Matthew 15


“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Matthew 15:1-2

Before we get into the text I think it would be useful to define what we mean when we speak about ‘tradition’ and ‘God’s Word’. Simply put, a command is a law of God and is sometimes described as the Word of God, Matthew 15:6 / Mark 7:13 / Luke 23:56 / 1 John 3:4.

A tradition doesn’t come from God but is something which has been passed down by men from generation to generation, Matthew 15:3 / Colossians 2:8.

We must also note that traditions can be used in a positive sense, 1 Corinthians 11:2 / 2 Thessalonians 2:15 / 2 Thessalonians 3:6. The problem comes when traditions become as important or more important than God’s Word, Matthew 23:4.

Jesus continually referred to the oral law as the ‘tradition of the elders’ or the ‘tradition of men’, Matthew 15:1-9 / Mark 7:1-23. Some examples in the New Testament alluding to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the fine detail of their legalism are.

The tithing of herbs, Matthew 23:23 / Luke 11:42.

The wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels, Matthew 23:5.

The careful observance of ritual purity, Mark 7:1ff.

Frequent fasting, Matthew 9:14.

Distinctions in oaths, Matthew 23:16ff.


The big question is, how authoritative is the oral law? The Pharisees accepted the oral law along with the Torah, and it was believed to be equally inspired and authoritative, and all of the explanatory and supplementary material produced by and contained within was the oral tradition.

This material began to emerge during the Babylonian Captivity that was brought upon the Jewish people. The Captivity was explained as divine punishment for the neglect of the law, and many during this period earnestly turned to the law.

During the Captivity or Exile, detailed commentaries on the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific restrictions that were designed to ‘build a hedge’ around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible violation of the Torah by ignorance or accident.

During the time of Zerubbabel and Ezra, there was a clear call to separation from foreigners and anything unclean. Some verses that clearly indicate separation during this time period are Ezra 6:21 / Nehemiah 9:2.

The Pharisees

The word ‘Pharisee’ is from a Greek word ‘pharisaios’ taken from the Hebrew, Aramaic ‘Perisha’, meaning ‘Separated one.’ In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were one of the three chief Jewish sects, the others were the Sadducees and the Essenes.

Of the three, the Pharisees were the most separated from the ways of the foreign influences that were invading Judaism, and from the ways of the common Jewish people in the land.

The sect of Pharisees is thought to have originated in the 3rd century B.C., in the days preceding the Maccabean wars, when under Greek domination and the Greek effort to Hellenize the Jews, there was a strong tendency among the Jews to accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs.

The rise of the Pharisees was a reaction and protest against this tendency among their fellow kinsmen. Their aim was to preserve their national integrity and strict conformity to Mosaic law. They later developed into self-righteous and hypocritical formalists. Later they were among those who had condemned Jesus to death.

Teachers Of The Law

For the Jews, the Law was made up of the Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch. Now it’s true that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions.

But in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles, which a man must interpret and apply for himself, and for a while, the Jews were content with that.

But around the 4th or 5th centuries before Christ came along there was a group of people who got together who were classed as legal experts, now we know them as the Scribes.

Now, these guys weren’t content with great moral principles. These guys had what can only be described as a passion for definition and detail.

In other words, they wanted these great moral principles amplified, expanded, and broken down. But they did it to the extent that they issued thousands upon thousands of little rules and regulations, which oversaw every possible action and every possible situation in life.

In Matthew 15, Jesus said something that truly offended the Jewish leaders, Matthew 15:12. So why were they offended? What did Jesus say that really upset the Pharisees?

Well, the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and the experts in the Law, which this chapter deals with is of tremendous importance. Because of what it does, it shows the Jewish religion at its core and Jesus is exposing the very heart of the Jewish religion in this chapter.

So what was this tradition and what was the spirit behind it? The Scribes and the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of eating with ‘unclean hands’.

In other words, they had ceremonially unclean hands, hands that weren’t fit for the service and worship of God. This was the heart of their religious thinking, this was an offence and a breach of God’s Law in the Jewish mind.

They had a handwashing tradition and we know that the priests had to wash their hands and feet prior to entering the Tabernacle, Exodus 30:19 / Exodus 40:12, and it appears it was from this command that the widespread practice of ritual washings was practised, Mark 7:3-4. They added to this the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles, which they suspected had been made use of by anyone unclean.

