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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Matthew 15

 

 


Verses 1-39

Into THIS LOVELY scene intruded scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem with their complaint and question as to the non-compliance of the disciples with the tradition of the elders as to the washing of hands. Just imagine the scene. The Son of God dispensing healing on every hand in the fulness of Divine grace, and these men, utterly blind to all that was happening, breaking in with their point of order. Blinded by legal technicalities, they could not perceive Divine grace working in power. Such a frame of mind might seem incredible did we not see the same feature displayed today by the Pharisaic mind, which still occupies itself with points of this kind, based upon tradition and common usage and not on the plain and definite word of God.

The Lord’s reply to these men emphasizes the difference between “the commandment of God,” and “your tradition” (v. Matthew 15:3). These traditions of the elders were explanations, amplifications and inferences drawn from the law by venerated teachers of old time. They dominated the minds of the Pharisees and quite beclouded the law of God; so much so that they transgressed the law to keep their tradition. The Lord charged them with this, and gave an illustration of it as regards the fifth commandment. Their tradition as regards gifts, professedly devoted to God, completely nullified that commandment. The “pious” and “orthodox” Jew of today has his mind filled with the Talmud, which is built up from these traditions, and it is like a veil, shrouding from his mind the true word of God.

Let us take care lest we fall into a similar snare. We may thankfully avail ourselves of the teachings of God’s servants, but using them rightly we shall be led back to the fountain-head, even Scripture itself. It would not be difficult to turn the teachings of the best of God’s servants into a kind of Talmud. Then we should have them as a sort of smoke screen, hiding from us the pure Word of God, just as the Talmud blinds the Jewish mind to the real force of the Old Testament.

This kind of thing, pushed as it was by the Pharisees to its extreme limits, stirred our Lord to a strong exposure of its evil. They were hypocrites, and He told them so plainly. They came under Isaiah’s scathing denunciation, for this type of religious wickedness is always to be found with men who have hearts far from God and yet honour Him with their lips, whilst putting their own precepts and commandments in the place of His word. All such nominal worship is empty and in vain, yet it is not difficult for a true believer to get entangled in such things today.

Having exposed the Pharisees to their faces, the Lord turned to the people to warn them as to the error which lay at the root of this hypocrisy —the assumption that defilement is imposed upon men from without, rather than generated within: that it is physical rather than spiritual. The defiling thing is what comes out of a man’s mouth, expressing what is in his heart. The heart of man is the fountain-head of defilement. Solemn fact! The Pharisees of course were offended at such teaching, which cut at the root of all their ceremonial observances, but that only showed that they were no plants of God’s planting. Their end was to be rooted up. They were blind themselves and misleading others who were blind also. God would deal with them in His government, and the disciples were to leave them alone and not retaliate.

But what the Lord had just said sounded strange even to the disciples; so Peter asked for an explanation, treating it as a parable. This called forth a rebuke—though a gentle one—from the Lord. The fact was that none, not even the best of them, saw much beyond the letter of the law with its offerings and ceremonial regulations, and hence they had very little sense of its convicting power. They were concerned as to what went into their mouths, in order that they might be ceremonially clean. The law, if spiritually understood, concerns itself with the state of the heart, as the Lord had showed in His sermon on the mount. The evil things of verse Matthew 15:19 proceed out of the heart, and it is significant that evil thoughts head the list, for that is where they all begin. Thus the Lord exposed the evil which is in the heart of man.

He proceeded, in the case of the woman of Canaan, to reveal the goodness which is in the heart of God. Divine grace was ready to flow out freely without respect of persons, so that Gentile as well as Jew might receive it; one thing only was needful on the part of the recipient—honesty of heart. Now the woman addressed Jesus as the Son of David in presenting her plea for mercy. She came as though she were one of the people of Israel, thinking perhaps that by so doing she stood a better chance of being heard. There was a measure of insincerity in this, and hence “He answered her not a word.”

But though there was insincerity there was also such earnest persistence of faith that the disciples intervened because of her cries, and this led to the Lord’s words in verse Matthew 15:24, which cast some light on her mistake. She now presented her plea simply on the ground of her need, saying, “Lord help me;” and this led to yet more searching words from the Lord. His mission was to the house of Israel, who were spiritually lost, yet after all they were in the place of children, whereas the Gentiles were in the place of the dogs, unclean and outside the realm of God’s dealings. Here was a test indeed! Would she throw away the last shred of pretence and humbly take her true place?

She did so in very striking fashion. Her reply, in verse Matthew 15:27, was saying in effect, “I am indeed but a Gentile, yet amongst men there is a sufficient surplus for the dogs to feed, and I am sure the heart of God is not more straitened than the heart of man.” In this reply Jesus instantly detected great faith, and acknowledged it, giving her all her desire. Thus for the second time did He discover great faith and point it out. In both cases—the centurion in Matthew 8:1-34, and here—it was a Gentile that displayed it; and in both cases it was allied with the condemnation of self. “I am not worthy,” said the centurion: “I am but a dog,” in effect said the woman here. It is ever thus: high thoughts of self go with little faith, and low thoughts of self with great faith. Let us search and see if the explanation of the smallness of our faith lies just here.

The heart of God was indeed larger than the woman imagined. She, though a dog, obtained a large crumb from the table; but presently the whole feast would be sent to the dogs, for this is the force of Paul’s announcement in Acts 28:28. Still, much had to transpire before that announcement could be made, and in our Gospel we see the beginnings of the wonderful transition. In the remainder of our chapter we see further striking manifestations of the heart of God. The mercy that blessed a Gentile woman was equally at the disposal of the afflicted multitudes of Israel. The multitude had but to bring their needy ones and “cast them down at Jesus’ feet” for them to be healed in such a way that their minds were directed to the God of Israel, and they glorified Him.

This display of power, exercised in Divine mercy, was so attractive that the multitudes long outstayed their available food supplies, and in their need Jesus again manifested the compassion of the heart of God. There was a recurrence of the situation recorded in only the previous chapter, and yet apparently the disciples had no expectation that the Lord would act just as He had done before. In them we can see our own lack of faith exemplified. It is comparatively easy to remember how the Lord has acted in days that are past; it is another thing to count on His acting today, in the assurance that He is ever the same. Still, lack of faith on our side is no insuperable barrier to action on His side. He again took their small resources and multiplied them into more than a sufficiency. Again there was food for all, and an overplus. Such is the compassion of the heart of God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Matthew 15:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/matthew-15.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 27th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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