Bible Book List
Matthew 15 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Moral Versus Ritual Cleanness

The reader recognizes Jesus as God's Son who acts not only as the prophets of old (14:13-21) but as the Lord of creation himself (14:22-32). The disciples acclaim him as God's Son (14:33), and the masses approach him for healing (14:34-36). In this context the pedantic response of the Pharisees and scribes, a sort of religious and academic elite, stands in all the starker contrast to reality. (They were no denser than some ministers and religious academicians today who likewise seem able to obscure the forest of God's saving message with far less relevant trees.)

Jesus points out that though the Pharisees use their traditions as a standard for righteousness, some of their traditions can be extended to contradict the written law. Christians today who strongly advocate particular views as biblical, yet cannot demonstrate them from Scripture understood in context, follow tradition rather than Scripture just as did many of Jesus' contemporaries. (I have unfortuantely witnessed this problem in some circles where most members insist they are biblical, led by the Spirit and devoid of tradition.) A religious community may have helpful cumulative wisdom (especially if it has remained faithful to God's earlier revelations), but ultimately the revelation comes only from God himself, and especially from his word to his apostles and prophets preserved for us in Scripture. When we really hear God in Scripture, its message can awaken us and transform us (for example, 2 Kings 22:11-13).

Judging Purely on the Basis of Tradition (15:1-2)

The religious elite insist that their way is right, even though it is based only on tradition. Once again they object to a practice of Jesus' disciples, implying a deficiency in the training Jesus has supplied to them (see comment on 12:3-8). People commonly recognized that the Pharisees passed on ancestral laws not written in the law of Moses (Jos. Ant. 13.297). Hand washing was one such extrabiblical tradition, perhaps originally adopted from foreign Jews (Sib. Or. 3.591-94; E. Sanders 1990:39-40, 228, 260-71), concerning which the Pharisees were especially meticulous (compare m. Yadayim 1:1-2:4).

Jesus Challenges Their Tradition as Unbiblical (15:3-11)

This observation need not denigrate all tradition; some "traditions" are more biblical than others, and some traditions, like many customs in many cultures, are morally neutral. Among those who accept the Bible as God's Word and as canon (a measuring stick), the test of a statement's authority should be its conformity to biblical principles. Yet many of us, for all our insistence on the authority of Scripture, pay surprisingly little attention to it-little time researching context, background or other factors essential for understanding the Bible. We may work hard to assimilate various trends of popular culture yet spend little time assimilating our lives to the Bible's teachings. I have watched some contemporary churches denigrate the traditions of older churches, yet recite verses out of context or follow extrabiblical routines that reflect traditions no less (albeit newer ones).

Jesus begins by showing how easily a tradition can conflict with the moral purpose of Scripture (15:3-6). One could dedicate an object for sacred use; one could also prohibit others from using one's property (say, eating one's figs) by declaring the property dedicated to the temple or perhaps "as if they were" so dedicated, hence "forbidden to you" (m. Nedarim 3:2; Baumgarten 1984-1985; E. Sanders 1990:54-55). Even far from the Holy Land some Jewish teachers could use such vows to keep property from other family members (see E. Sanders 1990:57). By expanding certain common traditional practices, an unscrupulous person could get around biblical principles about unselfishly meeting others' needs.

Jesus deliberately picks an issue that will provoke thought and argues from a principle with which his opponents will have to agree. A Pharisaic teacher could have offered the same sort of argument Jesus offers here, for Pharisees could argue by laying one text against the interpretation of another. Judaism also heavily stressed honoring and obeying one's parents (for example, Sirach 3:7-8; Jos. Apion 2.206) and the obligation to support one's parents in their old age (compare Sirach 3:12-15).

