Matthew 15:1-9


Matt. 15:1-9

Then the Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem approached Jesus. “Why,” they said, “do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? They do so transgress, because they do not wash their hands before they eat bread.” Jesus answered them: “Why do you too transgress God’s commandment, because of your tradition? For God said, `Honour your father and your mother,’ and, `He who curses his father and mother, let him die’; but, as for you, you say, `Whoever says to his father or his mother: “That by which you might have been helped by me is a dedicated gift,” will certainly not honour his father and his mother, and is yet guiltless.’ You have annulled the commandment of God through your tradition. Hypocrites, Isaiah in his prophecy described you well: `This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. It is in vain that they reverence me; for it is man-made commandments that they teach as their teaching.'”

It is not too much to say that, however difficult and obscure this passage may seem to us, it is one of the most important passages in the whole gospel story. It represents a head-on clash between Jesus and the leaders of orthodox Jewish religion. Its opening sentence makes it clear that the Scribes and Pharisees had come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to put their questions to Jesus. On this occasion it need not be thought that the questions are malicious. The Scribes and Pharisees are not ill-naturedly seeking to entangle Jesus. They are genuinely bewildered; and in a very short time they are going to be genuinely outraged and shocked; for the basic importance of this passage is that it is not so much a clash between Jesus and the Pharisees in a personal way; it is something far more–it is the collision of two views of religion and two views of the demands of God.

Nor was there any possibility of a compromise, or even a working agreement, between these two views of religion. Inevitably the one had to destroy the other. Here, then, embedded in this passage, is one of the supreme religious contests in history. To understand it we must try to understand the background of Jewish Pharisaic and Scribal religion.

In this passage there meets us the whole conception of clean and unclean. We must be quite clear that this idea of cleanness and uncleanness has nothing to do with physical cleanness, or, except distantly, with hygiene. It is entirely a ceremonial matter. For a man to be clean was for him to be in a state where he might worship and approach God; for him to be unclean was for him to be in a state where such a worship and such an approach were impossible.

This uncleanness was contracted by contact with certain persons or things. For instance, a woman was unclean if she had a haemorrhage, even if that haemorrhage was her normal monthly period; she was unclean for a stated time after she had had a child; every dead body was unclean, and to touch it was to become unclean; every Gentile was unclean.

This uncleanness was transferable; it was, so to speak, infectious. For instance, if a mouse touched an earthenware vessel, that vessel was unclean and unless it was ritually washed and cleansed, everything put into it was unclean. The consequence was that anyone who touched that vessel, or who ate or drank from its contents became unclean; and in turn anyone who touched the person who had so become unclean also became unclean.

This is not only a Jewish idea; it occurs in other religions. To a high-caste Indian anyone not belonging to his own caste is unclean; if that person becomes a Christian, he is still more seriously unclean. Premanand tells us what happened to himself. He became a Christian; his family ejected him. Sometimes he used to come back to see his mother, who was broken-hearted at what she considered his apostasy, but still loved him dearly. Premanand says: “As soon as my father came to know that I was visiting my mother in the daytime while he was away at the office, he ordered the door-keeper, a stalwart up-country man, Ram Rup … not to allow me to enter the house.” Ram Rup was persuaded to slacken his vigilance. “At last my mother won over Ram Rup, the door-keeper, and I was allowed to enter her presence. The prejudice was so great that even the menial Hindu servants of the house would not wash the plates on which I was fed by my mother.
Sometimes my aunt would purify the place and the seat on which I had sat by sprinkling Ganges water, or water mixed with cow dung.” Premanand was unclean, and everything he touched became unclean.

We must note that there was nothing moral about this. The touching of certain things produced uncleanness; and this uncleanness debarred from the society of men and the presence of God. It was as if some special infection hung like an aura about certain persons and things. We may understand this a little better if we remember that even in western civilization this idea is not completely dead, although it works here mainly in reverse. There are still those who find in a four-leafed clover, or in some metal or wooden charm, or in a black cat, something which brings good fortune.

So, here is an idea which sees in religion something which consists in avoiding contact with certain things and people because they are unclean; and, then, if that contact should have been made, in taking the necessary ritual cleansing measures to rid oneself of the contracted uncleanness. But we must pursue this a little further.


Matt. 15:1-9 (continued)

The laws of cleanness and uncleanness had a further wide area of application. They laid down what a man might eat, and what he might not eat. Broadly speaking all fruit and vegetables were clean. But, in regard to living creatures, the laws were strict. These laws are in Lev.11.

