Clean and Unclean, 1-20

Mt 15:1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,

Here is another fact-finding (or, rather fault-finding) investigation (see Mk 3:22) of what Jesus was getting up to.  It is an indication both of his increasing fame and the Jews’ increasing concerns.  This enquiry is biased and fault-finding from the start.

Mt 15:1–20 = Mk 7:1–23

Mt 15:2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

“They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” – ‘Only traditional interpretation and expansion of the law required this. The written law did not. (Lev 22:1-16) Only priests needed to make an ablution before eating to cleanse themselves from anything unclean. Christ accused them of also expanding (and negating) the commandment about honoring parents by devoting goods to God, which then could not be used to support the parents.’ (Mt 15:4-6) (Ryrie)

The hand-washing referred to here has nothing to do with hygiene, nor was it required by the Law of Moses.  It was ritual washing prescribed by the oral traditions of which the scribes and Pharisees were the custodians.  Such rituals may well have functioned as ‘boundary-markers’ distinguishing Jews from the Gentiles.  But they hardly fit into E.P. Sanders’ category of ‘covenantal nomism’, for they do not derive from the Mosaic Law.

Ryle remarks that we have here evidence of the decay into which the Jewish religion had fallen, at the time of Jesus.  ‘From the religion of the books of Deuteronomy and Psalms, to the religion of washing hands, and pots, and cups, how great was the fall!’  Ryle adds, ‘There are branches of the Church of Christ at this day in which the Scriptures are never read, and the Gospel never preached, – branches in which the only religion now remaining consists in using a few unmeaning forms and keeping certain man-made fasts and feats, – branches which began well, like the Jewish Church, and like the Jewish Church have now fallen into utter barrenness and decay.’

Mt 15:3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

“Your tradition” – What was being questioned was a matter of ritual not drawn from the Torah, but from the traditions that had grown up around the law.  Ex 30:19; 40:13 required priests to wash their hands and feet before entering the Tabernacle.  But this was vastly expanded over time so that ordinary Jews applied the purity laws to their own daily routines of praying and eating.  As Lane remarks, there was something potentially noble about this – an attempt to recognise ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and a desire to sanctify all aspects of daily life.

Mt 15:4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’

Mt 15:5 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,’

Mt 15:6 he is not to ‘honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

Mt 15:7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

Mt 15:8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

The reference is to Isa 29:13; cf.Eze 33:31.

‘God wants us to give him our hearts, and not just our lip service. We believe in the heart, (Rom 10:9-10) love from the heart, (Mt 22:37) sing from the heart, (Col 3:16) obey from the heart, (Rom 6:17; Eph 6:6) and give from the heart.’ (2 Cor 9:7) (Wiersbe)

We do well to remember this in both our public worship.  We must not, as Ryle puts it, take our bodies to church but leave our hearts at home.  Our bowed heads, serious expressions, and dutiful responses may impress other people, but they do not impress God, who looks upon the heart.  And in our private devotions, too, let us remember that God does not regard the length or fluency of our prayers, but their heartfelt sincerity.

All of this is a long way from true, heartfelt worship.  Archibishop William Temple  defined such worship as follows:-

To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.

‘We need to listen again to the biblical criticism of religion.  No book not even by Marx and his followers, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible.  The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BC were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of Israelite worship.  Jesus then applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day…And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to us and our churches today.  Too much of our worship is ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear, religion without God.’ (Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 228)

Mt 15:9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

The Jewish leaders were not only insincere; they were also mistaken.

Mt 15:10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand.

Mt 15:11 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.'”

Mt 15:12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

Mt 15:13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.

Mt 15:14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

Mt 15:15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

Mt 15:16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them.

Mt 15:17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?

Mt 15:18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’

God is more concerned with what comes out of the mouth that what goes into the mouth. The latter affect our physical well-being; the former reflect our spiritual health. ‘We work hard to keep our outward appearance attractive, but what is in our hearts is even more important. The way we are deep down (where others can’t see) matters much to God. What are you like inside? When people become Christians, God makes them different on the inside. He will continue the process of change inside them if they only ask. God wants us to have healthy thoughts and motives, not just healthy food and exercise.’ (HBA)

Mt 15:19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.

