Matthew 15:1-20 Part 1

In chapter fourteen the narrative of the disciple Matthew leaves Jesus and His disciples in Gennasaret across the Sea, where all those who touched the tassels of His mantle were restored.  That was the third event of “crossing over” as a result of Israel’s rejection of Him as God’s Anointed One.  Each instance of “crossing over,” then, was an image of a “separating out” of Israel and “receiving” of the Gentile nations as God was demonstrating His inclusion of the Gentiles in His covenant of grace.

Then, as chapter fifteen begins, Matthew re-focuses his attention on the leadership of Israel and its animosity and unbelief.  Jesus and His followers had been with the Gentiles!  He had actually crossed over to see them and to preach to them and to do mighty works among them!  They touched Him and crowded around Him; and He fed them and mingled with them. 

Now, what I’m about to say to you has been said a number of times before.  But it needs to said again… every time it comes up.  Because there is a “belief system” out there… inside and outside the Church, that causes the Revelation of God concerning His Son to be misconceived.

And that false “belief system” radically changes the nature of the Gospel!

It would have the Son of God being born of a woman, and to suffer and die and be resurrected, in order that He might minister to the poor, the sick, the needy and the dregs of society.  And He did all of that because they’re poor and needy.

This would make the entire ministry of Jesus principally one of compassion for the lowly.  And, since His purpose in life was primarily compassion, omitting from His concern those who were well and more comfortable and educated, mixing with the “unclean”, the sick and the dying (as He, indeed, did), then the primary goal of Christianity ought to be the alleviation of hunger and pain and suffering.

Now.  Although our Lord was infinitely compassionate with regard to suffering humanity; and although we are never to turn our backs to those who are sick and needy, defining Christianity only in terms of compassion is an aberration that has to be confronted every time we encounter it.  This “false faith” has led to all kinds of evil – from liberation theology, to socialism, to tyranny, to philosophical rejection of the material creation… and it’s also led to a sharp division, in our own society, between the rich and the poor – promoted by devious politicians!  And that manipulation of guilt has at least some of its success due to the false notion that Jesus’ primary mission was one of compassion for the poor and needy.

But, the false belief system misses the point of these texts of Scripture entirely… as we’ve so often seen.

Our Lord did, indeed, leave faithless Israel to go to those in the wildernesses of society.  And the image here is the “cutting off” of an arrogant and rebellious people – and shedding His mighty grace and favor on all kinds of people, heretofore being left in their own abyss of sin and darkness.

And there were large crowds wherever he went.  Many had been scheming to make Him King over Israel!  The North – up around Galilee – seemed to be in another uprising.  Everybody was buzzing about this man Jesus of Nazareth; and His fame was like a fire among the crowds of people!

And remember, this was a period of time in which Israel was split dozens of ways – Theologically and politically.  And it was mired in its demonic pagan idolatry.  There were plots and counter-plots – groups against groups – conspiracies against Rome, intrigue, terror and murder!  And now – this.  Another Messiah! (sigh)  And this one from Galilee, of all places!  And the talk was that He was from God – the Son of God – the Anointed One from God.  And it was serious!  There were thousands following Him wherever He went, and He seemed to be a very talented magi.  They touch Him and whatever ailment they had is gone!  And He goes across into Gentile Syria and does the same thing!  And He even transfers His magic to about a dozen others!

And the things He says to the people are blasphemous.  He says that He’s from God, that He brings Light to those who walk in darkness, that He forgives sin, and that if people eat His Flesh they’ll never hunger again!  And the worst thing is that He speaks profane things about the Pharisees and Scribes and the rest of Israel’s leadership!

So the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem, hear these things – not only from emissaries from the synagogues of Galilee, but the talk of Him was all over Judah and Jerusalem as well.  And as verse one indicates, a delegation of Pharisees was sent up there to discredit Him among the people, and to head off this new uprising.  For this Man seemed to be a clear threat to whatever stability was left in Israel!  Not only was He threatening the authority of the religious leadership, but the critical balance of the political situation in Israel was such that any serious insurrection among the people would bring a crushing blow from Rome!

