Jesus Condemns the Laws of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-11)
Here we read of the King’s rebuke of many who were opposed to His claims as Lord and the kingdom He announced. There was a remnant whose hearts were opened to the truth and who gladly received our Lord as the promised Messiah. But it was difficult for many to see in this quiet, lowly man of Nazareth that which answered to their expectations of a great world ruler who would deliver the Jewish nation from the Roman yoke and make them again a great people, such as they were in the days of David and Solomon. Their conceptions of the kingdom were utterly carnal, because they were merely natural men who knew nothing of spiritual realities. Consequently they failed to realize that before the prophecies of a restored Israel would be fulfilled there must be repentance on the part of the nation and a definite return to God individually and collectively.
The question of washing raised by Jesus’ critics had to do with a certain ceremonial baptizing of the hands, which all orthodox Jews were supposed to go through before partaking of food. This was something far more than simply cleansing the hands in order that they might be free of impurity as one was about to sit down to a meal. This washing involved quite a lengthy ceremony, and so the Pharisees put the question, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” That is, the disciples ignored the regulations of the Pharisees.
As was so often His custom, the Lord answered by putting a direct question to them, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” He then cited that commandment of the law which begins, “Honour thy father and mother,” and also the judgment of the law concerning those who cursed father or mother, as found in Exodus 21:17. While professing to honor the Word of God they really made God’s Word ineffectual by one of their own traditions. They allowed a man to ignore the needs of his parents and refuse to be responsible in any way for their support if he dedicated his goods to Jehovah by saying to his parents, “It is Corban, that is to say, a gift” (Mark 7:11). Then the parents were supposed to have no claims on the goods. Thus they were dishonored rather than otherwise, and so the commandment of God was made ineffective. In condemning the actions of the Pharisees, Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13: “This people draw near me with their mouth [they made a great profession of faith in Jehovah], and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.” They did not yield heart-allegiance to Him. The Pharisees gave God empty and formal worship, for instead of obeying the Word of God they substituted the commandments of men.
Turning from the Pharisees to the multitudes who were gathered nearby, Jesus addressed the larger throng, drawing their attention to the fact that one is not defiled by what he eats. It is not food going into the mouth that makes one unclean, but that which comes out of the mouth, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). Unclean and unholy words defile the speaker, not mere neglect of the regulations for preparing to partake of food. It is evident that the Pharisees were very indignant at the way in which the Lord had dealt with them, but instead of toning down the truth in any way the Lord Jesus only affirmed more definitely that which He desired to impress upon them.
Jesus Defines the True Source of Defilement (Matthew 15:12-20)
The disciples were undoubtedly disappointed to have the religious leaders scandalized by the teaching of their Master. They probably hoped that these men had come as honest inquirers who might be led to receive and enter into the kingdom. They were people of importance in the community, and it must have seemed a pity to some of the apostolic band that these leaders should be stumbled and turned away. But the Lord answered, “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.” In other words, only those who were subject in heart to God and His Word would abide as disciples of the Lord; the rest, no matter how encouraging their attitude might be at first, would eventually turn away. As to these Pharisees, one could only let them alone; they were determined upon their evil course and could be considered only as blind leaders of the blind. Those who followed them, accepting their teaching, would be destroyed with the teachers themselves in the day when God dealt with them.
Peter raised a question regarding what the Lord had already said about defilement. With his natural Jewish prejudices he had doubtless thought more of physical defilement than of that which was spiritual, and so he asked the Lord to explain the teaching. He considered the words of Christ to be parabolic rather than literal. Jesus explained very definitely the meaning more fully, while gently reproving Peter for his lack of understanding. He pointed out that no man’s soul is defiled by what he eats. Food passes through the process of digestion in the body, but does not affect the spirit or the soul of the man. On the other hand, those things that come from the heart and are expressed often in speech do indeed defile the man, for they have to do with his whole course of thinking and therefore make his very mind and spirit unclean. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts.” It is these unholy things that defile a man; merely eating with unwashed or unbaptized hands could not defile anyone. The Lord thus traced everything back to its source. We read in Proverbs 4:23, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life,” and in Proverbs 23:7, “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
Following the conversations, first with the Pharisees and then with Peter, Jesus left that particular scene, and went up into the northern part of the land to the very border of Gentile territory. Here a notable miracle was performed on the daughter of a Gentile woman.
