Read the Passage: Matthew 15:1-39
This passage begins with the scribes and Pharisees accusing Jesus of allowing His disciples to “transgress the tradition of the elders” (Matt. 15:2), namely the practice of ceremonially washing hands before a meal. Note that Mark gives a more detailed account of this event and the elders’ tradition at Mark 7:1–5. This practice was not a part of the Old Testament law, which only required the priests to wash before eating holy offerings (cf. Lev. 22:6–7). It seems, then, that this tradition was not primarily related to personal hygiene, but rather was a result of a legalistic misinterpretation of ceremonial law. Curiously, the scribes and Pharisees recognized this fact, the they accused Jesus of breaking the tradition of the elders, not of violating biblical law. Indeed, the Pharisees believed that there was something spiritually meritorious about this external washing.
In response to the religious leaders, Jesus asked his own question—that is, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God?” (Matt. 15:3). While the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking tradition, He accused them of breaking moral law—that is, the fifth commandment (cf. Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). One way that children are to honor their parents is in meeting their financial needs (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). Yet, the Jews had devised a practice called “Corban” (Mark 7:11) in which adult children would dedicate their financial resources to God, via a bequest, and thereby avoid using them in the present to meet the needs of their parents. Since it benefited the religious establishment, the leaders approved of this practice. Jesus taught that this practice broke of the fifth commandment, and that it fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy about presumptuous worship (cf. Isa. 29:13).
After rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called the people to himself and taught it is “not what goes into the mouth [that] defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matt. 15:11; cf. Rom. 14:17). Christ’s point being that true righteousness is not solely a matter of external acts, but rather it involves one’s heart and motives. Following this teaching, the point of which was obvious to the religious leaders, Jesus’ disciples note the He had offended the scribes and Pharisees with His words. In response, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus said, “Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:14; cf. Matt. 7:6). Evidently, this teaching confused the disciples, for Peter, the apostles’ spokesman, asked for an interpretation (cf. Matt. 15:15). In His explanation Christ notes that there is nothing that can go into one’s mouth that can spiritually defile.
Matt. 15:21–31 records Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles in Israel. This passage reports both a specific instance of Christ healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman (cf. Matt. 15:21–28) and His general healing among residents of the Gentile area known as the Decapolis (cf. Mark 7:31). The account of Jesus’ healing the Gentile woman’s daughter is important, for earlier Jesus had commanded His disciples, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:5). Indeed, Gentile healings are rare in the Gospels, with other notable examples being the healing of a centurion’s servant (cf. Matt. 8:5–13) and the healing of a Samaritan leper (cf. Luke 17:11–18). Clearly, the gospel is for both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Matt. 28:19–20). However, Israel is God’s chosen people (cf. Exod. 19:6) and Jesus was their Messiah. Thus, the gospel went to the Jews first (cf. Rom. 1:16).
In the preceding chapter, we studied Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 (cf. Matt. 14:13–21). This event ended Christ’s ministry in Galilee. Here at Matt. 15:32–39 Matthew reports Jesus’ feeding of 4,000 people. This event marked the conclusion of Christ’s ministry in Gentile regions. Note that whereas the feeding of the 5,000 is recorded in all four Gospels, the feeding of the 4,000 is only reported by Matthew and Mark. Just as the feeding of the 5,000 was sparked by Christ’s compassion for the needy people (cf. Matt. 14:14), so the feeding of the 4,000 occurred because of Jesus’ compassion (cf. Matt. 15:32). Remarkably, although the disciples had just witnessed Christ’s feeding of the multitudes in Galilee, they don’t have faith that Jesus will be able to feed the crowds (cf. Matt. 15:33). Jesus later rebuked them for their lack of faith (cf. Matt. 16:8–11).
- Have you ever been guilty of confusing traditional practices with biblical practices? Why do some churches value tradition above Scripture?
- How can looking to church tradition be helpful for believers? How can we be sure to not elevate tradition above Scripture?
- When does a child’s duty to support aging parents cease? How about meeting the needs of a parent whose own irresponsibility has produced financial ruin?
- When, if ever, is it okay to offend others with our words? What does it mean to cast your pearls before swine (cf. Matt. 7:6)?
- What did Jesus mean in saying, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24)?