Read the passage here.
Our passage today picks up a few themes that we’ve seen in previous passages. In particular, we’re seeing another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes (“teachers of the law” in NIV). What initiates this encounter is the Pharisees (and I’ll refer just to the Pharisees, but we mean that as shorthand) observing that Jesus disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, as is required by the “tradition of the elders.” (vv.1-2)
Now a couple of observations before we continue. Firstly, we see that the Pharisees here have come from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the geographical center (so to speak) of the Israelite faith because of the temple. So, without elaborating on this, it seems that the religious leaders having come from Jerusalem is an indication that we are seeing some sort of religious elite here – i.e. the top Pharisees.
The second observation has to do with context. What the Pharisees are referring to here is ritual cleansing. In the Old Testament laws, what we see is that there is a fair amount of consideration given to being clean, not being defiled or made unclean, and the like. In similar fashion, there is considerable attention given to what Israelites can and cannot eat. And this also has to do with purity – or to put it conversely, Israelites were not supposed to eat anything that was considered unclean. (this concern for cleanliness or purity is seen in many other kinds of laws).
However, there is no Old Testament law requiring people to wash their hands before eating. There are laws that have to do with the washing of priests, but not for every day meals. So there seems to have been some sort of conflation where, for example, touching something unclean and then eating would make a person unclean. The fear, then, was how to avoid or mitigate this.
Therefore, a set of rules or guidelines arose in the form of the tradition of the elders. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, there was a great deal of discussion over the centuries about how the Mosaic laws were to be understood and to be applied. Part of what the religious leaders did (including the Pharisees) was to create systems of practice that were designed to ensure people did the right things and avoided the wrong things – to make sure one was always clean.
This is where the washing of hands falls. It’s not found in the Mosaic law, but rather it’s something created (and enforced) by the religious leaders.
Now at first glance, this doesn’t seem to be overly problematic. After all, we’re all trying to understand scripture and the will of God. The problem is that such traditions quickly turned from being helpful guidance to becoming strictly authoritative. And the people who held that authority became not merely teachers, but judges and dictators.
So at this point, Jesus counters with another example (vv. 3-7). He points to another tradition that has been created by the religious leaders and how following that law directly contradicts an actual commandment issued by God.
The commandment that Jesus is talking about is “Honour your father and mother,” the fifth of the Ten Commandments. The tradition that Jesus is referring to is a practice of giving to the temple, or dedicating something to the temple. This in and of itself seems fine, but this could be done in order to keep it from someone else. i.e. “I can’t give this to you because it is dedicated to the temple/God.”
So in this way, someone could “dedicate” something to the temple to avoid the responsibility of supporting their parents. Thus, Jesus accuses people of using the tradition to neglect their parents (keeping in mind that this is a society where taking care of one’s parents is extremely important). And such practice is sanctioned by the Pharisees because such people are “following the tradition of the elders.”
So by pointing to this example (and I’m positive Jesus could have come up with many more), Jesus demonstrates the inadequacies of the tradition – if not outright contradiction – especially in light of the revealed word of God. In not so many words, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being more concerned about their own power (as adjudicators of the tradition) than they are the will of God.
This brings us back to the question of washing hands. Jesus brings the crowd together, not just the disciples. So we can see that his reproach of the Pharisees is taking on a more serious nature. He tells the crowd, “11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” And Jesus goes on to explain what he means in verse 17:
17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”Matthew 15:17-20
I don’t think this need a lot of explanation. In essence, Jesus is saying that how closely one follows the rules is not as important as what’s in a person’s heart (and that is to say, a heart that is oriented towards God). Which isn’t to say that seeking holiness isn’t important. Indeed, the theme of true holiness or true righteousness is a key one in the gospel of Matthew. But it’s really easy to bypass holiness and follow rules for rules’ sake (especially, as we see here, in areas of rules that are human-made). And I think that this is something that again, Matthew is pointing out as a key element of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is demonstrating what true righteousness should look like in the Kingdom.
And I also think it’s really important that we understand that this is not an O.T. vs. N.T. issue. Jesus here is very much following the principle that is found throughout the O.T. that what’s in a person’s heart (that is, following God) matters more than religious orthodoxy (that is, following the rules). Jesus’ quotation of the prophet Isaiah, then, is not only a warning, but a judgement against the Pharisees.
