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Matthew 15:1-16:12

Roger Hahn

Following the Feeding of the Five Thousand in Matthew 14:13-21 and Jesus and Peter Walking on the Water in Matthew 14:22-33, the subject of food continues to play a significant role. Each of the paragraphs in Matthew 15:1-16:12 deal in one way or another with the subject of food and/or eating. This section fits into the larger context portraying the variety of responses to Jesus that began in Matthew 11. Food is one of the highest priorities of human need and so it is not surprising that food would become a significant element that sorted out people’s attitudes of acceptance, manipulation, or rejection of Jesus. Matthew 15:1-20 portrays a controversy with the Pharisees over eating with unwashed hands. Matthew 15:21-28 deals with feeding the crumbs (of the gospel) to the Canaanite woman. The feeding of the four thousand is described in Matthew 15:29-39 and Matthew 16:1-12 returns to the Sadducees and Pharisees with the warning about their leaven.

Matthew 15:1-20 - Eating with Unwashed Hands

This section has three basic units: verses 1-9 condemns the tradition(s) of the Pharisees, verses 10-11 calls on the crowds to hear and understand, and verses 12-20 explains the true meaning of purity to the disciples. Verse 1 introduces a group of Pharisees and scribes sent from Jerusalem to check out Jesus and this new religious movement. Scribes were people skilled in reading and interpreting the Law and in writing their conclusions. The Pharisees were the major religious group in Palestine at that time. They were a lay group committed to the study of Scripture while most of the Sadducees were of priestly families devoted to caring for the temple and its worship. It is possible that the Greek construction should be translated, "Pharisees who were scribes," since most scribes were Pharisees.

Some scholars have questioned whether the religious leadership in Jerusalem would have been interested enough in Galilee to send an investigating group. However, the ministry of Jesus was making even more of an impression than the ministry of John the Baptist had and John 1:19-25 indicates that John had been investigated by representatives of the religious leaders of Jerusalem.

The question raised by this investigating team was why Jesus’ disciples violated the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating. Exodus 30:17-21 required the priests to wash their hands and feet before entering the tabernacle. Leviticus 15:11 implies that washing one’s hands after becoming ritually unclean kept the uncleanness from being transmitted to another. However, nothing in the Old Testament suggests that washing of hands was necessary before eating.

The scribes and Pharisees correctly call their concern a "tradition" of the elders. The reference to traditions speaks of the development of what is also called the "oral law." In order to make sure that no commandment (positive or negative) of Scripture was broken the scribes were in the process of developing oral traditions that gave specific applications of biblical laws and detailed instructions on how they should be obeyed in every conceivable circumstance. The evolution of these Jewish ritual traditions is difficult to trace with precision, but it appears that the requirement to wash one’s hands before eating had only recently developed. Furthermore, it was only required of scribes and rabbis; it was not required of "ordinary" people. Technically, neither Jesus nor his disciples had been trained as scribes or rabbis and so they would not have been required to wash their hands before eating. However, the Pharisees appeared to take Jesus as a legitimate rabbi and certainly the followers of Jesus did not want to protest that assumption. Since a rabbi was responsible for the behavior of his disciples, the question was fairly put to Jesus.

Jesus’ response was swift and strong. He made three essential points. First, he charged the Pharisees with violating the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition. Second, he gave an example of their violation of the Law and third, he accused them of being hypocrites and used a quotation from Isaiah to condemn them for giving only lip service to God.

The first charge was that the Pharisees’ traditions did not accomplish their stated goal of helping people keep the Law. Rather they actually led to violation of the Law and were, in fact, a technique for avoiding parts of the Law one did not like. In verse 4 Jesus quotes two Old Testament commandments, one from Exodus 20:12 (to honor father and mother) and one from Exodus 21:17 (that whoever curses a parent shall be executed). He introduced the quotations by the expression, "God said, . . " This is much stronger (in Matthew 15:4) than in the parallel passage in Mark 7:10 which states, "Moses said, . . " The shift in Matthew is important. He wanted his readers to understand that the issue at stake in this passage was not just a difference of opinion about interpretation of the Law as Mark presents it. Rather, the issue at stake is the word of God versus human interpretation.

The Pharisees acknowledged the two commandments that Jesus cited, but they had developed a scheme of interpretation that enabled them to avoid certain duties to aged parents. Using the biblical commands against false oaths (Leviticus 19:12) and requiring keeping of oaths (Numbers 30:2 and Deuteronomy 23:21), they had developed a way to make oaths (or vows) to God that effectively kept them from supporting their parents. The process involved swearing that all one’s resources belonged to God, but of course were available for personal use until death. This meant that they could not give money away to support their aged parents, since that money had been promised to God. The spelling out of this process required a whole chapter of the Mishnah when the oral traditions were committed to writing between A.D. 180 and 200. Jesus concluded that this process had effectively nullified God’s intention in the commandment to honor one’s parents.

