Matthew continues to move forward in his narrative, and beginning with this passage, he shows Jesus teaching the disciples to keep their distance from the Jewish religious leaders and their teachings. The scene begins with a confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees who were sent from Jerusalem. They challenge Jesus over the issue of hand washing; His disciples don’t do the ritual hand washing before they ate. The washing of hands prior to eating was a traditional practice of the “righteous”, but it wasn’t a requirement of the Law or of any of God’s commandments. Jesus quickly takes the offensives:
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (15:3).
He continues in 15:4-6 to make His charge that their tradition allowed a person to not honor their parents by dedicating a possession to God, when it was needed by their parents. In order for a person to “honor” their parents, it would have been incumbent upon the person to see to the financial and physical needs of their parents when they were no longer able to work. If the person was wealthy, they might be able to “dedicate” assets to God (whatever that really means in practice) and still have resources to help their parents, but most people are not wealthy, and there is the loophole. They “dedicate” assets to God, give some money to the Temple, and fail to properly care for their parents, and yet still seem to do quite nicely themselves… all with the blessings of the Pharisees, who collect some extra cash in the process: Interesting arrangement.
Jesus equates this with “cursing” one’s parents; His reasoning is that bringing a curse (poverty) upon them as it was in language, is a capital offense and that neglecting their needs is a more serious act than saying something bad. The Pharisees’ “tradition” might have lined their cash coffers, but it negated a divine imperative in the process… and they are here complaining about hand washing?
Jesus isn’t buying it.
After reciting the prophecy of Isaiah in vv. 7-9, He calls the crowd over in 15:10-11 to tell them that it isn’t what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him (food from non-ceremonially washed hands) but what comes out of a man’s mouth (like the corrupt teachings of the Pharisees).
The disciples react with concern, for they perceive that Jesus has offended the Pharisees sent to Him from Jerusalem; Jesus’ reaction shows us that He really couldn’t care less that they are offended (15:12-14). Perhaps one of these days, I’ll write about that.
Peter asks Jesus to explain His parable, and Jesus explained it like this:
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (15:16-20)
Tradition of the Church requires that I find a spin on this that makes you think that Jesus was always nice, gentle, sweet and diplomatic with the disciples, and with everyone other than the Pharisees, and that He was never all that tough on the Pharisees, but our traditions aren’t much better than those of the Pharisees when you get right down to cases, so here’s the obvious truth: Jesus wasn’t concerning Himself with their little feelings at that moment. (“Are you still so dull?”)
The rest of what He said here really doesn’t require any further comment from me.
What happens next in Matthew’s narrative is that Jesus is going to move into Gentile territory and demonstrate this teaching in action in two different scenes, and we’ll get into the first of those next time…