So the violence and strife and unrest in Jerusalem was compounded by this new, cultic adulation up in Galilee and prompted this “court” of Pharisees and doctors of law to be sent, with all the prestige of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, to Galilee, in order to penetrate to the source of the problem and expose it for what it was!  But they had to be careful.  This Man was really famous; and He had worked miracles among the thousands and thousands of Galilee and beyond!  So they couldn’t just go up there and “rail” against Him to the people – it wouldn’t work!  They had to expose Him as being a fake – a false teacher – a pseudo-prophet and above all, a law-breaker!  They had to prove to the people that He was against those things that they all had been taught that were true.  And then the “fad” would just go away.  The people needed to have it pointed out to them that the Pharisees were the true leaders of Israel and that they were the true keepers of the great tradition of law handed down to them by the fathers!  And if this man was not keeping the law, then He would be exposed as an imposter.

So they went to Galilee – presumably to Jesus’ home town of Capernaum – and they approached Him, as verse one says.  As usual, Jesus was surrounded by a big crowd of people, as we notice in verse ten; so this is a public confrontation.  And I’m sure that these Pharisees chose this particular time because of the crowds.  They wanted the public to see this Man discredited.

And they got directly to the point, didn’t they?  All the way from Jerusalem – probably a couple of days travel – finding the crowds around Jesus – the parting of the people to let the prestigious delegation through to the center; and the first question out of their mouths was, “Why do your disciples violate the doctrine of the elders?  For they do not wash their hands before they eat bread!”

Well, Surprise!  What a staggering issue, right?  Can you imagine a delegation of elders from the first Presbyterian Church showing up at an elect lady’s house and presenting formal charges against her because she didn’t wash her hands before fixing dinner?

We would say, in our own time, that that was the most preposterous, high-handed, laughable intrusion into the privacy of a Church member that we had ever seen!   It would be a bizarre thing, to say the least, for the Church to be so concerned with the infinitely trivial like that!

And just suppose that it was a delegation from the presbytery, or from General Assembly!  And they showed up at the Church dinner one Sunday and accused the whole Church of eating without washing!  That would be enough to send them to a state asylum for religious “fringies”.

But although this might sound like it’s a laughable, trivial matter to be brought up by doctors of law in a crowd of hundreds – maybe thousands, it really wasn’t!  In fact, to the Pharisees, it went right to the heart of the matter!  “Why do your disciples violate that which has been handed down by the teaching of the elders?”

I think the King James Version and other translations render it “the tradition of the elders”.  But the word “tradition” isn’t strong enough here.  It is the “teaching” of the elders which has been handed down!  It is the entire corpus, the “body” of rules and commentary handed down by the Presbuteroi, the old, venerable rabbis of the past… the “word” which was compiled in the Talmud and the Midrashim.  And it consisted of the Haggada, which was expositions and expansions of the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament; and the Halacha, which was rules of conduct which regulated everything down to the smallest detail!

These “teachings” which had been developed down through the centuries were the “fence” erected around the Law of Moses, and which were placed above the canon of Scripture!  In other words, the Haggada and the Halacha were held in higher esteem than the Words of God!  And the Pharisees and Scribes dealt with that “perimeter” around the inspired Word as if it were the Law!

Now I want to teach you a word here that you may not know.  It is an English word, and you ought to know it and be able to use it.  And the word is “casuistry”.

Casuistry is the art of sharp, logical reasoning – but from a false concept!  The Pharisees (especially the Scribes) were experts in the teachings handed down from the elders, and, in casuistic fashion, regulated the conduct of the people of Israel!  They had taught logically and persuasively, for generations, from a false base.  And the whole nation, as a result of that teaching, had turned from a Theological and philosophical base in the Words of God, to a nation whose ideological base was in the precepts of men!

