MATTHEW 15:1-9. THE CONTEXT
Immediately prior to today’s Gospel lesson, we found Jesus engaged in controversy with Pharisees and scribes regarding the observance of the law. Matthew notes that these Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to Galilee, which would not ordinarily see such august visitors. Galileans would be dazzled by their authority. The Pharisees and scribes came to see Jesus (v. 1), a tribute to his growing reputation and their growing discomfort with him. They criticized Jesus for not correcting his disciples when they failed to observe ritual cleansing (v. 2). Jesus countered by noting their failure to honor their fathers and mothers in accord with the Ten Commandments. He concluded by calling them hypocrites and saying:
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying,
‘These people draw near to me with their mouth,
and honor me with their lips;
but their heart is far from me.
And in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrine rules made by men'” (15:7-9; see Isaiah 29:13)
The issue is that of man-made tradition vs. God’s law. We need to acknowledge that Jewish tradition stemmed from good motives. While Torah law included a great deal of detail, it did not attempt to anticipate every possible scenario. Rabbis, who loved God and wanted to keep the law faithfully, developed the Mishnah (compiled 200 B.C. to 135 A.D.) and the Talmud (compiled 250-500 A.D) to provide detailed guidance. The Mishnah and Talmud grew to enormous proportions, filling nearly 36,000 pages (Lockyer, 1029). While intended as helpful guidance for people who might otherwise stumble into error, problems arose when these man-made works took on an authority nearly equal to the Torah itself.
In their desire to be comprehensive, rabbis had expanded the law far beyond its original intent. In some cases, they took a rule intended for a specific group, such as priests, and applied it to everyone—or they took a rule applicable to a specific situation and expanded it to cover all situations. They went into nearly infinite detail, making the law more complex and more binding with each word. Their exceptions were as precise and tortured as their rules. It was rule-making run amok. Perhaps the best contemporary analogy would be government regulations.
Caught up in such detail, a person could fail to see the forest for the trees. In verses 1-9, Pharisees questioned Jesus for allowing his disciples to ignore the ritual handwashing required by their tradition. Jesus responded by calling attention to their failure to keep God’s law to honor father and mother—one of the Ten Commandments—an exception permitted, not by God, but by their tradition. Could their tradition, developed to help them to obey God’s law, be valid if it excused them from obeying God’s law? Hardly! This controversy leads naturally into Jesus’ discourse in verses 10-20 on that which does and does not defile.
MATTHEW 15:10-20. THAT WHICH DOES AND DOES NOT DEFILE
10He summoned the multitude, and said to them, “Hear, and understand. 11That which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man; but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”
12Then the disciples came, and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?”
13But he answered, “Every plant which my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted. 14Leave them alone. They are blind guides of the blind. If the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
15Peter answered him, “Explain the parable to us.”
16So Jesus said, “Do you also still not understand? 17Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the belly, and then out of the body? 18But the things which proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart, and they defile the man. 19For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies. 20These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands doesn’t defile the man.”
“He summoned the multitude” (v. 10a). Presumably the crowd has been listening to the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes in verses 1-9. Now Jesus addresses the crowd directly. He will shift his attention to the disciples in verses 12ff.
“Hear, and understand. That which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man; but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (vv. 10b-11). These verses are quite surprising because Jesus appears either to diminish or to set aside Torah food laws.
The issue is what constitutes true holiness. Pharisees and scribes think of holiness as faithful observance of the law. We are so familiar with Jesus’ conflict with scribes and Pharisees that we find it difficult to appreciate their perspective. Dietary laws are an important part of Jewish religious observance. They are at the heart of the Torah, the holiest part of Jewish scriptures. Dietary laws helped to create the sense of a separate people, so important to Jewish identity. The movement was circular. God’s people kept the dietary laws, and those laws helped to establish their identity as God’s people.
The law pronounced certain foods unclean, and eating those foods defiled those who ate them. This had nothing to do with hygiene or health, but with holiness—obedience to the will of God. God had specified what was and was not allowed. Failure to observe these laws constituted rebellion against God. The Pharisees and scribes are trying to insure that people observe the commandments that came from God—that they do God’s will.
Now Jesus says, “That which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man; but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (v. 11). Instead of dealing further with the handwashing issue, he moves the focus to Jewish dietary laws—one of the key elements of Jewish identity (Blomberg). He earlier challenged Sabbath-keeping (11:28—12:14), one of the other key elements.
In challenging Jewish dietary observance, Jesus redirects the focus from that which enters the mouth (food) to that which springs from the heart (thoughts, feelings, and motives). Given the longstanding emphasis on dietary laws, Jesus’ statement is quite radical:
• It appeared to contradict the God-given laws laid down in the book of Leviticus–not just the human traditions of the Mishnah and Talmud.