= Mk 7:21

“Out of the heart” – ‘The source of true defilement in men is the human heart, and the tragedy of men’s having to sin reaches its demonic fulfilment in man’s wanting to sin.  There is no heart in which this radical evil has failed to take root.’ (Lane)

‘This explanation places the question of defilement and purity on a fundamentally different plane than that presupposed by the scribes and Pharisees.  By this interpretation Jesus does not alleviate the demand for purity but sharpens it…The capacity for fellowship with God is not destroyed by material uncleanness of food or hands; it is destroyed by personal sin.’ (Lane)

It is difficult, in the light of this teaching, to accept the assertion by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann (The Lost Message of Jesus, p67) that ‘Jesus believed in original goodness’ (i.e. not ‘original sin’).  Subsequently, Chalke defended this contention by reference to Gen 1:31, but this, of course, comes before the Fall, a fact inexplicably ignored by him.

Other lists of vices are found in Rom 1:18-32; Rom 13:13; 1 Co 5:9-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 4:19; 5:3-5; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thess 2:3; 4:3-7; 1 Tim 1:9-10; 6:4-5; 2 Tim 3:2-5; Tit 3:3, 3:9-10; 1 Pet 4:3; Rev 21:8, Rev 22:15.

‘It is worth noting that ‘sexual immorality’ (porneiai) is in the plural, and is included as a separate item from ‘adultery’ (moicheia). This term would include premarital sex before marriage, and sex with a prostitute, but would also refer to illicit sexual unions prohibited in Leviticus 18. Given Jesus’ ‘conservative’ approach to sexual ethics generally (such as supporting the more restrictive of the approaches to divorce), it is difficult to imagine that he did not also share the characteristic Jewish rejection of same-sex relations.’ (Ian Paul)

“Evil thoughts” – ‘Our hearts are of that colour which our most constant thoughts dye into it. Transient fleeting thoughts, whether of one kind or another, do not alter the temper of the sould. Neither poison kills nor food nourishes, unless they stay in the body; nor does good or evil benefit or hamr the mind unless they abide in it.’ (Gurnall)

“Adultery” – ‘This is the violation of the marriage bond: a married man’s voluntary sexual intercourse with someone other than his wife; or a married woman’s voluntary sexual intercourse with someone other than her husband.  It should be made clear, however, that Jesus sharpened the edge of every commandment. He taught that hatred is murder (Mt 5:21-22), and that a married man’s lustful look at another woman is adultery (Mt 5:28).’ (Hendriksen, on Mark)

Mt 15:20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'”

‘If nothing outward can defile, it is obvious that nothing purely outward can sanctify – as the Church of Rome teaches that Sacraments, for example, do of themselves (“ex opere operato”).’ (JFB)

John Stott offers, from this passage, the following outline concerning evil:-

  1. Its extent is universal
  2. Its essence is self-centredness
  3. Its origin is the human heart
  4. Its consequence is defilement

“These are what make a man ‘unclean'” – ‘They render a man unfit for communion with God, they bring a stain upon the conscience; and, if not mortified and rooted out, will shut men out of the new Jerusalem, into which no unclean thing shall enter.’ (MHC)

The Faith of the Canaanite Woman, 21-28

Mt 15:21–28 = Mk 7:24–30

Mt 15:21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

The account which follows is paralleled in Mk 7:24-30.  Matthew, however, while still recording the miracle, emphasises the dialogue.  As in the account of the centurian’s servant (Mt 8:5-13) the main focus is on Jesus’ attitude to Gentile faith.

In the present story, ‘the issue of defilement now recurs in a more practical form.’ (NBC)

Mt 15:22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

There are Old Testament precedents (notably the Sidonian woman and Elijah (1 Kings 17:18–19) and the Shunammite woman with Elisha (2 Kings 4:28) for Gentile women pleading for help from a prophet, and refusing to take no for an answer.

A Canaanite woman– ‘Matthew’s use of the old term “Canaanite” shows that he cannot forget her ancestry: a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies comes to the Jewish Messiah for blessing.’ (EBC)

According to Mark, this woman is from Syro-Phoenicia (a region outside Judea).  Peter Enns (The Bible Tells Me So, p42) thinks that the woman isn’t really a Canaanite – Matthew just calls her that, as if to make the point that the only mention in the NT of Israel’s ancient enemies is in the context of our Lord’s favour towards them.  (Enns adds that if there were any ‘Canaanites’ living in the land in Jesus’ day, it was the Romans – and Jesus made perfectly clear that these ‘enemies’ were to be ‘loved’ by his followers.)

Actually, this woman’s ethnic and cultural background would seem a little more complex than Enns allows.  Mark describes her as ‘Greek’, suggesting that she was Hellenised to some degree.  Her conversation with Jesus was presumably carried out in Greek.  Then her opening words are in Jewish idiom, with ‘Son of David’ being a Jewish title for the Messiah.  And, as France points out, her subsequent dialogue with Jesus ‘suggests a more sophisticated awareness of the significance of Jesus’ role as the Jewish Messiah.’