Jesus Rewards the Faith of a Gentile Woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
Tyre and Sidon were cities on which God’s judgment had already been poured out because of their wickedness and uncleanness, but they had been somewhat rebuilt and reinhabited—not exactly the original cities but contiguous territory. From this region came a Canaanite woman who had heard of the fame of Jesus, and felt sure He would relieve her daughter’s terrible condition. She came to Jesus crying for mercy. Doubtless to her surprise, and perhaps to that of others, Jesus made no reply whatever. It was not rudeness on His part, for He was the holy One of God, but it was in order to teach her a much-needed lesson. As Son of David He had come to minister to Israel and to reign eventually as King on the throne of David. As such, for the present, a Gentile woman had no claim upon Him; and so He answered her not a word. She continued to plead until the disciples became annoyed and begged Him to send her away. He simply replied, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This must have seemed for the moment a rebuke to the poor, anxious mother. But instead of turning away in despair she bowed down before Him as a worshiper pleading, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” It was a hard saying, but it was meant to reveal the true attitude of her soul. She responded in humility and faith, exclaiming, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Here she used a diminutive—the little dogs, the puppies. She only asked for a few crumbs of blessing that could well be spared since He had dealt so bountifully with Israel.
The heart of Jesus rejoiced to see such an evidence of confidence linked with lowliness of spirit. He granted her request immediately, saying, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” And we are told that her daughter was healed instantly.
Jesus Feeds the Multitude Again (Matthew 15:29-39)
Having completed a circuit from Capernaum through the northern part of Galilee and Iturea (which was the tetrarchy of Philip, the husband of Herodias), Jesus returned to the region of the sea of Galilee, and ascended a mountain with His disciples. As soon as the people knew He was once more in their vicinity, they thronged the roads and ascended the mount on which He sat, bringing with them their sick and maimed friends. He met them all in grace, and healed every one, thus demonstrating again His Messianic authority (Isaiah 35:4-6).
As these country folk saw their friends and relatives delivered from dumbness, lameness, blindness, and various diseases, they were convinced in their own hearts that God had visited His people. They glorified Him as they recognized in these mighty works the credentials of Him who was to be the deliverer of Israel. The people who felt their need and longed for deliverance from sin and its effects received with joy the gospel of the kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus.
In the next miracle Jesus performed we see once more the heart of the blessed Lord going out in compassion to a hungry multitude; this time it was four thousand men, whereas before there were five thousand, besides women and children. On this occasion they had been listening to His ministry for three days and had evidently used up all their own provisions. He was disinclined to “send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.” It seems strange, after the former experience, that the disciples should have ever raised the question, “Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?” The Lord had already proved His power to multiply loaves and fishes, and one might think that they would have counted on His demonstrating the same ability at this time. But strangely enough, they seemed to have forgotten what He had done in the past.
In answer to His question, “How many loaves have ye?” they replied, “Seven, and a few little fishes.” As before, He commanded the multitude to sit on the ground. Then taking into His hands the small amount of food which the disciples had, He gave thanks, broke both the loaves and the fishes, and distributed to the disciples, in order that they might give to the multitude.
We read that “they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full.” Two different words for baskets are used in the accounts of the feeding of the two groups. In the first instance, where the Lord fed the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21), the word translated “baskets” means a wicker traveling basket for small articles, such as people carried with them on a journey. The word used in Matthew 15 means a hamper, a large market basket commonly used by those who went out to buy provisions for the household. This time there were seven of these large baskets filled with the broken bread and fish, enough to provide food for the entire apostolic company for perhaps another whole day.
Just how many people partook of the Lord’s bounty that day we have no means of knowing. The records tell us there were four thousand men, besides women and children. There might not have been a great many of the latter classes; yet undoubtedly there would have been a number of women who had come with their husbands and children who had accompanied their parents.
Sending the multitude away the Lord sailed to the coasts of Magdala, the region in which Mary Magdalene had lived, and from which she took her name.