It was regarding these earthware items that the oral law said, ‘a hollow container made of pottery could contract uncleanness inside but not on the outside’.

In other words, it doesn’t matter who or what touched the outside, but it does become a problem when the inside is involved. ‘If it became unclean, it must be broken and no unbroken piece must remain in your house, which was big enough to hold enough oil to anoint the little toe.’

It was these ceremonial washings which were commanded by tradition, not by Scripture. The religious leaders knew this, but still, they criticized the disciples for not obeying these traditions.

How To Wash Your Hands

Before every meal, and between every course of the meal, the hands had to be washed. To begin with, your hands had to be free from any sand or dirt, gravel or any kind of substance. The water for washing had to be kept in a special large stone jar so that the water itself was clean in the ceremonial sense and to make sure that it wasn’t used for anything else and that nothing else had fallen into it or had been mixed in it.

So to start with your hands were held with your fingertips pointing upwards and then the water was poured over them. But the water must run at least down to your wrist. Now while you’re hands were still wet, each hand had to be cleaned with the fist of the other.

Now this meant at this stage your hands were wet with water but that water was now itself unclean because it touched unclean hands. Next, you’re hands had to be held with your fingertips pointing downwards and the water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off the fingertips.

And after all that had been done, your hands were now classed as being clean. And remember you had to do that between every course of every meal.

Now if you failed to do this, in Jewish eyes, you wouldn’t be guilty of bad manners. You wouldn’t be guilty of being dirty in the hygiene sense but you were seen as unclean in the sight of God.

If you were to eat bread with unclean hands and pardon the expression that was no better than excrement. If the Romans put a Jewish rabbi in jail, he would use the water given to him for handwashing purposes rather than for drinking and there have been reports of some of these Jews almost dying of thirst.

Mark tells the extent of how zealous they were with their traditions. To the Pharisees and the Sadducees that was their religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, rules and regulations like that which they considered being the essence of their service to God. Jesus says that their religion consisted of a mass of taboos, rules and regulations, Matthew 23:23.

Honouring Your Parent’s Tradition

“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honour his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.’ Matthew 15:3-6

It appears that the Jews found a way to get around the law of honouring your father and mother, Exodus 20:12 / Deuteronomy 5:16, with a tradition.

Their tradition commanded if they declared that all their possessions or savings were a gift to God that was especially dedicated to Him, they could then say that their resources were unavailable to help their parents, Mark 7:11.

Honouring your father and mother didn’t just apply to children who still lived with their parents, it carried on as long as their parents were alive.

Even when a child grows and gets married and has children of their own, they still had the responsibility of taking care of their parent’s needs in their old age. This was the way they got around honouring their parents and so, Jesus tells them that they have ‘nullified the word of God’ because of their tradition.

The Pharisees had developed elaborate cleansing procedures that they believed were a part of God’s will. The truth is, God had never commanded these washings, they originated with the doctrines and traditions of men. Jesus answered His critics by pointing out the difference between God-given commandments and human traditions.

He showed that their insistence on following rules established by men caused them to actually break God’s law. He cited the case of ‘Corban,’ Mark 7:11.

This was a Jewish tradition that prohibited a person from using his resources to provide for his ageing parents if he had previously declared those resources ‘dedicated’ to God. Their obedience to men’s doctrines led them to disregard God’s will.

‘You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ Matthew 15:7-9

Notice that Jesus calls them ‘hypocrites’ before quoting Isaiah’s words, Isaiah 29:13. Several different things might pop to mind when we hear the word ‘hypocrite.’

Maybe it’s a politician caught in a scandal, maybe it’s a religious leader doing something counter to their creed, maybe it’s a scheming and conniving character featured in soap operas. But the one thing that doesn’t come to mind is likely the theatre.

The word ‘hypocrite’ ultimately came into English from the Greek word ‘hypokrites’, which means ‘an actor’ or ‘a stage player.’ The Greek word itself is a compound noun, it’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as ‘an interpreter from underneath.’

That bizarre compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theatre wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.

The Greek word took on an extended meaning to refer to any person who was wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not.

This sense was taken into medieval French and then into English, where it showed up with its earlier spelling, ‘ypocrite’, in 13th-centuryth century religious texts to refer to someone who pretends to be morally good or pious in order to deceive others. Hypocrite gained its initial ‘h’ by the 16th century.

It took a surprisingly long time for a hypocrite to gain its more general meaning that we use today, ‘a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.’ Our first citations for this use are from the early 1700s, nearly 500 years after the hypocrite first stepped onto the English stage.

Jesus’ Response To Their Tradition

“Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” Matthew 15:10-11

Jesus here, addressing the crowd, shares a very important and that is eating with ‘unclean hands’ or any other such thing that we put into us isn’t defiling,  rather, what comes out is what defiles and reveals if we have unclean hearts. Jesus spoke about ceremonial cleanliness regarding food, and He anticipated that under the New Covenant all food would be declared clean, Acts 10:15.

A thing might in the ordinary sense be completely clean and yet in the legal sense be unclean, This idea comes from Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19.

For example, certain animals were classed as unclean. A woman after giving birth to a child was classed as unclean. A dead body was classed as unclean. And so anybody who had become unclean and touched something else, made whatever they touched unclean.

A Gentile was unclean, the food touched by a Gentile was unclean, and any container touched by a Gentile was unclean. In fact, if a strict Jew came back from the marketplace, he would go home and immerse his whole body in clean water to take away the contamination that he might have caught when he was out.

To the Scribes and the Pharisees, these rules and regulations were the essences of their religion. To observe them was to please God and to break them was to sin, this was their idea of goodness and service to God. Why were the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law so offended?

‘Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Matthew 15:12-14

They were offended because the very ground of their religion was being cut from underneath them. They identified religion and pleasing God with the observing of rules and regulations, which had to do with cleanness. With what a man ate, with how he washed his hands before he ate it.

After being informed by his disciples that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were offended by Jesus’ words, Jesus says, that the Father didn’t plant either the scribes or Pharisees with their religion and both will be rooted out of His people when the truth of the Gospel is preached, Galatians 4:30 / Galatians 5:12.

Jesus says that the Pharisees were nothing but blind guides who had no idea of the ways of God, Matthew 23:16 / Matthew 23:24 / Isaiah 9:16 / Malachi 2:8 / Luke 6:39 / John 9:40. And that if people followed them, then all they could expect was to stray off the road and fall into a ditch, 2 Peter 1:9.

Jesus identified religion with the state of a person’s heart and said quite bluntly that these Pharisees and Scribal regulations had nothing to do with religion. That’s why He goes on to explain the parable to Peter and the others.

That Which Defiles

“Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'” Matthew 15:15-20

The disciples didn’t understand, Mark 7:17-18, and so, Jesus expands on the point he made back in Matthew 15:11. We are defiled from the inside out rather than from the outside in, and this is particularly true of ceremonial things like foods, 1 Corinthians 6:13 / Matthew 7:20 / Matthew 13:34.

The heart is the source of man’s true character, James 1:14-15, and therefore of his purity or impurity, it isn’t merely the seat of emotion, but the true person as he really is, not just as he appears outwardly.

The Faith Of A Canaanite Woman

‘Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. Matthew 15:21-28

There are only two, possibly three people who were ever commended for their faith by Jesus, which incidentally were two, possibly three Gentiles, one or two Roman Centurions, Matthew 8:5-13 / Luke 7:1-10, and a Syro-Phoenician woman, Mark 7:24-30.

In this chapter, probably a chapter more difficult to understand than anything else, we see Jesus ‘escaping’ from the vast crowds who literally pursued Him wherever He went in Galilee. This wasn’t the only occasion when He sought to get away for a time of quietness and recuperation.

Tyre and Sidon were the two most important cities, north of Galilee, Mark 7:24, in what was earlier known as the ‘Phoenician Empire’ Mark 7:26. The Lord had entered territory which was formerly Canaan and Gentile territory, today we know it as Syria.

Why did He go there?

Why did He go there, when, as He actually said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ Matthew 15:24, and, when He sent out His disciples, He expressly told them, ‘Do not go to the Gentiles’, Matthew 19:5? He certainly didn’t want it to be known that He was there, and, just as certainly, He wouldn’t be ‘mobbed’, as He was in Jewish territory.