• Jesus is establishing his interpretation of scripture as normative for his disciples.
With these words, Jesus affirms the prophetic emphasis on issues related to social injustice (Isaiah 1:10-17; Hosea 6:6-9; Micah 6:6-8) and poor religious leadership that causes people to stumble (Jeremiah 23:9-32; Micah 3:9-12; Malachi 2:7-9).
In a homily on this passage, Chrysostom said: “Let us learn then what are the things that defile the man; let us learn, and let us flee them. For even in the church we see such a custom prevailing amongst the generality, and men giving diligence to come in clean garments, and to have their hands washed; but how to present a clean soul to God, they make no account” (quoted in Gardner, 237).
“Then the disciples came, and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?'” (v. 12). It would not surprise anyone that the Pharisees and scribes are offended. They have devoted their lives, personally and professionally, to cultic purity. Their credentials are hard-earned and impressive. Not only do they observe Torah and Mishnah, but they also require observance by others. They have become, in effect, religious police. One is reminded of Islamic mullahs who interpret Islamic practices and enforce observance so rigidly today.
This was a timely issue for Matthew’s church in the late first century, because it was a church in transition. At first, the church was totally Jewish, but that changed as the church began to welcome Gentiles (see the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10). At the time that Matthew was writing this Gospel, Jewish and Gentile Christians were struggling with the issue of the proper place of Jewish law in the life of the church.
In this Gospel, Jesus makes clear his devotion to the law, saying, “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill. For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished” (5:17-18).
Does that mean that Christians are obligated to observe Jewish dietary laws? Other Levitical laws? The Mishnah? That is the kind of issue that Matthew seeks to clarify. In this Gospel, Jesus shifts the emphasis from perfect observance of rules to the purposes that the rules were designed to serve.
“that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles” (v. 11b). Later, speaking to the disciples, Jesus clarifies, “But the things which proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart, and they defile the man. For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands doesn’t defile the man” (vv. 18-20).
Good and evil do not well up from the food supply but from the heart. The filth of the gut cannot compare with the filth of the heart. We easily dispose of the filth of the gut, and it ceases to affect us. The filth of the heart is more persistent and also more deadly.
The filth of our hearts finds expression in the words of our mouths, and the words of our mouths lead to the deeds of our hands. The anger in our hearts gives rise to hurtful words and violent deeds. It has been a popular notion in recent years that ventilating anger dissipates it—causes it to evaporate. More recently, we have come to understand that angry, hateful words harden anger—fuel it. Hateful words damage everyone—the person who says them, the person to whom they are directed, and even the person who just overhears.
• Consider the child who hears his or her parents hurling hateful words at each other. While not directly a target of the words, the child is nevertheless traumatized.
• Consider the Holocaust, which started with Hitler’s hateful words. How many people died as a result of those words? Six million Jews, and millions of others! It all started with hateful words delivered at fever pitch!
• Consider the actions of Islamic terrorists today. Their violence grows naturally out of the inflammatory words of extremist leaders.
We like to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”—but that is a lie! We have all been wounded by thoughtless or hateful words. Such words lead to violence—to murder.
We might understand the power of words more easily as we move further into the Information Age. In the Industrial Age, people gained wealth and power by manufacturing things with heft—automobiles, airplanes, steel, and locomotives. In more recent years, people have gained wealth through words and word-substitutes (computer code, copyrights, patents, legal agreements, contracts). Perhaps in time this will help us to recover our appreciation of the power of words for good and ill.
“Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?” (v. 12). The disciples must be alarmed. People respect Pharisees, and insulting them would be strictly taboo. Also, Pharisees wield great power, and would make dangerous enemies.
“Every plant which my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted” (v. 13). Uprooting a plant is different from carefully digging it up with root ball intact. Uprooting is a death sentence. As in the Parable of the Weeds (13:24-30), Jesus says that God will separate the good and bad in the Day of Judgment. He implies that the Pharisees are among those not planted by the Father, and that God will uproot them at the proper time.
“Leave (the Pharisees) alone. They are blind guides of the blind. If the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit” (v. 14). The Pharisees and scribes think of themselves as guides to persons of lesser vision. Jesus says that their guidance is doomed to failure, because they themselves are blind.
“Explain the parable to us” (v. 15). Peter acts as the spokesman for the disciples. His question reveals their obtuseness. While the Pharisees might not have understood when Jesus said, “that which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man; but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (v. 11), they understood well enough to be offended. We would hope that the disciples, having followed Jesus for so long, would be sufficiently attuned to his thinking that they would understand better than the Pharisees, but they do not.