We may briefly summarize them. Of beasts only those can be eaten who part the hoof and chew the cud. That is why no Jew can eat the flesh of the pig, the rabbit, or the hare. In no case may the flesh of an animal which has died a natural death be eaten (Deut.14:21). In all cases the blood must be drained from the carcass; the orthodox Jew still buys his meat from a kosher butcher, who sells only meat so treated. Ordinary fat upon the flesh might be eaten, but the fat on the kidneys and on the entrails of the abdomen, which we call suet, might not be eaten. In regard to sea food, only sea creatures which have both fins and scales may be eaten. This means that shellfish, such as lobsters, are unclean. All insects are unclean, with one exception, locusts. In the case of animals and fish there is a standard test, as we have seen, of what might be eaten, and what might not be eaten. In the case of birds there is no such test; and the list of unclean and forbidden birds is in Lev.11:13-21.

There were certain identifiable reasons for all this.

(i) The refusal to touch dead bodies, or to eat the flesh of an animal which had died from natural causes, may well have had something to do with the belief in evil spirits. It would be easy to think of a demon as taking up residence in such a body, and so gaining entry into the body of the eater.

(ii) Certain animals were sacred in other religions; for instance, the cat and the crocodile were sacred to the Egyptians; and it would be very natural for the Jews to regard as unclean any animal which another nation worshipped. The animal would then be reckoned a kind of idol and therefore dangerously unclean.

(iii) As Dr. Rendle Short points out in his most helpful book, The Bible and Modern Medicine, certain of the regulations were in fact wise from the point of view of health and hygiene. Dr. Short writes: “True, we eat the pig, the rabbit and the hare, but these animals are liable to parastic infections and are safe only if the food is well-cooked. The pig is an unclean feeder, and harbours two worms, trichina and a tape worm, which may be passed on to man. The danger is minimal under present conditions in this country, but it would have been far otherwise in Palestine of old, and such food was better avoided.” The prohibition of eating anything with blood in it comes from the fact that the blood is the life in Jewish thought. This is a natural thought, for, as blood flows away, life ebbs away. And the life belongs to God, and to God alone. The same idea explains the prohibition of eating the fat. The fat is the richest part of the carcase, and the richest part must be given to God.
In some cases, although they are few, there was sound sense behind the prohibitions and the food laws.

(iv) There remain a large number of cases in which things and beasts and animals were unclean for no reason at all except that they were. Taboos are always inexplicable; they are simply superstitions, by which certain living things came to be connected with good or with bad fortune, with cleanness or uncleanness.

These things would not in themselves matter very much, but the trouble and the tragedy were that they had become to the Scribes and Pharisees matters of life and death. To serve God, to be religious, was to observe these good laws. If we put it in the following way, we will see the result. To the Pharisaic mind the prohibition of eating rabbit’s or pig’s flesh was just as much a commandment of God as the prohibition of adultery; it was therefore just as much a sin to eat pork or rabbit as to seduce a woman and enjoy illegal sexual intercourse. Religion had got itself mixed up with all kinds of external rules and regulations; and, since it is much easier both to observe rules and regulations and to check up on those who do not, these rules and regulations had become religion to the orthodox Jews.


Matt. 15:1-9 (continued)

Now we come to the particular impact of this on the passage we are studying. It was clearly impossible to avoid all kinds of ceremonial uncleanness. A man might himself avoid unclean things, but how could he possibly know when on the street he had touched someone who was unclean? This was further complicated by the fact that there were Gentiles in Palestine, and the very dust touched by a Gentile foot became unclean.

To combat uncleanness an elaborate system of washings was worked out. These washings became ever more elaborate. At first there was a hand-washing on rising in the morning. Then there grew up an elaborate system of hand-washing whose use was at first confined to the priests in the Temple before they ate that part of the sacrifice which was their perquisite. Later these complicated washings came to be demanded by the strictest of the orthodox Jews for themselves and for all who claimed to be truly religious.

Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah outlines the most elaborate of these washings. Water jars were kept ready to be used before a meal. The minimum amount of water to be used was a quarter of a log, which is defined as enough to fill one and a half egg-shells. The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upwards, and must run up the arm as far as the wrist. It must drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands, and, if it ran down the fingers again, it would again render them unclean. The process was repeated with the hands held in the opposite direction, with the fingers pointing down; and then finally each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A really strict Jew would do all this, not only before a meal, but also between each of the courses.

The question of the Jewish orthodox leaders to Jesus is:

“Why do your disciples not observe the laws of washing
which our tradition lays down?”