And except for the remnant whom God had preserved for Himself, that transition to the idolatrous, humanistic, casuistic society, was complete by the time the Word became incarnate!  The leadership thought they were teaching the religion of their ancient fathers, but they weren’t!  And the whole nation was led, by them, into total apostasy.  And, as a result, the nation became worse than the surrounding Gentile nations and was described as a wilderness filled with demons and wild things!  I’ll say some more about that when we get to verse seven.

But let’s go back to the charges made against Jesus by this prestigious delegation from Jerusalem.  “Why do your disciples violate the teaching of the elders?”  Now, the seriousness of the charge here is that Jesus’ disciples do this because Jesus has taught them that way!  And that involves Him in their error in a most serious way.  These Pharisees, themselves, might disregard some of their own personal transgressions of the Halacha (and indeed they did), but to teach that as a principle, or a precept, was a totally different thing!  So the charge made against Jesus, here, is teaching against the Halacha – or the setting aside of the entire Halacha!

And they give the one clear example, which is here in the second part of verse two:  “…for they do not wash their hands whenever they eat bread.”  So the charge is that Jesus had instructed His disciples not to wash before eating, thereby revoking the teachings handed down by the elders.  The whole thing!

Now, I want to make several points about this because it’s important.  First, the Levitical Law given to Moses required no such washing!  (Leviticus, chapters nine through fifteen)  There were washings that were prescribed should one come in contact with an unclean thing, and which were foreshadowings of the separation and purity required of Christians as they sought to be free of the defilements of the world order.  But there was no washing before meals required in the Law of Moses.

But the teachings of the elders had made this practice a sacred event which was essential to the piety of the Jews!  And they regarded every person as chargeable with pollution – uncleanness – who did not, on every occasion, wash his hands!  So, not only was Jesus revoking the teachings of the elders, in the Pharisees’ estimation, but they were all unclean – spiritually unfit!  And this was all implied in front of this large crowd of people!

Secondly, the Scribes and other Pharisees were aware of the fact that Jesus and His disciples had been dealing with mixed-race people and even with the Gentiles; and they had been touching them to heal them, and they had even eaten with them!  So not only was there a general defilement in not washing before meals, but there was this very specific defilement as a result of touching unclean people!  And that’s not in the Law of Moses either!

Thirdly, and this is critically important, Jesus and His disciples did not repudiate the teachings of the elders because of custom or tradition!  In other words it wasn’t “custom” or “tradition” which they refused to observe!  And there’s no pattern here for us to use in disregarding custom.

But non-observance of this requirement of washing before meals by Jesus and His disciples was due to the fact that it had become a law more severely binding on the consciences of men than God’s Own Holy Words!  That’s the reason they refused to observe it!  The ritual washings had become a sacred duty and worship which purified the man himself, and which kept clean from defilement all that he put in his mouth!  The ritual became the purifier and the mark of cleanness!  The ritual became that which made man acceptable to God!

But it was always the will of God that He should be worshipped by the rule given in His Word.  And no addition to that Word can be endured!  And the curious fancies of men in adding to that rule is always met with indignation from Him.

Our Lord Jesus Christ observed Levitical Law.  In fact he never broke His Father’s Law even once!  But the teachings handed down by the elders were grounded on a false interpretation of the Laws of washing, adding to God’s Law; and the Pharisees bound the consciences of the people of Israel to a ritual based on those false understandings and additions.  So if Jesus had observed those teachings He would have broken His Father’s Law; and He would have perverted the foreshadowings of the Levitical Law – of which He, Himself, was the fullness!

So the Scribes and Pharisees were right!  The disciples of Jesus did not observe these man-made additions and perversions of God’s Law.  And they were right – Jesus taught them non-observance.  But there was something here that He did not do which they accused Him of.  They accused the disciples, at the teaching of Jesus, of violating, or setting aside, the teachings of the elders.  But Jesus and His disciples did not do that!  Why?  Because there was nothing to violate!  An attempt to add to the absolute Law of God is nothing but emptiness.  Vanity!  And attempt to add to the foreshadowings of the incarnation of God’s Word is nothing but emptiness.  So the non-observance of these man-made rituals of worship was simply an observance of their nothingness.

“But in response He says to them,” verse three, “and why do you, yourselves, violate the Commandment of God by your teaching…?”  Jesus begins His answer to them – not by pointing out that the Pharisees had done something equally wrong, or even a greater wrong.  That would have implicated Jesus as actually teaching in error.  And it would place Him and His disciples on the same level with the Pharisees!

Jesus obliterates their appeal to the Halacha by facing them with the Commandment of God, which is being violated for the sake of the Halacha!  (We’ll see that connection when we get to verse five).  But notice that Jesus doesn’t refer to the teachings of the elders here.  But He says “your teachings,” connecting them to the elders, but making them personally responsible for the errors they both accept and promulgate!

“You, yourselves, violate the Commandment of God while you find violations of the teachings of men in others!”

And then Jesus, in verse four, provides them with a perfect example of God’s holy Law that these men routinely break.  And He also provides them, in verse five, with the mechanism that they use to break it – the expanded law of the Halacha!  Listen:


“For God says, ‘Honor the father and the mother,’ and ‘the one reviling father or mother let him die the death.’”  (Or, as the Hebrew says, surely he shall die.)  “But you declare, ‘whoever says to father or to mother A Gift!  Whatever from me you might have benefited.’”


Now, that’s the formula from the Halacha which might be said better like this, “by whatever of mine you might have benefited, it is a gift!”

Now, we don’t have time to go into a full exposition of these two verses and do them justice.  So we’ll leave some of it for next time – including the Commandment itself.  But let me just say that the civil Law of God places the death penalty on the reviling of parents!  “Surely he shall be put to death.”  And, clearly, He is accusing these Pharisees and Scribes of reviling their parents and teaching the people of Israel to do the same!  So they are to be put to death!

And they’re doing so in the name of, and for the sake of, the teachings handed down by the elders.  “You, but you say….” (present tense continual, and, therefore, constant, established teaching)

And Jesus goes on to quote their own teaching – a perverted and augmented teaching – a man-made doctrine concerning a son’s obligation (or lack thereof) to his mother and father.  The quote is a specimen from a section in the Halacha on vows, which the elders and Pharisees had extended far beyond the Law of Moses!  And according to that text, a man might withhold help to his parents by repeating this “formula” which Jesus includes here in His answer.  “A Gift!  Whatever of mine by which you might have benefited, it is A Gift!”  In other words, I’ve already vowed to give that to God – or to the temple!

And in the Halacha, the vow to give something to the temple came before any other obligation.  Period!  Even before the obligation to obey the Commandment of God.

So the Pharisees used the exposition of a vow, found in the Halacha, in order to block and obstruct God’s Commandment!  And let’s take that a bit further.  Not only did they do that, but they then perverted their own teaching!  You see, there was no time limit on giving that Gift to the temple!  Do you see the perversion of their own doctrine?  A pseudo-legitimate Gift to the temple was one thing; but they could just claim the formula in the Halacha without having already made the vow!  And it was no telling how long it took to actually deliver the Gift!

Things were always being “vowed away”.  This legal manipulation was not only used against needy parents – it was also used to avoid creditors!  Due to the fact that a vow to give to the temple was the first obligation of all Jews, creditors as well as parents were turned away by using the Halacha as a protective shield!  “I can’t pay you, that money is vowed!”  “I’m short this time because of a temple vow – see me next time.”  “I’m sorry, I can’t help out now – I’m under obligation.”

The manipulations of their own man-made law were both ingenious and covetous.  And I’m sure that there were many times when the claim of an obligation was never fulfilled.  A perverted law was perverted again for the benefit of covetous people.

Next Lord’s Day the Commandment itself – and the Pharisees’ manipulation of it which constituted a “reviling” of parents – a death-penalty offense.  And also a discussion of the issue of law-manipulation by us when it meets our needs.  Men are unfaithful.  But God is not.  He vowed to provide us with a perfect sacrifice.  And He did it.  And this morning we celebrate our union in that sacrifice.