesus’ expression of compassion. It is a word regularly used of Him (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 14:14; Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41; Mark 5:19; Luke 7:13). It reminds us that with all its spiritual lessons we must primarily see in this incident an expression of compassion. Jesus fed them in the first place because they were hungry and in real need. On the other hand when He Himself was tempted in such a situation He had refused to use His divine powers to produce bread. This suggests that something more was to be seen here. Which may be as follows:
· 1). That Jesus had an important lesson in it for the disciples, not only that it was ever to be their responsibility to feed God’s true people, but also that in this case the Gentiles who genuinely sought Him had a right to receive the same benefits as believing Jews. This again ties in to some extent with the Jewish way of thinking. The proselyte (but not the God-fearer) who converted to Judaism was, at least theoretically to stand on the same level as the ‘trueborn’ Jew (Exodus 12:48). And we should recognise in this regard that any converts through Jesus’ ministry at this stage would certainly make for the synagogues once Jesus was gone from among them, and would there be seen as God-fearers and prospective proselytes. It was one thing, however, to speak of such equality, and quite another to carry it into practise, so as really to place converted Gentiles on the same level as Jews. Jesus here goes one step further and offers Jewish privileges to believing Gentiles also, even though they are not circumcised. But it would be a hard lesson for the disciples to take in.
2). Another clear lesson from this incident is that Jesus has come to feed both Jew and Gentile with the Bread of Life, so that those who come to Him may never hunger and those who believe in Him may never thirst (John 6:35). In Him their hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:6) will be fulfilled. He has come bringing ‘food’ for all, the sure mercies of David, which are available to all nations (Isaiah 55:1-5). This is emphasised later in Matthew 16:9-12 when it is made clear that the ‘bread from Heaven’ represents Jesus’ message of salvation.
The Feeding of Four Thousand In Gentile Territory By A Miracle (15:32-39).
It was one thing for Jesus to preach and heal in Gentile territory where there were many Jews, while allowing Gentiles to share the fringe benefits, for the synagogues did the same (at least the preaching bit). Gentiles were welcomed in reasonable numbers into Jewish synagogues so as to learn about the God of Israel. It was, however, quite another to do what He did now. For here they do not just have the opportunity to learn, but are called on to partake in a ‘family’ meal, as a community together. They are being treated, at least to a certain extent, as on a level with His Jewish disciples. To the disciples this was probably totally unexpected, which explains why, although they had seen the feeding of the five thousand, they did not expect that to be reproduced here (Matthew 15:33). That had been for Jewish believers, but here there were many Gentiles. From this we learn therefore that the new ‘congregation’ of Israel is to include Gentiles, just as the old congregation of Israel had done in the days of the Exodus, when ‘the mixed multitude’ (Exodus 12:38) were united with them in the covenant at Sinai.
No doubt the Apostles accepted Jesus’ preaching to Gentiles because they looked on these people as similar to ‘God-fearers’, those who because they had come to believe in the God of Israel attended worship at synagogues, even though they did not become full proselytes. This explains why they still did not catch on to the fact Gentiles were to be welcomed wholesale into Jesus’ new congregation of Israel, and would have to be convinced of it later in Acts 10-11. It also explains why they did not expect that they would be provided with bread from Heaven as Jewish believers had been. After all even to the Canaanite woman He had only offered ‘crumbs’.
Comparing this incident with the parallel picture in Matthew 14:13-21 there are a number of clear distinctions which demonstrate the difference between them, and even in some cases hint at the presence of Gentiles here. The scene in Matthew 14:13-21 took place in the spring (they sat on green grass - Mark 6:39), here it is later in the year, for He sat them on ‘the ground’. In Matthew 14:13-21 the crowd had come a long way, which was why they had no food, here they run short of food because of the length of time that they have stayed with Jesus, listening to His words. In Matthew 14:13-21 it was the disciples who approached Jesus, and drew attention to the problem (of their fellow-Jews?), here Jesus calls His disciples to Him and Himself draws attention to the problem. In Matthew 14:13-21 the idea was that the crowds went to the surrounding villages for food. The idea here seems to be that they would return to their homes. In Matthew 14:13-21 there were five loaves and two fishes. Here there are seven loaves and a few fish. In Matthew 14:13-21 Jesus ‘blesses’, that is uses a typically Jewish form of grace, here He ‘gives thanks’. In Matthew 14:13-21 there were twelve wicker baskets (typical of what Jews used for carrying kosher food with them) which were filled with remnants, here it is seven larger baskets, probably made of hemp, of a kind regularly used by Gentiles as well as Jews, and probably brought from the boat.
Thus in Matthew 14:13-21 the ‘family’ partook of the bread from God’s table, here the family still participated, but Gentiles were also allowed to receive ‘the crumbs’ (Matthew 15:27). Once having received illumination from His Father Jesus had no hesitation in carrying it into practise. He recognised that His wider ministry had begun.
a And Jesus called to Him His disciples, and said (Matthew 15:32 a).
b “I have compassion on the crowd, because they continue with me now three days and have nothing to eat, and I would not send them away fasting, lest it happen that they faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32 b).
c And the disciples say to Him, “From where should we have so many loaves in a desert place as to fill so great a crowd?” (Matthew 15:33).
d And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few small fishes” (Matthew 15:34).
e And He commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground (Matthew 15:35).
d And He took the seven loaves and the fishes, and He gave thanks and broke, and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds (Matthew 15:36).
c And they all ate, and were filled, and they took up what remained over of the broken pieces, seven baskets full (Matthew 15:37).
b And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children (Matthew 15:38).
a And He sent away the crowds, and entered into the boat, and came into the borders of Magadan (Matthew 15:39).