They speak of the tradition of the elders. To the Jew the Law had two sections. There was the written Law which was contained in scripture itself; and there was the oral Law, which consisted of the developments, such as those in hand-washing, which the Scribes and the experts had worked out through the generations; and all these developments were the tradition of the elders, and were regarded as just as much, if not more, binding than the written Law. Again we must stop to remember the salient point–to the orthodox Jew all this ritual ceremony was religion; this is what, as they believed, God demanded. To do these things was to please God, and to be a good man. To put it in another way, all this business of ritual washing was regarded as just as important and just as binding as the Ten Commandments themselves. Religion had become identified with a host of external regulations. It was as important to wash the hands in a certain way as to obey the commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.”


Matt. 15:1-9 (continued)

Jesus did not answer the question of the Pharisees directly. What he did was to take an example of the operation of the oral and ceremonial law to show how its observance so far from being obedience to the Law of God, could become actual contradiction of that Law.

Jesus says that the Law of God lays it down that a man shall honour his father and his mother; then he goes on to say that if a man says, “It is a gift,” he is free from the duty of honouring his father and his mother. If we look at the parallel passage in Mark, we see that the phrase is: “It is Corban (korban, GSN2878; HSN7133).” What is the meaning of this obscure passage to us? In point of fact it can have two meanings, because Corban (korban, GSN2878) has two meanings.

(i) Corban (korban, GSN2878) can mean that which is dedicated to God. Now suppose that a man had a father or mother in poverty and in need; and suppose that his poor parent came to him with a request for help. There was a way in which the man could avoid giving any help. He could, as it were, officially dedicate all his money and all his property to God and to the Temple; his property would then be Corban (korban, GSN2878), God-dedicated; then he could say to his father or mother: “I’m very sorry, I can give you nothing; all my belongings are dedicated to God.” He could use a ritual practice to evade the basic duty of helping and honouring his father and mother. He could take a scribal regulation to wipe out one of the Ten Commandments.

(ii) But Corban (korban, GSN2878) has another meaning, and it may well be that it is this second meaning which is at issue here. Corban (korban, GSN2878) was used as an oath. A man might say to his father or mother: “Corban (korban, GSN2878), if anything I have will ever be used to help you.” Now suppose this man to have remorse of conscience; suppose him to have made the refusal in a moment of anger, or temper, or even of irritation; suppose him to have second and kinder and more filial thoughts, and to feel that after all there was a duty to help his parents. In such a case any reasonable person would say that that man had undergone a genuine repentance, and that his change of mind was a good thing; and that since he was now prepared to do the right thing and obey the Law of God he should be encouraged to follow that line.

The strict Scribe said, “No. Our Law says that no oath can ever be broken.” He would quote Num.30:2: “When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” The Scribe would legalistically argue: “You took an oath; and for no reason can you ever break it.” That is to say, the Scribe would hold a man to a reckless oath, taken in a moment of passion, an oath which actually compelled a man to break the higher law of humanity and of God.

That is what Jesus meant. He meant: “You are using your scribal interpretations, your traditions, to compel a man to dishonour his father and mother, even when he himself has repented and has seen the better way.”

The strange and tragic thing was that the Scribes and Pharisees of the day were actually going against what the greatest Jewish teachers had said. Rabbi Eliezer said, “The door is opened for a man on account of his father and his mother,” and he meant that, if any man had sworn an oath which dishonoured his father and his mother, and had then repented of it, the door was open to him to change his mind and to take a different way, even if an oath had been sworn. As so often, Jesus was not presenting men with unknown truth; he was reminding them of things that God had already told them, and that they had already known but had forgotten, because they had come to prefer their own man-made ingenuities to the great simplicities of the Law of God.

Here is the clash and the collision; here is the contest between two kinds of religion and two kinds of worship. To the Scribes and Pharisees religion was the observance of certain outward rules and regulations and rituals, such as the correct way to wash the hands before eating; it was the strict observance of a legalistic outlook on all life. To Jesus religion was a thing which had its seat in the heart; it was a thing which issued in compassion and kindness, which are above and beyond the law.

To the Scribes and Pharisees worship was ritual, ceremony law; to Jesus worship was the clean heart and the loving life. Here is the clash. And that clash still exists. What is worship? Even today there are many who would say that worship is not worship unless it is carried out by a priest ordained in a certain succession, in a building consecrated in a certain way, and from a liturgy laid down by a certain Church. And all these things are externals.

One of the greatest definitions of worship ever laid down was laid down by William Temple: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” We must have a care lest we stand aghast at the apparent blindness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, lest we are shocked by their insistence on outward ceremonial, and at the same time be ourselves guilty of the same fault in our own way. Religion can never be founded on any ceremonies or ritual; religion must always be founded on personal relationships between man and God.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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