Further, he charged the Pharisees with hypocrisy indicating that though they claimed the oral traditions were designed to help people keep the Law, in fact, they were designed to help legal experts (like the Pharisees) break the Law. This first section closes in verses 8 and 9 with a quotation from Isaiah 29:13, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far distant from me. They worship me in vain because they teach human commandments as doctrine." The quotation accomplishes three goals. It accuses the Pharisees of mere "lip" service. It uses Scripture to charge them with replacing God’s word with human traditions. And it introduces the central place of one’s heart in determining the right motivation and the right worship.

Verses 10-11 are directed to the crowd and give an interpretive principle for Jesus, though it needs to be combined with Matthew 12:34 to be understood properly. The stated principle in verse 11 is that what goes into a person’s mouth does not defile that person. Rather it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person. This principle shifts the ground from the specific issue of honoring parents versus vows to the larger issue of the Pharisees’ interpretations of the Old Testament dietary laws. The parallel passage in Mark 7:19 declares that Jesus had set aside the Old Testament laws regarding clean and unclean foods. Matthew does not make such a radical statement. Rather, he simply points out that defilement in a matter of what comes out of a person, it is a matter of the heart rather than of the diet.

The specific mention of the heart does not come until verse 18 in the final paragraph of this section. In verse 12 the disciples come and tell Jesus that his statement had offended the Pharisees. Rather than retracting the statement, Jesus made an even more offensive statement about the Pharisees. He declared that they were not of God and had become blind guides for blind people. This kind of statement by Jesus is often cited today as evidence of the anti-semitism of Jesus. However, his words were the words of one Jew arguing with other Jews. Rather than being anti-semitic, Jesus was engaged in the very Jewish process of argument to establish an interpretation of the Scripture.

Verse 15 makes it clear that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ point about defilement either. The influence of the Pharisees was so strong that Jesus’ different interpretation of God’s word sounded strange and unusual to them. Jesus declared that eating with unwashed hands and even eating food that did not measure up to all the Pharisees’ expectations would not defile a person. What comes into the mouth passes through the body and is eliminated. Rather, what comes out of the mouth causes defilement because the mouth expresses the content of one’s heart. (In Matthew 12:34 Jesus had already stated, "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.") Verse 19 provides a sample summary of the kinds of sins that issue from the heart. The list is not exhaustive but representative. The point is that our hearts determine the moral quality of what we say and do. It is in the heart that sin and righteousness ultimately reside.

Matthew 15:21-28 - A Canaanite Woman’s Faith

If the issue of Jewish traditions discussed in Matthew 15:1-20 is confusing to modern gentile, then Matthew 15:21-28 raises our ire. Verse 21 implies that the conflict over Jewish customs had been wearisome to Jesus and that he was withdrawing to rest and retreat. The region of Tyre and Sidon was north and west of Galilee, part of what is now southern Lebanon. Historically, this area had been a center of Baal worship and the source of considerable evil influence in Israel (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament). Jesus had mentioned them in Matthew 11:21-22 as wicked cities that would have responded to his miracles had they had opportunity. It was clearly Gentile territory into which Jesus was traveling. The description of the lady who encountered him as a Canaanite emphasizes her gentile pedigree. The Canaanites had been the baal-worshipping occupants of the land whom the Lord had commanded Israel to exterminate lest they infect his people with their sexually promiscuous idolatry. However, this woman’s plea, "Be merciful to me, Lord, son of David," echoes the words of the blind men mentioned in Matthew 9:27. Further, her daughter is terribly "demonized." Our picture of Jesus full of compassion leads us to expect that he will respond favorably to her and cast out the demon. Such is not the case, however. Garland (p. 163) describes his reaction as "gruff" and we are both surprised and confused.

Four appeals to Jesus are recorded in this brief account. The first is by the woman begging for mercy and help for her daughter. Jesus refused to even respond to her. The second appeal is by the disciples who become annoyed that the woman persists in crying out and will not leave Jesus and his disciples alone. Their request is that Jesus send the woman away. It is quite possible that they had in mind Jesus sending her away without granting her request, but his reply suggests that they were asking him to answer her request just to get rid of her. His reply, "I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," sharpens the anti-gentile bias of Matthew 10:6. On Jesus’ own lips is the claim that his ministry was limited to Jews. That is difficult for gentiles to accept emotionally. Objectively, it is a strange claim for the one who would give the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

The third appeal intensifies the woman’s request. Coming again, she worships him this time and appeals, "Lord, help me." Her cry is quite similar to that of Peter in Matthew 14:30, "Lord, save me." However, the brick wall of Jesus’ disinterest seems to harden. He replies with an insult, "It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs." Though not all modern readers do, the woman understood the insult. Jews frequently called the gentiles dogs. Dogs were not kept as pets in the ancient world, but were regarded as filthy and vicious scavengers who lived around the edges of human habitations making nuisances of themselves.