Note that in ‘a’ He calls to Him His disciples, and in the parallel He sends away the crowds. In ‘b’ He has compassion on the hungry crowd, and in the parallel they are all miraculously fed. In ‘c’ the disciples wonder how they will be fed, and in the parallel hey are not only fed but there is a large surplus over. In ‘d’ there are seven loaves and a few fish, and in the parallel He uses these to feed the crowd. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus tells them all to sit on the ground preparatory to the miracle.
‘And the disciples say to him, “From where should we have so many loaves in a desert place as to fill so great a crowd?” ’
The disciples clearly did not consider that it was likely that there could be a miracle of bread from Heaven for Gentiles, and began to consider from where they could get sufficient loaves to satisfy this large and hungry crowd. It was not a question of whether Jesus could do it. It was their certain opinion that He would not. This mixed crowd was a totally different matter from a wholly Jewish crowd seeking Jesus.
‘And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few small fishes.” ’
So Jesus asked them how many loaves they had, and learned that they had seven, and a few little fishes. The number is significant. Five had in Jewish eyes indicated the covenant, but seven was a number indicating divine perfection and completeness among all nations. Thus seven indicated divine sufficiency for all. And added to the seven were a few little fishes. Together they made the staple diet of the area.
‘And he commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground.’
Once again He commands the crowd to sit down, although this time not ‘on the grass’ but ‘on the ground’. They are to recognise that the food comes from Him.
‘And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and he gave thanks and broke, and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds.’
Then taking the seven loaves and the few fishes He gave thanks, broke them and gave them to the disciples. In the previous incident He had ‘offered a blessing’ for them. The latter was very much a Jewish way of looking at the giving of thanks. That used here was more universal. But the principle behind it all is the same. He is providing food to His ‘family’. The inference is clear. Those who respond to Him and do the will of His Father in Heaven are His family, whether they be Jew or Gentile.
‘And they all ate, and were filled, and they took up what remained over of the broken pieces, seven baskets full.’
And as before all ate and were filled. There is no lack of sufficiency when Jesus feeds men and women with the bread of life. And even what was left over was a sufficiency of divine supply (seven). The word for baskets here refers to non-wicker baskets, and they were regularly, although not always, of a larger size. These ones were probably usually used to hold catches of fish. We are specifically informed in Matthew 16:9-11 that what was eaten and what was left over symbolised the teaching of Jesus, and therefore of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Thus the leftovers probably also indicate that there is a surplus to be take out to others, that all who will might be filled.
‘And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.’
Those who ate were about four thousand men, as well as women and children. Again the counting of ‘the men’ suggests an assembly of ‘the congregation of Israel’, those who had met before the Lord. As we have seen, they ‘glorified the God of Israel’. And as mentioned above the ‘four’ indicates that they represent the nations. But the mention of the women and children indicates that all were include within His provision. All were participating in the Messianic banquet that Jesus had introduced by His coming.
‘And he sent away the crowds, and entered into the boat, and came into the borders of Magadan.’
After the feeding the crowds are sent away and He enters a boat with His disciples and come to the borders of Magadan, which is in fact unknown. But that it is on the west shore is confirmed by the scene that follows. The fact that the crowd was ‘sent away’ indicates how reluctant they were to leave. But Jesus knew when He felt that they had had sufficient teaching for the time being.
The Pharisees and Sadducees Seek Proof of His Authority By Requiring a Sign From Heaven (Matthew 16:1-4).
The weight of the opposition begins to grow. To the Pharisees and their Scribes are now added the Sadducees. This suggests that the Pharisees in Galilee, determined to bring Him to account, have swallowed their pride and taken common cause with the Sadducees at Herod’s court so as to call Him to account (compare Mark 8:15). Alternately it may signify that the whole of the religious element in the Sanhedrin have united to come to call on Him, either to prove His credentials by some God-given sign or cease preaching. As Paul tells us later from his own experience, the Jews were famed for ‘asking for signs’ (1 Corinthians 1:22). They remembered Moses. They remembered Elijah and Elisha. They remembered other occasions when God had done wonders. (They conveniently forgot that David and many of the prophets performed no signs). And while they acknowledged that Jesus had performed many miracles of healing and cast out evil spirits they dismissed such things, probably on the grounds that others did similar things.
But had they watched carefully they would have realised that He not only healed in abundance, and but also, unlike the others, never failed, and the reason that they did not do so was because their minds were set. Nor, because He had performed such miracles only among responsive and believing crowds, had they seen the miracles of the loaves. They only had that on hearsay. So they wanted Jesus to perform to order. (This was something that neither Moses, nor Elijah and Elisha, had ever done. They only performed to God’s orders, not men’s). It was this casual use of ‘signs’ as wonders to be performed to satisfy men who demanded them, something that had never been done before, that Jesus refused to have anything to do with. It was one thing for God to choose to reveal signs, it was quite another for men to demand them, and decide what suited them and what did not.
a And the Pharisees and Sadducees came (Matthew 15:1 a).
b And trying him asked him to show them a sign from heaven (Matthew 15:1 b).
c But he answered and said to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the heaven is red’. And in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the heaven is red and lowering’ ” (Matthew 15:2-3 a).
c You know how to discern the face of the heaven, but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 15:3 b).
b An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it, but the sign of Jonah (Matthew 15:4 a).
a And he left them, and departed (Matthew 15:4 b).
Note that in ‘a’ the Pharisees and Sadducees come, and in the parallel Jesus leaves them and departs. In ‘b’ they ask for a sign from Heaven, and in the parallel he gives His view on those who ask for signs. In ‘c’ He illustrates the use of signs, and in the parallel points out that while they know how to use physical signs, they are unable to discern spiritual signs.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 15". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Easter