“Don’t you know that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the belly, and then out of the body?” (v. 18). Levitical food laws emphasize what goes into the mouth, but Jesus notes that the food that we eat passes through the body into the toilet. It is his way of de-emphasizing the importance of food laws so that he can place the emphasis where it really belongs—on our hearts.
Jesus’ words here have nothing to do with the nutritional value of food or the problem of obesity, alcohol, or other drugs. There are other scriptures that inform us with regard to those issues, but Jesus is concerned here only with Levitical food laws.
“For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies” (v. 19). The sins that Matthew lists as proceeding from the heart constitute the sixth through the ninth commandments (Exodus 20:13-16)—the second table of commandments. These sins affect relationships. They destroy life (murder), marriage, family, self-respect, and integrity (adultery and fornication) property (theft), and reputation (false witness and slander). They are serious sins with long-lasting and often tragic effects.
What Jesus says here has application to the church today. We are sometimes sensitive to minor issues, while ignoring more serious issues. Craig Keener says that he knows of a church where a man was rebuked for wearing work clothes to church–while another man who was sleeping with a woman not his wife was not challenged.
And then there are churches who have no focus other than, “Let’s be friendly, and perhaps we’ll get more people.” I knew of one such church that invited a man engaged in adultery to join its board–and whose board refused to require a background check for people engaged in the care of children and young people.
Note that fornication and adultery are among the “evil thoughts” listed by Jesus in verse 19. Ask yourself how serious your congregation is about confronting fornication (unmarried people having sex) and adultery (married people having sex with people other than their spouses). Ask yourself how serious your congregation is about confronting conflict (including hate and hateful words) within the church. Sadly, we have too often chosen to ignore or even to tacitly bless fornication, adultery, divorce, and other ethical issues, because confronting them might cost us church members.
By focusing on motives of the heart rather than cultic purity, Jesus makes religious observance both easier and more difficult. It is easier, because it disentangles us from the nightmarish complexity of the Mishnah and Talmud, giving us broad guidelines instead of detailed direction. It is more difficult, because we must now let our devotion to God affect us in the innermost parts of our being. We can no longer perform a ritual and consider our obligation satisfied, but must make a genuine effort to establish loving relationships with God and neighbor (22:37-40).
“These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands doesn’t defile the man” (v. 20). Jewish law requires Aaron and his sons (priests) to wash their hands and feet before going into the tent of meeting or approaching the altar “that they not die” (Exodus 30:19-21). Bathing is also required prior to donning holy vestments (Leviticus 16:4, 24). However, these are requirements for priests rather than for the general populace. Furthermore, they are not binding on priests in the course of their everyday lives, but are binding only as they prepare themselves for cultic worship.
MATTHEW 15:21-28. THE CANAANITE WOMAN
21Jesus went out from there, and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22Behold, a Canaanite woman came out from those borders, and cried (Greek: ekrazen—cried out, clamored, screamed), saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, you son of David! My daughter is severely demonized (Greek: kakos daimonizetai—badly or wickedly demon-possessed)!” 23But he answered her not a word.
His disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away; for she cries after us.”
24But he answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25But she came and worshiped him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
26But he answered, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27But she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
“Jesus went out from there, and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon” (v. 21). Jesus now moves from Gennesaret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, to Tyre and Sidon, respectively 25 and 50 miles north of Galilee on the Mediterranean shore. It is a long walk, and we are not told why he goes there. It is the farthest north that he will travel, and the only time in this Gospel that he goes outside Jewish/Samaritan territory except to escape Herod as a baby (2:13-23) and to visit Gadara (8:28-34). It is one of three occasions in this Gospel when he heals Gentiles (see also 8:5-13, 28-34).
It is not clear whether Jesus actually enters Tyre and Sidon or simply goes to the border of the Gentile area. Mark says that he entered a house (Mark 7:24), but does not specify its location. Matthew does not tell us why Jesus goes to this area. The crowds had earlier frustrated his search for solitude, but it seems unlikely that he would seek spiritual renewal in pagan territory. Perhaps God leads him there just so we might enjoy the story of this remarkable, faith-filled, Canaanite woman.
“Behold, a Canaanite woman came out from those borders” (v. 22a). The Canaanites were the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, but were dispossessed by the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land.
By labeling this woman as a Canaanite, Matthew identifies her as an outsider—someone other than a member of the Israelite community.
The woman “came out from those borders, and cried (ekrazen—cried out, clamored, screamed), saying, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, you son of David'” (v. 22b). The woman addresses Jesus both as “Lord” and “son of David,” words that a Jew would use for the Messiah. We are surprised to hear such words on the lips of a Canaanite woman. Only once before has Jesus heard such words, even from his disciples (14:33).
•Her words contrast with those of the Pharisees and scribes who, just a moment ago, criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without the appropriate ritual cleansing. Their words were intended to expose Jesus’ lack of regard for the law and to ruin his reputation. This woman has only words of reverence and faith.