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,Matthew 15:8-9 (ref. Isa. 29:13)
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”Matthew 15:12-24. Emphasis added
Now we could leave the passage here. However, we are also considering the following verses where Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman (vv. 21-28). And I want to look at this episode because of the way it contrasts the Canaanite woman with the Pharisees.
We’re not, unfortunately, going to dig deeply into this passage. Rather, I want to reflect a little how it functions in the context of what we’ve just been looking at. The Canaanite woman is precisely that – a Canaanite. In other words, she is not an Israelite. And this is something that would have mattered tremendously to the Pharisees. Jesus’ response, here, to include someone that should have been excluded tells us a lot about what He’s doing – what matters to Jesus.
Something that we’ve seen a lot of in Matthew’s gospel is how the boundaries of “the people of God” are being extended. The kingdom is being re-defined (or more properly, clarified). From the perspective of the Pharisees, and indeed how everyone would have understood it, this woman is not part of the “chosen people of God” – in fact, as you know, the Canaanites were precisely those who God told the Israelites to destroy, and destroy completely, when the entered the promised land. We can assume that she knew little or nothing about the Mosaic law, the customs or traditions, or the rules that the Israelites were supposed to follow. But unlike the Pharisees and scribes, the presumed religious experts of Israel, who were accused of being far from God, this woman is honoured for her “great faith.”
The other week, we also saw how the faith of this Canaanite woman is set in sharp contrast to the lack of faith of the disciples. Specifically, we read in Matthew 14:28-31
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”Matthew 14:28-31
Now, if we recall, this is set following the feeding of the five thousand, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water.
Again, we’re not going to dig into that chapter, but it always catches my eye that Peter started to sink “when he saw the wind,” and he became afraid. That is to say, he took his eyes off Jesus. That is, Peter allowed the situation around him to distract him from where he should have been looking. Now I think that one of the things we saw was that the disciples’ faith in Jesus was still imperfect – it was still growing. They were learning who Jesus was and how to trust him. But it seems to me that, unlike Peter who took his eyes off Jesus in the midst of a desperate situation, for this Canaanite woman, in her desperate situation, Jesus was all that mattered. Thus, the reproach to Peter of “You of little faith” can be seen in contrast to this woman who is declared as having “great faith.”
Now, I am taking a certain amount of interpretive license here. But, again, it seems to me that in our verses today, the faith of the Canaanite woman is remarkable in that it’s solely in Jesus. Again, she doesn’t have the training that a typical Israelite would have received about God, covenant, the Law, and whatever else – certainly nowhere near the level of the Pharisees or teachers of the Law. She’s not aware of the rules and regulations, the tradition of the elders, that these folks are so fond of. It doesn’t matter to her that she’s not part of the “chosen nation,” that she’s in fact a foreigner and an alien, nor indeed that she’s a woman (who are not, according to the religious leaders, supposed to approach or talk to a rabbi). And when faced with an impossible situation, a daughter who is demon-possessed, her fear and desperation lead her to the only thing she can do – cry out to Jesus.
For this woman, who would undoubtedly have been considered unclean according to the Pharisees, it didn’t matter what she was supposed to do or what she wasn’t allowed to do, it didn’t matter how impossible her situation seemed – all she saw was Jesus.
Again, these are just my personal reflections – I’m making some assumptions and probably inserting my own preferences here – but this is how I imagine her reaching out to Jesus.
I should point out that we’re seeing what might be interpreted as an escalation here – at the very least, it’s a continuation of the theme that we’ve seen – in the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, especially as again these religious leaders are from Jerusalem. It’s a conflict that requires explanation for Matthew’s readers, and that we should understand as well. Because for Matthew’s readers, if Jesus is the Messiah, then why was he so at odds with the religious establishment? Why did they want Him executed? And, more importantly, what is the difference between what the religious leaders were peddling and the true Kingdom of God?
For us in particular, it poses the question that we’ve already explored many times as to what Kingdom do we actually want? What kingdom do we actually serve?
But as we’ve talked about that a lot – and hopefully we continue to wrestle with – I won’t say any more about that. We’ve also talked a lot about how the central issue seems to be how we keep our eyes on Jesus. That it’s not religious rules and regulations or systems of theology that saves us. Not that these aren’t important and can’t be helpful. But ultimately, what truly matters is Jesus.