Matthew 15 Commentary

Matthew 15:1-20

There is no Scripture that demands that we wash our hands before we eat.  Washing one’s hands is certainly good hygiene, but here the Pharisees were insistent on making the practice a condition of righteousness.  Like the plucking heads of grain earlier, the Pharisees again condemned Jesus’ disciples for a rabbinic tradition that had been elevated to the level of Scripture.

And again Jesus uses the Pharisee’s condemnation to reveal the depths of their hypocrisy and blasphemy. In defending his disciples, he points to another rabbinic tradition that the Pharisees taught that nullified the Word of God for the sake of giving them money.  In Old Testament Scripture, “Anyone who curses his mother and father must be put to death” and how much more a teacher of the law who encourages adult sons and daughters to despise their parents by giving the religious authorities the money (Corban) that should have been earmarked for needy parents.  Jesus exposed how the Pharisees had completely set aside one of the ten most sacred commands in order to enrich themselves.

Jesus also took the Pharisees’ phony outrage as an occasion to prove the largest spiritual point possible.  In essence, he says:  You want to know what truly defiles a man?  It’s not his dirty hands or what he puts into his mouth.  These are just things outside the body that when taken into the body are broken down and eliminated.  These things are merely dirt and grime from the outside world that is temporal, finite and passing away.  No, what truly defiles a man comes from what’s already within him. It’s the evil things that reside his evil heart that defiles him.

But the disciples were more worried about the Pharisees’ anger than with what Jesus was saying, and in doing so they missed Jesus’ larger point.  So the Lord escalated his language.  He said that evil thoughts, murder, adultery, slander, lies, blasphemies are always swimming around in the human heart because the heart is always looking for and longing to do evil. There is no kernel of pure intentions residing in men’s souls that  waits to be awakened by a good education, rigid moral self-disciples or just the right thinking.  Jesus says that human heart is bent for one purpose only: to gratify its evil desires, and the proof of this is best evidenced by what comes out of a man’s mouth.

And Christ’s rebuke points us to an even greater reality.  There is no hope apart from God and there is no salvation apart from Christ.  The phony salvation that is offered by the Pharisee’s strict rule keeping is hollow and worthless. They are but dead rules created by sinful men in the vain attempt to teach other sinful men to rise to God’s perfection without ever asking for his help. But the heart within needs to be replaced by God himself.  It must be transformed into a heart that loves as God loves, sacrifices as God sacrificed, and is kind as God is kind.  This new heart must also be peace-loving, gentle, faithful and pure.

This heart must be the heart of Christ himself.

New hearts can only come by faith in Jesus Christ, and this is why the Lord’s stern rebuke beckons the religious authorities to contemplate their hypocrisy in light of their motivations, and to turn to Christ from their dead rules.  But tragically, the Pharisees cannot turn to Christ.  For turning to the Lord would have required them to do the unthinkable, to admit that their rabbinic traditions (such as Corban) are nothing but vain rules taught by men.  They would also have had to humble themselves enough to admit that Jesus was right about their hypocrisy and their wicked hearts.  The would have had to admit that Jesus was the Christ, the long awaited Messiah who had come to save his people from their sins.

Matthew 15:21-28

The Canaanite woman had nothing to lose. Her daughter was suffering from a demon-possession that no shaman or physician could cure. She was a member of a condemned race that to the Jewish nation was nothing more than a despised, long-forgotten and hopeless people.

Yet the irony that develops between this woman and Jesus is beautiful as is the result of her pleas.

Completely unlike the demons that threatened to expose Jesus earlier, this woman intimates essentially the same thing as the demons, but does so for a completely different reason. The demons cried out that Jesus was “The Son of God” and “The Holy One of Israel!” hoping to expose his identity for the sake of unraveling his mission.  The Canaanite woman called him “Lord” and the “Son of David” yet amazingly, Jesus did not rebuke her for her salutations and instead rewarded her persistent faith.

The difference between the woman and the demons was a difference of the heart. The Canaanite woman did not yell out a threat, but cried a humble plea. She called him Lord and the Son of David, not to stop his ministry but to admit to him that she knew he was the Christ and powerful enough to save.  Her motivation was not to stop Jesus from carrying out his mission.  Her cry was not even for herself, but she begged Jesus with a believing heart for the sake of her daughter, seeking relief on her behalf.