“Lord, Son of David” – The first appellation may be no more than a polite address.  The second is remarkable, coming as it does from the lips of a Gentile.

Mt 15:23 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.”

‘It is said that “He answered not a word,” but it is not said, he heard not a word. These two differ much. Christ often heareth when he does not answer-His not answering is an answer.’ (Samuel Rutherford)

“Send her away” – They clearly wanted some peace and quiet (cf. v21).  They might well have thought that this could most readily be achieved by Jesus granting her wish.

Mt 15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

See Mt 10:5f.  Interpreters must reckon with this very clear restriction by Jesus during his earthly ministry, along with the subsequent expansion of his mission to all nations (Mt 28:16).

Jesus’ mention of the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ cannot refer to the lost then tribes (because that would have made no sense in the context of this chapter) but rather to Israel as a whole.  His statement thus lends some support to the notion (of Wright and others) that Israel was thought of as still being in exile and that Jesus mission involved bringing that exile to an end.

‘Jesus’ statement in verse 24 does not preclude a later mission to Gentiles. The servant of Isaiah 53:6–8 suffers on behalf of the lost sheep of Israel (cf. Isa 40:11; 56:11), but the servant’s mission was ultimately to reconcile all nations to God (42:6; 49:6–7).’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

Mt 15:25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

‘When the answers of prayer are deferred, God is thereby teaching us to pray more, and pray better. It is then time to enquire wherein we have come short in our former prayers, that what has been amiss may be amended for the future. Disappointments in the success of prayer, must be excitements to the duty of prayer.’ (MHC)

Mt 15:26 he replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

An atrocious saying?
France notes that this has been described as ‘an atrocious saying’, expressing ‘incredible insolence’ and based on ‘the worst kind of chauvinism’.  It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse.  But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind.  But, says, France, ‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’

NBC similarly: ‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’

Here, as in many other places, we would love to have been able to hear our Lord’s tone of voice (teasing?) and see his facial expression (a twinkle in his eye?).  But even though that is impossible, we can nevertheless infer these things from the context, and particularly from the fact that the women showed no signs of having felt offended.

Jesus’ comment, then, is designed to draw the woman out and to explore what kind of faith she has in him as ‘Son of David’.

(Writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Amy-Jill Levine says that ‘the claim that Jesus’ response, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” was expressed with a smile on his lips is apologetic.’  Unfortunately, the author does not substantiate her assertion.)

Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, tweeted that ‘It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man who changes his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person.’

Evan’s remark suffers from undue psychologising.  Better to accept that Matthew’s Gospel, and the others too, is more interested in theology than psychology.

Michael Bird‘s comment is worth quoting in full:-

‘Jesus’ ironic remark towards the woman concerns the focus of Israel in his mission and deliberately attempts to elicit a shrewd comeback. He acknowledges the validity of the woman’s reply that Israel’s blessings can, even in limited ways, extend to Gentiles, a theme found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition (e.g. Lk. 4.25-27).  But the key issue is that such a blessing is available for Gentiles in the present.  Rhoads paraphrases the woman’s response: ‘Even now I and my daughter at the margins (should) benefit from just one exorcism from among the many benefits for the Jews.’  This aspect has a direct bearing upon the argument that I am constructing.  Whereas the salvation of the Gentiles was ordinarily programmed to occur at the eschaton, here the in-breaking of the kingdom and the gradual restoring of Israel was already bringing immediate results for Gentiles. Jesus’ ironic aside is met with recognition from the woman not merely of the priority of Israel, but the significance that Israel’s salvation holds for Gentiles in the present. As the children of Israel are being fed, crumbs are now falling for the dogs. As Israel’s restoration becomes more and more of a reality, it becomes more and more possible for Gentiles to experience the blessing of its fulfillment. In this sense, interpreting the pericope in terms of ‘Jew first and then Gentile’ fails to grapple with the significance that a partially realized restoration has for Gentiles.  That is not to collapse the entire eschatological hope for the Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry since the full inclusion of Gentiles can only begin when Israel’s restoration is complete.  What is important is that the restoration of Israel, in nascent form, carries with it incipient eschatological benefits for the Gentiles who find themselves confronted with God’s anointed prophet. As the children of Israel are fed, it is possible for the dogs (i.e. Gentiles) to be fed as a consequence of Israel’s dawning restoration.’

‘Every accepted prayer is not immediately an answered prayer. Sometimes God seems not to regard his people’s prayers, like a man asleep or astonished; (Ps 44:23; Jer 14:9; Ps 22:1,2) nay, to be angry at them; (Ps 80:4; Lam 3:8,44) but it is to prove, and so to improve, their faith, and to make his after-appearances for them the more glorious to himself, and the more welcome to them; for the vision, at the end, shall speak, and shall not lie, Heb 2:3. See Job 35:14.’ (MHC)

Mt 15:27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Consistent with the interpretation given of the previous verse, the woman’s reply gives no indication that she feels insulted.  Her reply, however, does suggest remarkable perception ‘in recognising both the primary scope of Jesus’ mission to Israel and also the fact that that was not to be its ultimate limit.  She thus, like the centurian, foreshadows the time when the true Israel will transcend the boundaries of culture and nationality.’ (France)

‘The woman’s answer is masterly. Those two words “but even” reveal immense wisdom and faith. She does not argue that her needs make her an exception, or that she has a right to Israel’s covenanted mercies, or that the mysterious ways of divine election and justice are unfair. She simply asks for help, hopeful that she may be allowed to receive a crumb from the kindness of the Lord.’ (EBC)

Mt 15:28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

“You have great faith!” – ‘It is her faith that he commends. There were several other graces that shone bright in her conduct of this affair-wisdom, humility, meekness, patience, perseverance in prayer; but these were the product of her faith, and therefore Christ fastens upon that as most commendable; because of all graces faith honours Christ most, therefore of all graces Christ honours faith most.’ (MHC)

‘Though weak faith, if true, shall not be rejected, yet great faith shall be commended, and shall appear greatly well-pleasing to Christ; for in them that thus believe he is most admired. Thus Christ commended the faith of the centurion, and he was a Gentile too, he had a strong faith in the power of Christ, this woman in the good-will of Christ; both were acceptable.’ (MHC)

We may compare this encounter between Jesus and the Syropheonician woman with that between our Lord and the centurion of Capernaum (Mt 8:5ff; Lk 7:2ff) and between Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10).  In Lk 4:25-27, Jesus had already signalled his desire to continue the OT precedent of blessing individual Gentiles.  These episodes ‘contain the promise of that abundant outpouring of blessing upon Gentiles of which we read in Acts, commencing with the Cornelius episode in Acts 10’ (F.F. Bruce, Answers to questions, p48).  This pattern is continued in Acts 13:46, with the turning to the Gentiles, and continues up to, and beyond, Acts 28:28.

Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand, 29-39

Mt 15:29–31 = Mk 7:31–37
Mt 15:32–39 = Mk 8:1–10
Mt 15:32–39 = Mt 14:13–21

Mark and Matthew relate two very similar feeding miracles (Mk 6:30-34; 8:1-10; cf. Mt 14:13-21; 15:32-39). Scholars frequently assume that Mark (and Matthew following him) has told the same story twice. The feeding of the 4,000 is said to be a variant of the feeding of the 5,000, which is the version found in Luke and John.

The following reasons are adduced for thinking that Mark and Matthew have given two accounts of the same story:- (a) the disciples’ question, Mk 8:4, seems odd if a feeding miracle had already taken place, not long before; (b) the two stories have many points of similarity; (c) immediately after both incidents Jesus boards a boat and sails across Lake Genneresaret; (d) after both accounts the disciples express fear of confusion because they did not understand the significance of the ‘loaves’, Mk 6:45-52 8:14-21.

However, it could equally be argued that Mark and Matthew have deliberately brought out the similarities between two different incidents, in order to emphasise the teaching about the person of Christ and the disciples’ difficulties of faith.

This miracle shows the great generosity of Jesus, and his power over nature.

Mt 15:29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down.

Mt 15:30 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.

Mt 15:31 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.

They praised the God of Israel – As N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) remarks, ‘In first-century terms the main thing that would be ‘seen’ in the mighty works was not a supernatural display of power for its own sake but the coming of Israel’s god in power to save and heal, to do for these individuals what had been promised (it was thought) to the nation as a whole. As Matthew puts it, ‘They glorified the god of Israel.’ The works of power were a vital ingredient in the inauguration of the kingdom.

Mt 15:32 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.”

“I have compassion for these people” – This should not be ignored as a motive for Jesus’ miracles. ‘To be sure, Christians should be provoked by the idolatry of a Hindu city, as Paul was by the idols in Athens, and moved to evangelism. But, like Jesus when he saw the hungry crowds, we should also be moved with compassion to feed them’. (cf. Acts 17:16-17) (Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today)

Mt 15:33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

Mt 15:34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”

Mt 15:35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground.

Mt 15:36 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.

Mt 15:37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

Mt 15:38 The number of those who ate was four thousand, besides women and children.

Mt 15:39 After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.