• Her clarity of vision contrasts with the disciples’ lack of vision (14:13-33).
Like the Samaritan woman (John 4:1ff.), this woman is doubly an outsider—a foreigner and a woman.
“My daughter is severely demonized (kakos daimonizetai—badly or wickedly demon-possessed)“ (v. 22c). This is an issue that we would expect Jesus to address quickly and gladly, and he does exorcise demons elsewhere (8:28 – 9:1; Mark 1:21-28; Luke 8:2).
“But he answered her not a word” (v. 23a). In other places in the Gospels, Jesus responds quickly and favorably to pleas for help. That makes his silence here all the more remarkable.
“Send her away; for she cries after us” (v. 23b). The disciples, offended by the woman’s persistence, ask Jesus to send her away, just as they earlier asked him to send away the hungry crowd (14:15). Note that the woman addressed Jesus as Lord, but the disciples fail to do so as they tell Jesus to send her away. It is not clear whether they want him just to get rid of her or to give her what she wants so that she will leave. They will probably be happy enough with either result, as long as she stops bothering them. While Jesus does not send her away, he answers the disciples (not the woman), “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). Jesus cannot allow himself to be distracted. He has a whole nation to save, and he has a special obligation to minister first to Jews. We, however, are disappointed. We want Jesus to heal the daughter!
But the worst is yet to come! She kneels before him and begs, “Lord, help me” (v. 25). Now, surely Jesus will relent! No! This is very difficult for us! Jesus says, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26). Surely those words did not come from Jesus’ mouth! Please, God, do not let it be so! But it is so! Jesus said the words, and they cannot be unsaid! These words, coming from Jesus’ mouth, sound like the defiling words of which Jesus has just spoken (v. 11).
But we must remember that Matthew is writing this Gospel with Jewish readers in mind, and is determined to acknowledge the primacy of Israel.
It also helps to remember that Jesus frequently tries to slow the pace of disclosure. This started at the very beginning of his ministry when his mother asked him to provide wine for a hapless wedding host. Jesus responded, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). While he relented and saved the day, he hesitated lest his premature disclosure compromise his mission to save the world. Later, he healed people and then told them to tell nobody. He was pacing himself. While he has compassion on crowds, he has a mission that goes beyond crowds. If he allows this woman to push him too far too fast, the people of Israel, his first priority, will dismiss him as a Gentile-lover.
So this Canaanite woman begs Jesus to cross a boundary that threatens to undo him. After the resurrection, Jesus will open the door to the Gentiles in his Great Commission (28:18-20). Until then, he must give the Israelites every chance—but this Canaanite woman is breaking his heart now! In the Incarnation, he took upon himself the human tensions with which we all struggle. Now he must choose one kind of good while turning his back on another. That is the problem with being human. We can’t have it all!
“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). The woman notices that Jesus used the word, not for stray dogs that wander the streets (Greek: kuon), but for household pets (Greek: kunariois). Pets are not outsiders but insiders. They not only belong to the family, as livestock do, but are part of the family, as livestock are not. Subordinate to other family members, they nevertheless enjoy privileges denied other animals. While they do not have a seat at the table, they enjoy intimacy at the family’s feet. While dining, the family can hardly resist the pleasure of throwing a tender morsel to the pet.
This woman calls Jesus on it! “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). We can almost see the gleam in her eye as she senses the power of her comment. While acknowledging Jesus’ lordship and her own modest place, she claims her rightful, if modest, privileges. She not only believes that Jesus can heal her daughter; she believes that he will heal her daughter. And she is right!
Jesus responds exuberantly, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire” (v. 28). After parrying hostile religious leaders and prodding balky disciples, Jesus finds this faith-filled woman a joy! He delights in allowing her to best him—a truly remarkable contrast to the high-powered men who fail time after time to do so.
Even though Matthew is writing this Gospel with Jews in mind, he treats Gentiles quite favorably:
- His genealogy of Jesus includes two Gentiles, Rahab and Ruth (1:1-17).
- The Magi came from the east to visit the baby Jesus (2:1-12).
- He spoke of Galilee, where Jesus grew up, as “Galilee of the Gentiles,” saying, “to them light has dawned (4:15-16).
- He tells his disciples that they will witness to Gentiles (10:16-18).
- He has Jesus speaking favorably of the Ninevite Gentiles (12:41).
- He reports a Roman centurion saying, “Truly this was the Son of God” (27:54).
- He concludes this Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples, “Go, and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
“And her daughter was healed from that hour” (v. 28b). Hallelujah! We are almost as pleased as the mother is!
The full promise of this incident will be realized only after the resurrection. However, this story props open the door to the Gentiles another significant inch.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan