Notes Matthew chapter 15

©  copyright  1997 drs Gijs van den Brink


Clean and unclean  15:1-20

15:1. Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem. Scribes and Pharisees lived all over the country, but these came from Jerusalem. This is obviously an official delegation from Jerusalem, sent to investigate Jesus' work more closely. Apparently His reputation was growing and He was beginning to attract attention from the authorities (cf. 14:1). They had presumably counted on Jesus' going to Jerusalem for the Passover (cf. John 6:1-3, parallel with Matt 14:13-21). When He did not do so, they went to Galilee.
Then ...: The word 'then' (Gk. tote) is very indefinite: 'one day'. Matthew and Mark consider the location equally unimportant. It might have been Capernaum (cf. John 6:24).

2. Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? The Jews took account of both the written law found in the OT and an oral law, which was called 'the tradition of the elders'. These 'elders' (Gk. presbuteroi, cf. Heb11:2) are the forefathers (cf. Matt 5:21, Gal 1:14). The oral tradition (the 'halaka') was regarded as the only true explanation of divine law and was held to be as authoritative as the written. This oral tradition was written down in the Mishnah in the Second Century A.D.
Jesus was approached because of the disciples' behaviour. The Master was held responsible for what the disciples did or did not do (Cf.12:1-2). Their question had to do with every deviation from rabbinical Pharisaic law. This may be seen in the words 'tradition', 'commandment of God' and 'word of God' (vv.2,3,6), which are clearly meant generally. Washing the hands before and after meals is only an example to clarify the complaint.

They don't wash their hands before they eat! It was customary to cleanse oneself ritually before and after a meal by twice pouring cold water over the hands. The first water cleansed the hands, the second washed away the first water, which had become unclean (SB I, 698-699). Such a commandment cannot be found anywhere in the OT. But orthodox Jews considered the breaking of this tradition to be as serious as, for example sexual immorality.

3. why do you break the command of God. Jesus admitted that the disciples had transgressed a tradition, but posed a counter-question, which implies: Even if they break a rule, you are the only people who sin, because you break the commandment of God. Jesus set the law of God against the traditions of the elders and for Him it was only the former that was completely authoritative. In His turn He accused the scribes of breaking the divine commandment for the sake of human traditions.

4. Honour your father and mother. The commandment to honour one's father and mother (Exod 20:12) does not merely require a child to obey and respect them. It also means that one must continue to love them and esteem them and if necessary care for them when they are old. Who does the opposite of this, i.e. curses and despises them, is punished and must die the death (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9; cf. Deut 27:16). This shows the seriousness of the commandment to honour one's parents. Just as was the case of washing the hands in v.2 this is an example (see v.6b).

5. Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God. Jesus contrasts the words of the rabbis (v.5) with the Word of God. While the Scriptures consider despising one's parents so serious (v.4), the scribes and Pharisees do the opposite. The Fourth Commandment especially was subordinated to vows taken for the Temple (SB 1, 711.717). A child who did not want to help his parents could take refuge in the tradition of vows for the temple, which says that the vow of giving gifts to the temple releases a person from his responsibilities to others. Behind this is to be found the principle developed by the rabbis, that actions relating to the temple cult (rituals and forms) are more important than works of love (disposition and behaviour), cf. Matt 23:23-26. Jesus, on the contrary, teaches the opposite (cf. Mark.12:28-34).

In practice this tradition proved to be worse than in theory. We are dealing here with children who not only neglected their parents but even enriched themselves under the guise of being religious. The temple vow in this case made it possible that every advantage the parents might expect from their son's possessions would be considered a sacrificial gift (korban) for them (!), so that they were denied any use of it, while the son retained it in this way as his own (SB I, 711).
The words 'a gift devoted to God' agrees literally with the formula for vows. Not uncommonly did such vows occur during quarrels between parents and children.

6. you nullify the word of God. Even in the most favourable circumstances the vow to make a gift to the temple was voluntary, while honouring father and mother was a commandment. Through these human traditions people avoided doing what God had expressly commanded them to do and robbed His Word of its power.

7. You hypocrites! Other people called them 'rabbi' and 'sir', but Jesus called them 'hypocrites' (see Matt 23 especially). Even the Jews themselves had now and then realised their hypocrisy, as can be seen from the words of the rabbi Nathan (circa 160 A.D): 'There are ten parts of hypocrisy in the world, nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.'
The dissembling spirit of Isaiah's time had become full-scale hypocrisy in Jesus' time: religion without morality. By their emergence the Pharisees, and with them the people on whom they had set their stamp, fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah (29:13).
'Hypocrite' (hupokrits), really actor (cf. Matt 6:2,5,16), literally someone who wears a mask when on stage. It may mean both someone who deceives himself and someone who deceives others.