Jewish teachers who debated legal details never contended that such details were at the heart of the law nor approved of exploiting loopholes (see, for example, Urbach 1979:1:576). Nevertheless, exploitation is bound to result in some instances if we spend more time, in religious institutions or in society, debating laws as laws than in teaching ethical principles behind the laws. Jesus is not challenging Pharisaic views about parental support, but the danger of evaluating morality on the basis of extrabiblical traditions.

Jesus then compares this behavior to Scripture's warning about following human rules rather than an intimate relationship with God (15:7-9, citing Is 29:13). Scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at the appellation hypocrites (6:2; 22:18; 23:13; 24:51). Like Jesus, Pharisees were willing to suspend the letter of the law to uphold its spirit (as in m. Sebi`it 10:3-4; compare Moore 1971:2:31). But the Pharisees frequently determined morality by extrapolating from tradition. By demanding that we extrapolate morality instead from biblical principles, Jesus takes ethics out of the domain of the academy and courtroom and places it in the daily lives of his followers. To follow Jesus' guidelines here, church members need to know more Scripture, not more churchly rules not founded in Scripture.

Jesus finally publicly opposes his challengers by declaring a more basic principle (15:10-11). Some Pharisees may have agreed with the principle, but they normally stated it only in private (Pes. Rab Kah. 4:7), perhaps fearing that some would cease to observe the literal requirements of the law (compare Philo Migr. Abr. 89-93). Although Jesus explains his point in private, he first makes it publicly.

Speaking Truth Can Alienate Influential Opponents (15:12-14)

Jesus is interested in speaking God's truth, not in winning influential allies. Although many people respected blunt, radical teachers, polite Mediterranean society generally emphasized public respect toward persons of appropriate rank. When one is planning to get crucified anyway, however, one does not need to accommodate the opinions of those who lead God's people astray.

>Scholars may debate how much political power the Pharisees held in this period (the Sadducees certainly held more official power), but they were highly influential with the people (Jos. Ant. 18.17; E. Sanders 1992:402-4). Jesus' disciples are thus concerned that he has publicly shamed his influential interlocutors instead of reaching out to them (v. 12). Jesus responds by alluding back to the prophetic image of building or tearing down, planting or uprooting people according to God's message (v. 13; compare 3:10; Jer 42:10; 45:4); God has concealed his revelation from "the wise and learned" (11:25-27; 13:11-17; 16:16-17; compare 14:33).

Jesus then graphically compares his self-assured opponents to people who offer to lead the blind but cannot see themselves (15:14; compare 7:3-5; 13:13; 23:16; Rom 2:19). Even were the interpretation of such an image difficult, the disciples should have understood him perfectly well: earlier prophets had also complained that the leaders of God's people were blind (for example, Is 3:12, 14; 6:10; 9:16).

Jesus Demands a Pure Heart and Ethics, Not Mere Ritual (15:15-20)

Jesus illustrates his point with a vice list, a standard literary form in both Jewish (for example, Wisdom 14:25-26; 1QS 4.9-11) and broader Greco-Roman (for example, Arist. E.E. 2.3.4, 1220b-21; V.V. 1249-51b) circles.

Not food that enters the mouth (Ezek 4:14-15; Acts 10:11-16; Rom 14:1-4; 1 Tim 4:3) but what comes forth (Mt 12:34-37; Eph 4:29; Jas 1:19) renders a person unclean. Alluding to the Isaiah passage he has quoted (Is 29:13; compare 59:13), Jesus emphasizes the heart (compare Mt 5:21-6:18), as did some of his contemporaries (m. 'Abot 2:9). The Pharisees of Jesus' day would have agreed with his emphasis on inwardness, although not that the outward did not defile.

In a church I know well, a deacon I respect in most other matters rebuked a person for wearing work clothes to church (even though she had just gotten off work); another leader in the same church had gone unrebuked for sleeping with a woman to whom he was not married. Many of us modern Christians have a lot of nerve to compare ourselves favorably with the Pharisees!

Previous commentary:
Pharisees and Canaanites

Next commentary:
A Canaanite Woman's Faith

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.