At this point sensitive readers are thoroughly confused by the actions and comments of Jesus. They seem so out of character for the one we believe came to show us the love of God. Perhaps we too easily forget the genuineness of Jesus’ incarnation as a first century Jew but for the moment, the quick wit of the Canaanite woman saves the day. Rather than withdrawing in hurt, she retorts to the insult, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters." Rather than arguing either the justice or the truth of the Jewish insult that called her a dog she accepted those terms and pointed out that some left-overs ought to be available to her. As quickly as he had been gruff, Jesus acknowledged her faith and healed her daughter.

Though it is hard for us to understand the stand-offish response of Jesus to the Canaanite woman, Matthew’s purpose in including the story is easy to perceive. Jesus’ reluctance to minister to this gentile woman and her daughter mirrors the reluctance of the early church to admit gentiles into full standing in Christ. However, the claim of the early church to exclude gentiles on the basis of Jesus’ ministry is clearly undermined here. In the final analysis it was faith, rather than ethnicity that determined the acceptance of this woman’s prayer for help. With God a trusting and intent heart will always be more important than the human categories we use to decide persons’ worth.

Matthew 15:29-39 - Feeding the Four Thousand

Matthew 15:29-39 seems to recapitulate things that have already happened in Jesus’ ministry. His trip to the mountain echoes the setting for the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1). The healings summarized in verses 30-31 recalls chapters 8-9 and 11:5 as well as the other summaries of healings that Matthew has given. Finally, the feeding of the four thousand sounds a great deal like the feeding of the five thousand.

One of the significant differences between these verses and the similar ones earlier in the gospel appears in the geographical setting. It is not as clear in Matthew as Mark 7:31’s reference to Decapolis, but Jesus’ journey from the area of Tyre and Sidon toward the Sea of Galilee was eastward. To then say, as Matthew does in verse 29, that Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee could only mean that Jesus moved to the east side of the Sea of Galilee which was gentile territory. Thus the events of Matthew 15:29-39 recapitulate things that have already happened for Jews in Jesus ministry in a Gentile setting. The point is much more subtle than Jesus’ statement to the Canaanite woman, but it clearly indicates that the benefits of kingdom of God will be available to the gentiles as well as to the Jews. In a very real sense, Matthew 15:29-39 represents the crumbs falling from the table of the Jews and being made available to the Gentiles.

This conclusion would fit the healings described in verses 30-31 as well as the feeding of the four thousand described in verses 32-39. Many people have been perplexed by the similarity of the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. The question that must be raised is whether there were actually two miraculous feeding just a few weeks apart in Jesus’ ministry or if there was only one miraculous feeding that is told in two forms in Mark and Matthew. The question is not simply a matter of perverse unbelief in the word of Scripture. The question of the disciples in Matthew 15:33, "Where are we to get enough bread to feed so great a crowd in the desert?" is hard to understand if they had just experienced the feeding of the five thousand a few weeks earlier. Thus, many scholars believe that there was only one miraculous feeding of the multitude, but that it came to be told about in two forms, one feeding five thousand and the other four thousand. In the final analysis one’s conclusion will be the result of one’s assumptions about how Scripture events happened and came to be recorded (see The Synoptic Problem).

Whether there was only one miraculous feeding or two, there are good reasons for the two accounts to be told. Two miracles of manna are described in the Old Testament in connection with the ministry of Moses in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. Likewise, two multiplication of food miracles are described in the ministry of Elijah (in close proximity) in 2 Kings 4:1-7 and 38-44. Matthew may very well have included both multiplication of the loaves miracles to show the superiority of Jesus to Moses and Elijah, who symbolized the Law and the Prophets and thus Old Testament revelation.

Rejecting the Pharisees and Sadducees - Matthew 16:1-12

After the brief treatment of Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles, Matthew returns to the problems and issues associated with the Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry in chapter 16. There are two sections to Matthew 16:1-12. Verses 1-4 focus on the request for a sign while verses 5-12 deal with the "leaven" of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This section is the only time that Matthew mentions the Sadducees outside Judea, which was their home territory (specifically Jerusalem was their center). While the Pharisees might easily investigate Jesus in Galilee because they had members of their group scattered throughout Palestine, it is less likely the Sadducees would venture out of Jerusalem. For Matthew’s audience this would indicate a significant level of hostility on the part of both Jewish groups, but especially on the part of the Sadducees.