8-9. A hypocrite is a person who honours God with his mouth but not in his heart. Hence the heart of a hypocrite is always far from God.
They worship me in vain: their worship of me is an empty show. Jesus does not quote Isa 29:13 literally, but gives a paraphrase of the scripture (our text is closely related to that of the LXX). rules taught by men. Paul also writes of this 'self-made religion' (the doctrines of men) in Col 2:22-23.

10. Jesus called the crowd to him. So far Jesus has only spoken to the Pharisees and the scribes. He has given them an answer (vv.3-9) to their question (vv.1-2). But it did not lead to a dispute. The rabbis did not say anything else (though they did show their annoyance, v.12), and Jesus then turned to the people.
Because we read that Jesus called the people to Him, it is probable that they had kept their distance out of respect for the religious leaders when He was talking to them.
Listen and understand. Concerning 'understand' see Matt 13:19,23,51; 16:9,11.

11. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean'. Jesus returns to the matter of washing the hands before meals (v.2), which was supposed to prevent making food unclean by touching it with unclean hands. With these words He wanted to teach the people that it is not the rabbinical rules for cleanliness which determine whether a man is clean, but the tongue and the heart (v.18; cf. 12:34). But because food and words in general are contrasted here, this saying of Jesus must imply in the last instance that for Jesus' disciples, who belong to the Kingdom of God, ritual cleanliness out of the OT (Lev 11; Deut 14:3-21) is to play no further role, but only the inner renewing of the heart and moral cleanliness, being pure of heart (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Tim 4:4,5; Acts 10:15; Rom 14:17).

12. Do you know that the Pharisees were offended. When the people had gone and Jesus was again back at home (Mark 7:17), the disciples came to Him with questions. In the first place they asked if Jesus knew that the Pharisees had been offended by His words. It is possible that the disciples became afraid at what Jesus had said and were thinking of the consequences that might follow if Jesus set Himself against the Pharisees, the official leaders. It is also conceivable that they had counted on a completely different result of the meeting between their Master and the religious leaders.

13. Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted. Just as with the blind in v.14, 'every plant' must mean the Pharisees (cf. Matt 3:10; Luke 13:7) and not their traditions.
Even within the old covenant there were plants which did not form a part of the people of God. They will be pulled up by the roots, i.e., they are ripe for judgment (Ps 80:8-12; Isa 5:1-8).

14. Leave them: Let them do what they want, let them go and do not concern yourself with them further. This means that they are to have nothing more to do with them. It is important to differentiate between the weak who take offense because they have no knowledge but afterwards come to their senses and proud hypocrites such as these Pharisees. One must not try to please those who are displeasing to God (1 Thess 2:15).

they are blind guides.Jesus calls the Pharisees and the people on whom they have put their stamp blind, i.e., ignorant, not knowing the will of God (cf. Matt 23:16, 24; Rom 2:19). The Pharisees misled the people and themselves, too, by distracting attention from what was essential and emphasising what was unimportant. In this way they cause their own blindness (cf. John 3:19; 9:40-41).

both will fall into a pit. This speaks of the judgement that shall come upon them, as does being uprooted (v.13). The 'pit' may therefore be an image of the depths of Hades, the underworld (cf. Isa 24:22).

15. Explain the parable to us. As appears from Jesus' answer (vv.17-20), Peter's question had to do with the 'parable' of v.11 and not with v.14. So the spokesman for the disciples comprehended this word from Jesus as a parable. We see here that every expression that was not immediately clear was considered to be a parable in a general sense.

16. Are you still so dull? All the emphasis is on the word 'still', placed early in the Greek clause. They who had been with Him for so long should have understood (John 14:9). Jesus was amazed and disappointed.

17-18. Jesus contrasts the stomach and the heart. Sin and impurity are not matters of the stomach but of the heart. The attitude of the heart is always decisive. What is in the heart will leave its mark on the life-style (Matt 12:33-35). It is also clear that this general principle is also true of the commandments on ritual cleanliness described in the law (Lev 11; Deut 14:3-21; see commentary on v.11, cf. Rom 14:14,20).
then out of the body: more literally in the NEB 'discharged into the drain'. The meaning of the Greek word aphedrn is: latrine, a W.C. (Bauer, s.v.).