Apart from Jesus’ wisdom in the Gospel, there may not be a wiser response in Scripture than the one this woman gave. Having no reason to suppose that Jesus would grant her request, the woman shrugs off the apparent initial rejection and replied: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

What an unbelievable statement of faith this is in face of such little outward evidence for hope. For on three occasions Jesus seems to turn her away.  First, he remains silent after her initial plea, and then only answers her after the disciples insist that he send her away.  After making another, more insistent plea, Jesus makes a statement that seems to reinforce the disciple’s desires that she give up asking and just go away.  But then it is her third plea that changes everything, and for such a wise reply Jesus grants her request and her daughter is healed.

The Canaanite woman teaches us a great deal about the nature and practice of faith. For take just a moment and consider her situation.  The woman’s traditions and her people’s history offered her little comfort when confronted with a crisis much bigger than her herself. They told her to not expect anything from the Jewish rabbi. They told her that the Jews cannot offer her any help according to their own traditions and laws. And yet this woman persisted and pushed through conventional wisdom and refused to give up.   Her reward was a gift of divine mercy and the discovery of a God who gives unending grace to those who ask him.

And look at how this woman behaved at her darkest hour.  She answered Jesus’ silent and initial replies by continuing to beg for his help. She essentially says: “I admit that I am no more than a dog, Jesus. But even little dogs are granted mercy from their masters’ table.  Even they are permitted to eat up the scraps that fall from their children’s plates. So I don’t believe that you will do nothing more for me, Jesus because I know you are merciful. I’ve heard how you’ve helped other Gentiles. I’ve heard about the mercy you’ve shown for your people.  I believe in your Gospel, and so I refuse to believe that you will not help me in my distress just as your Father helped the Syrian widow and her son (1 Kings 17:67-24) and helped Naaman the leper (2 Kings 5:1-19) through the prophet Elisha.”

Jesus was delighted with her answer. He happily granted her request and we are forever blessed with her brave example. This desperate mother pushed through her fear and believed. She expressed faith in face of her Lord’s seeming indifference and was rewarded beyond her expectations when Jesus healed her daughter with but a word.

The lesson this woman teaches us is simple.  Though God may test us in seemingly strange and unpredictable ways, he will not turn away from his promises to help those who call on him in their time of need.  And he will never turn his back on true faith.

Matthew 15:29-39

Jesus’ compassion for the crowd is moving.  For three days they brought their sick, their incapacitated and their helpless.  They came to Jesus seeking mercy and he patiently and happily gave it to them.  And with each miracle the crowd grew more joyful and amazed.

Those that Jesus healed likely joined the crowd as his biggest supporters.  Their shouts were probably the loudest and their hearts were the most grateful.  And the crowd witnessed many miraculous things as they praised the God of Israel.

But in all their enthusiasm for Jesus’ ministry and his miracles, they forgot about their personal needs.  Matthew writes that for three days the people ate nothing and that the nearest town was likely a day or more away.  The writer also notes Jesus’ concern that some of them had put their lives at risk by fasting, and that they would not survive the long journey home without food.  So again, Jesus feeds a crowd of thousands, a group of four thousand men which could have been as large as ten thousand when you consider women and children.  And whether the crowd’s size was four or ten thousand, Christ feeds them with just a few fish and seven loaves of bread.

In this mass feeding, Jesus reinforces the central theme of the Gospel.  Jesus can do much with our little.  He can take our finite resources and miraculously multiply them into infinite blessings.  Our duty is to have faith in Christ and depend on him in all situations.  It’s not our job to understand the where, how and why he will help us.  Our job is only to trust him.

After the mass feeding, Jesus’ miracle is again left with overflow.  He demonstrates that the power of God does not just satisfy with the bare minimum, but blesses us beyond our expectations.  In this mass feeding, Jesus shows us that the love and mercy of God is too great for us to fully grasp. And he teaches us to depend on him, even if we have nothing.

In fact, Jesus seems to prefer that it way.

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