The house into which He entered was a Gentile house because no Jew would have lived in that region. Whatever His reason for visiting that region He was recognised by one woman, with the result that ‘He could not keep his presence secret’.

Matthew tells us she, ‘came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Matthew 1:1 / Matthew 20:30-31 / Matthew 22:41-42.

This is a confession that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Messiah of Israel and the fact that this woman in the area of Tyre and Sidon came making this confession is evidence that the knowledge of who Jesus was had spread even to Gentile regions.

Matthew tells us that when the woman came to Jesus, Why didn’t He answer her? Jesus didn’t answer her in order to teach the disciples a lesson, it was their Jewish prejudice that made them unwilling to heal her.

Jesus’ earthly mission was mainly to the Jews, for it was to them that God had prophesied the Messiah, Matthew 10:5-6. The lesson Jesus was trying to teach was that all must be reached regardless of their nationality, Matthew 28:19-20 / Mark 16:15.

Jesus’ refusal to answer the woman gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their inward feelings, the woman’s cries annoyed them because they were prejudiced against the Gentiles. It’s clear that the persistence and clamour of this woman, who demanded His attention, brought Him to the attention of the people!

In response to her worshipful petition, He quoted Isaiah 29:13 from the Septuagint version. This was virtually the Authorized Version of the Old Testament widely used in Judea at that time.

Although she probably wasn’t familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, and she’s unlikely to have spoken Aramaic, she certainly understood the Greek that Jesus used, Jesus was bilingual.

Remember that Galilee was the region known as the Decapolis, where the inhabitants had used Greek as a second language since the time of Alexander.

Matthew tells us without any arguments, the woman simply poured out her worship of Jesus, Matthew 8:2. We can’t help but believe that Jesus knew her heart, and so, He knew that she would behave in this manner toward Him.

She thus presented herself in a manner that would break down the prejudice of the disciples. I can imagine the twelve were waiting for Jesus to get rid of this woman, but the truth was, He wasn’t going to get rid of her, He was about to get rid of an ugly attitude in them.

Although at first glance, it seems that He treated the woman coldly, and used the word ‘dogs’ to refer to Gentiles in the usual Jewish manner, He softened the word by using the little form, speaking of ‘the little dogs’, or ‘puppies’. F. F. Bruce even suggested that Jesus may have had a twinkle in His eyes, as He used the word!

Perhaps He was testing her, and, in any case, we mustn’t suppose that by using that expression He was approving the disgraceful attitude that the Jews displayed towards other races. She would be perfectly aware of what the Jews would think of her!

Whatever may have been the reason for the Lord’s use of the expression, the woman quickly took up the Scripture quotation in her reply.

‘Yes! But even the little dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall from the table!’. We encounter an expression something similar to this in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus, in Luke’s record of the sayings of Jesus.

In Luke 16, it’s used to describe the pieces of bread on which the diners wiped their hands and threw to the ‘unclean’ dogs that waited for them, Luke 16:21.

Remember that the Jews didn’t keep dogs as house pets in those days! The word which in this chapter has been translated as ‘crumbs’, probably would be better rendered ‘scraps’, because there was no Greek word that could be accurately translated as ‘crumbs’ in our sense of the word.

At first, Jesus refused, He said that it ‘wasn’t good to take bread from the children and feed it to the dogs’. What He meant was that according to God’s plan it wasn’t time yet to heal and teach the Gentiles, the Jews, ‘the children’ were the ones God intended to be the recipients of the bread, ‘healings and blessings in general’ first. God planned that later on through the Jewish people the Gospel would be introduced to the Gentiles.

Her Faith

Matthew tells that, Jesus gave in to her pleas by proclaiming to the disciples the great faith of the woman, Matthew 8:10 / Matthew 9:22. Remember this woman presented herself to Jesus and clung to Him for hope, despite the attitude of the disciples.

I would imagine that the disciples were left a little embarrassed with themselves as they saw their own hardness of heart melt into compassion for this Gentile woman and her beloved daughter.

This woman showed great faith, Matthew 8:10 / Matthew 9:22, humility and quickness because she responded, ‘Yes, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs’.