19. For out of the heart come evil thoughts. The evil thoughts which Jesus mentions here are, of course, not the only ones that can be found in the heart of man. They are only a few general examples, based on the Ten Commandments. The general nature of the examples is also apparent in the use of the plural.
We read of 'the wicked heart' elsewhere, e.g., Eccles 8:11 and Jer 17:9.


The Canaanite Woman 15:21-28

21. Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to. This was no journey with a particular purpose, but Jesus' withdrawal is continued (cf. 14:13), and is possibly directly related to Pharisaic opposition (15:1-20).

the region of Tyre and Sidon. Both Tyre and Sidon were principal harbours in Phoenicia (the coastal plain to the west and north-west of Galilee). They were about 30 km apart. In the days of David and Solomon they were the most important ports in the world. They were later captured by the Babylonians, the Persians, and Alexander the Great. Until Christ's time Tyre was an important trading centre.

Hence, Jesus was heading north-west towards the heathen peoples, who were known to be averse to the Jews. It is not clear from Matthew's account if Jesus crossed the border into Phoenicia or not. Jesus had previously spoken about Tyre and Sidon (11:22-23).

22. The woman is called a Canaanite from the name of the people who had inhabited this region earlier (Num 13:29). The distance between Jew and Gentile is expressed in its deepest measure in the name. Mark says that she was a heathen from Syro-Phoenicia (7:26). Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! Although it appears from what follows that she was not a proselyte, the woman must have known of the promised Messiah, because she addresses Jesus as 'Son of David'. Yet Jesus did not listen to her for this reason, but for her humble and great faith (vv.27-28).

My daughter is suffering terribly. Her child's need was her own need and she called out persistently (see v.23) as if it concerned herself. The positive side of the need was that it brought her to Jesus. She would quite possibly never have met him without these difficulties.

23. Jesus did not answer a word. Jesus had to reject the woman because of His calling before His death in general (v.24) and His way after the death of John the Baptist in particular (see 14:13; cf. Mark 7:24). The difference with the centurion in Capernaum (8:5-13) is that this occurrence took place during His public ministry in Galilee and had to do with a heathen who stood by the Jews very closely and lived among them. In that case a rejection would have separated Him from His people and from His calling, but here it was the approach to the woman.

Send her away. The disciples' reaction to the persistent calling of the woman must mean they wanted Jesus to give her what she was asking for quickly, so that they would be rid of her. His response would otherwise be incomprehensible (cf. 15:32; Luke 11:8). It was not concern for the woman that led the disciples to talk in this way. On the contrary, they considered that this gentile woman was annoying them.

24. I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus had not come to His people, the Jews, to reward the righteous but to save the lost. This was His calling before His death: first the Jewish people, the House of Israel, cf. Matt 10:6 (1:21); John 10:16-18; 11:52; Rom 15:8). The gentiles would come later, after His death and resurrection. Moreover, had He turned from the Jews and gone immediately to the gentiles, it would have closed every door to His own people (cf. John 7:35).

25. The woman came and knelt before him. The disciples said nothing more and the woman did not let herself be frightened off. She went to the house where Jesus was staying (Mark 7:24-25), she fell down before Him and remained prostrate (as appears from the imperfect tense used). She did not understand much of the theological side of things. The only thing she did understand was that Jesus could help her. Her belief was not a sort of superstitious hope for a miracle, but a solid trust that would not let itself be distracted (see v.27).

26. Jesus spoke severely to the Jews, but He spoke in friendly terms about them to the gentiles. The children are the Jews, the children born to the Kingdom (8:12) and the children of the House of Israel, built by God (10:6; 15:24). The dogs are the gentiles. But it is not meant as an insult. It has to do with little dogs (Gk. kunaria) which may enter the house and which are fed from their masters' own plate so that they do not starve. The picture is one of the different share that children and dogs have in the meal. Here Jesus is illustrating the same principle as in v.24: the Jew first (cf. Mark 7:27).

27. The woman not only confirmed (nai) what Jesus had said, but even saw a chance for her to repeat her request out of the comparison. Her faith is unshakable. It is not only a firm trust in the help she will obtain, but it also contains a relationship with the person of Jesus, for she calls Him 'Son of David' and 'Lord'. Moreover she recognises that He is the Giver of the bread of life and expresses her contentment with a crumb from the feast meant for Israel.

the crumbs that fall. The 'crumbs' or 'left-overs' are not simply pieces of bread in the basic sense of the word, but larger pieces used to clean the fingers and then thrown under the table (people used to eat with the fingers!). Hence what is meant is left-overs in general.