The request for a sign is the second time such a request has been made in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 12:38-39 also contains a similar request. This time Matthew specifically states that the request was designed as a test for Jesus. The "test" lay in the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees had good reason to believe Jesus would refuse to give a sign since he had refused earlier. However, they could claim to the people that his refusal was a cover for his inability to validate his ministry. Matthew intends his readers to find such a request (and the assumptions of the Pharisees and Sadducees) highly ironic since it follows immediately on the heels of the miracle of multiplying the loaves. There were plenty of signs available in Jesus’ ministry. All one needed to do was to observe and to believe (as in the faith of the Canaanite woman). To demand a sign on the spot at their request shows the unbelief and spiritual manipulation of these Jewish religious leaders. They come off looking rather foolish, which is what Matthew wants us to think. He does not need to explain the sign of Jonah further since that had been done in Matthew 12:40-41.

The final paragraph in this section discusses the "leaven" of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Interwoven in these verses are the confusion of the disciples who are trying to take everything Jesus said very literally and Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish leadership. The disciples are described as people "of little faith." This is one of Matthew’s frequent phrases to describe followers of Christ who cling only to their rationalistic understandings of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus warns them of the "leaven" or teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The teaching of these two groups was quite different, a fact Jesus and Matthew would have understood quite well. What is common to the two groups is their rejection of Jesus and their efforts to embarrass and discount him. Such an attitude is like leaven. It insidiously penetrates until it rises up in every area of life. Followers of Christ must avoid such leaven.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

 As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.

First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 15:1-16:12. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?

2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to nurture in your life the kind of faith and persistence demonstrated by the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15:21-28.

Second Day: Read Matthew 16:13-28. Now focus on Matthew 16:13-20.

1. Why would Jesus ask his disciples about what other people were saying about him? What would lead people to describe him as John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other Old Testament prophets?

2. What would be the events and teachings found thus far in Matthew that could lead Peter to confess Jesus as the Messiah and as the Son of the Living God?

3. Read verse 18 very carefully. What are the promises made to the church? If these promises are true, how should the life of the church be different from the way it is often conducted?

Third Day: Read Matthew 16:13-17:8. Focus in on Matthew 16:21-28.

1. How do you explain the great difference between Peter’s insight in verse 16 and his lack of insight in verse 22? Why do you think his response in verse 22 caused Jesus to call him "Satan?"

2. Study verses 24-26 carefully. What do you think Jesus means when he calls on his followers to "deny" themselves? Is this kind of self-denial psychologically healthy? Why? Or why not?

3. Write a brief essay explaining verse 25 in your own words and illustrating its truth from examples that you know about. How would this verse directly apply to you?

Fourth Day: Read Matthew 16:21-17:13. Focus your attention on Matthew 17:1-13.

1. Why do you think Moses and Elijah were the two figures that appeared to Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration? What additional insight (if any) do you get from the parallel passage in Luke 9:28-36?

2. Why do you think Peter wanted to build three tents and to stay on the mountain? Identify a spiritual event in your life that caused you to want to stay forever (or at least a long time) at that point of your spiritual life? Why did you want to stay? Why was it not a good idea?

3. What do you learn about Jesus from Matthew 17:1-13? What expectations does this picture of Jesus place on your life? Are you willing to live up to those expectations? Write a brief note to God saying so.

Fifth Day: Read Matthew 17:1-18:9. Now focus in on Matthew 17:14-27.

1. What do you learn about faith from Matthew 17:14-20? Why do you think the disciples failed this test of faith even after they had just been on the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus? What does their failure tell us about ourselves?

2. What do you learn about Jesus from Matthew 17:14-20? How do the public (with the crowds) and private (with the disciples) dimensions of his ministry compare and contrast? What is the application of that for us?

3. Study Matthew 17:24-27. What do you think the main point of these verses is? What application does that point have in your own life?

Sixth Day: Read Matthew 17:1-18:9. Now focus on Matthew 18:1-9.

1. What aspects of childhood do you think Jesus had in mind when he said that a person must become as a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? How difficult is it for you to become like a child in that way? Why?

2. What does the context suggest about Jesus’ intention in verses 8-9? How does that compare to his intention for a very similar saying in Matthew 5:29-30? What is his "real" point in each instance?

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you become appropriately child-like in the areas of faith and less childish in the areas of service.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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