One commentator suggests that the woman was saying, ‘Yes, Lord, I am indeed a dog, but not a very big one, only a tiny one; and since the little dogs stay under the master’s table and eat the crumbs the children drop, surely you must be able to help me. It is only a crumb that I ask.’

She implies that just a mere crumb of Jesus’ miraculous power would be sufficient to heal her daughter. She also recognised that this didn’t signal the beginning of a major Gentile campaign.

As a result, Jesus healed her demon-possessed daughter, Matthew 4:24. The conversation had made it clear that she wouldn’t misinterpret the healing as a sign that the time for the Gentiles had come.

Can you imagine the anticipation this woman must have had as she was going home? Imagine the joy she must have had when she got home and saw that her daughter was healed? Hebrews 11:6.

‘Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.’ Matthew 15:29-31

Jesus now moves along the Sea of Galilee, and up to a mountainside. Once again great crowds come to Him to bring people who were suffering all kinds of ailments, obviously, news that Jesus can heal these people has spread, Isaiah 35:5-6.

Jesus heals the lame, that is, those who have deformed limbs, He heals the mute, that is, those who can’t speak. He heals the blind, that is, those who can’t see and He heals the crippled, that is, those who had suffered some injury to their bodies.

It’s not surprising that the people were amazed when they say all of these people were healed, and it’s not surprising that they went on to praise God, the God of Israel, Luke 5:25-26.

Jesus Feeds The Four Thousand

‘Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” Matthew 15:32-34

The miracle of feeding the 4000 we read about here, does a have a few similarities with the feeding of the 5000, Matthew 14:13-21 / Mark 6:30-44 / Luke 9:10-17 / John 6:1-15. They are similar in terms of Jesus multiplies loaves and fish, a multitude is fed, the disciples are sceptical and they collect leftovers.

However, there are some differences, the crowds are of different sizes, the disciples speak first in the first miracle, but Jesus does in the second, they occur in discrete locations, they follow different events, the numbers of loaves and fish differ, the numbers of baskets differ, the baskets themselves are different and finally, Jesus spends one day with the 5,000, but three with the 4,000. Jesus, Himself removes any doubt by referring to them as two different miracles.

Notice here that Jesus didn’t just take of their physical ailments, Matthew 9:36, also cares about their physical necessities. It appears that everyone was so amazed about all those being healed, that they forgot to eat for three days. Jesus really showed compassion for the people and was obviously concerned about their physical welfare and didn’t want to send them away.

The disciples then state the obvious, as far as they were concerned, they are in the middle of nowhere with no way of getting enough food to feed all these people.

Notice Jesus asks them what they have with them, to which they reply 7 loaves and a few small fish. The reason Jesus asked them this question was simply to prepare their minds for what is about to happen miraculously.

The One who created all things, Colossians 1:16 / Matthew 14:15-20 / Matthew 16:8-13, is certainly more than capable of feeding thousands of people.

‘He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.’ Matthew 15:35-39

Jesus directed the multitude to sit down, and then began serving the food. Miraculously, the supply didn’t dwindle, each loaf generated a large basketful of leftovers besides feeding 4000 men, not counting the women and children, the food just kept on coming out of nowhere. Jesus’ power couldn’t be disputed.

The word ‘basket’ here is a different word from the word used earlier in Mark 6:43 for the feeding of the 5000, in Mark 6 it’s the word ‘kophinos’ which means small basket.

But here the word for basket is ‘spuris’ which means a hamper, a larger basket. This is the same word used in Acts 9:25 to describe the basket in which Paul was lowered in from the city.

Can we imagine the amount of food this took to feed 4000 men, not counting the women and children! Only the Bread of Life could do such a thing, John 6:35. Once everyone had their fill of food, Jesus sends them away and goes to the vicinity of Magadan Dalmanutha, Mark 8:10, by boat.

Coffman, in his commentary, says the following.

‘As for the sceptic’s contention that Mark and Matthew’s accounts are contradictory, the explanation is simple’.

1. Christ might easily have gone to both places. The only possibility of finding a contradiction would have to lie in the discovery that one of the gospels had said he did NOT go to one or the other of the two places and, of course, no such statement exists.

2. It is far more likely that the village, so small as to have been lost to history, actually had two names, Dalmanutha and Magadan!

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