28. Woman, you have great faith! The obstacles had merely served to strengthen her faith, and she was the second heathen to hear from Jesus' lips that her faith was great (cf. 8:10). We also have here the second example of a healing at a distance (cf. 8:13).
Jesus often complained at unbelief, which was even to be found among those closest to Him; in 14:31 He had to set Peter to rights because of his lack of faith. Nota bene this was somebody who daily had the opportunity to feed on Jesus' teaching and to profit from seeing His works, while this woman had only heard a rumour about Jesus (cf. Mark 3:8; Luke 6:17).

The Canaanite woman agreed with Jesus ('Yes, Lord', v.27) and He gave her what she wanted. The second is conditional on the first. But if the condition is fulfilled we observe that Jesus, like God, does not let Himself be inexorable (cf. 1 Chron 5:20; 2 Sam 24:25; 2 Chron 33:13; Isa 19:22).


Jesus Heals Many Sick People 15:29-31

29. Jesus left there. We do not know how long Jesus remained in the districts of Tyre and Sidon. But from this remote area in the north-west He walked in a great bow round the Jewish border towards Decapolis, south or south-east of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 7:31-37).

he went up on a mountainside. If He then went up into a mountain there, it was not to rest but to work (vv. 30-31). The extended description gives the impression that Jesus had entered this district for the first time.

30. and laid them at his feet. Literally: they cast, they threw them (Gk. erripsan) at his feet, not out of indifference, but because they were in a hurry. In this way many people came to Him for the same purpose, namely, to seek healing for the lame, the handicapped, the blind and for many other diseases.

It did not matter here (in contrast to vv.21-28) if they were Jews or gentiles. Those who came received help and it went on like that for three days (v.32). Jesus' ministry was not disadvantaged here (see commentary on v.23), but served rather to glorify the God of Israel (v.31). Right from the beginning people from Decapolis had come to Him (4:25) and Jesus Himself had performed healings here previously (8:28-34).

31. As all this happened in Decapolis, most of those who now came to Jesus were gentiles. The expression 'they glorified the God of Israel' indicates the same too.


The Feeding of the Four Thousand 15:32-39

32. I have compassion for these people. The Master's compassion may be seen several times in the NT, Matt 9:36; 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13. Love for men and care for them, also for their bodily needs, was something that characterised His whole life on earth. 'I have compassion for these people (see commentary on 9:36) might have been written about every day of His life.
We have here too an example of His preventive work. He does not wait until the people have almost succumbed. He does something before it is too late.

they have already been with me three days: according to the Jewish way of counting days, this may mean one whole day and parts of two others (see commentary on 12:40).

33. Where could we get enough bread. If the stress is on 'we' the disciples meant: 'You must set things to rights Yourself, for we cannot do it.' But it is also conceivable that they had 'forgotten' the previous miracle (14:15-21) or even doubted whether it could be repeated. In this case they were not the only people to 'forget' God's great miracles. Immediately after the children of Israel had been led through the Red Sea, they believed they would perish in the wilderness (Exod 17:1-7).

34. How many loaves do you have? Jesus did not want them to be preoccupied with what they did not have. He asked them what they did have. He saw things positively, while the disciples so easily thought of the negative side (v.33).
Despite everything they were better provided for now than on the previous occasion (14:17). There were now seven loaves instead of five and some fishes instead of two. Moreover, there were fewer people to be fed (see v.38).

35-36. The disciples first gave what they had to Jesus and after that received it back from Him, so that they could pass His blessing on to the people. They were allowed to be an intermediary between a rich God and needy people (cf. commentary on 14:19).

37. seven basketfuls. Another Greek word (spuris) is used here for 'baskets' than at the first feeding. Apparently larger baskets are meant here, big enough to hold a man (Acts 9:25). So we see a contrast between the 7 loaves at the beginning and the 7 large baskets of fragments at the end.

38. Jesus prepared a meal four times during His earthly journey. After His work in Galilee had ended, He fed the 5.000 (14:13-21) and after a short period working among the gentiles in Decapolis he fed the 4.000 here and when His earthly journey was nearly done He shared bread and wine with the disciples (26:26-30). After He had risen from the death, they received food from His hands for the fourth and last time (John 21:12-13).

If we compare the two miraculous feedings we see the divine principle here at work too: First the Jew, then the gentile (cf. v.24 and Mark 7:27). In this way Matt 15:29-38 becomes an anticipation, a prophecy of the future, just as 2:1-12, 8:5-13 and 15:21-28.

39. Magadan was on the western side of the lake, possibly near Magdala, but probably it is not the same place.