Matthew (Part 21) - The Conflict of the Ages: Humanity vs. God
Matthew 15 begins a section that runs through 16:12. The section both begins and ends with confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders (from Jerusalem no less). During the events of this sequence, Jesus moves around quite a bit, crossing both Galilee and its sea. The reason for his travels is not given. It may well be, as many scholars seem to think, an attempt to avoid arrest by Herod that Jesus’ growing reputation seemed to threaten. And that may very well be the case. He is eventually arrested to put a stop to his Messianic activities. But chapter 15 is not the time God established for that. So Jesus is on the move.
We begin chapter 15 with a delegation of Pharisees and scribes traveling down from Jerusalem. (I used “down” based on the common biblical (cultural) reference of Jerusalem as up and everywhere else in Palestine (including areas to the north) as down.) These law protectors are there to examine Jesus (just as was seen in chapters 12) to determine whether he acted and spoke in accordance with Jewish law.
Jewish law is not so tidy an idea as it may at first appear. Although THE LAW—Scripture itself—was written down, the much greater volume of detailed restrictions and activity required to keep from breaking that written law was not. The oral tradition was almost entirely (apart from possible personal notes) held only in the minds of the rabbis who learned it orally (and aurally) and cemented it through discussion and debate. Not until after the Jewish war of AD 66-70, including the temple’s destruction, did they find need to begin writing this oral tradition down (at first, mostly in commentary on OT books). Not until AD 200 was a complete, structured law written. This compilation is called the Mishna.
Since the tradition was taught orally, schools developed based on the views of certain esteemed rabbis. Thus, even in Jesus’ time, there was not one unified standard tradition of laws, but schools of thought that differed on some points from each other. It may be that part of the mission of the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem was to determine not just whether Jesus followed the tradition, but specifically which school of tradition he followed.
They notice that the disciples did not wash before eating. How the practice of washing hands before meals started is not certain. Other washings such as after the meal and before eating green vegetables also became a practice. According to the Gemarrah (the rabbinic commentaries to the Mishna, both incorporated in the Talmud), an argument was made that neglecting the before-meal washing of hands was tantamount to unchastity. This then appears to be a standard tradition (although it could simply be the tradition of the rabbinic schools of Jerusalem).
Whatever the case, Jesus notices in their question/accusation two important aspects, and he proceeds to attack both. First, he argues against the idea that human interpretation-turned-law should be considered on par or more important than the Word of God. He provides an example of a law of tradition that superseded (in the Pharisees’ eyes) the Scriptural commandment to honor father and mother. Christ clearly declares this to be wrong. And this thought begins the emphasis of the entire chapter—trust in (and therefore obedience to) God takes priority over trust in (and obedience to) humankind. This is the conflict that has existed since Adam and Eve removed trust in God and placed it in themselves. We see it over and over throughout the Bible in the Tower of Babel, in the decisions of the Israelite kings, in the emphasis of Paul, in the antichrist written about by John, and in the activity of the beasts of Revelation.
Next Jesus calls the people back closer (who had presumably stepped aside upon entrance of the Pharisee delegation) to make sure they understand the point concerning the washing. He effectively explains that the Pharisees have created a law of tradition based on a misunderstanding of Scriptural law. The Pharisees believed that because of their covenant relationship with God, they were pure. To maintain that purity, they performed the works of the law (including ceremonial washings). Their tradition, then, preserved the Scriptural laws based on that perspective. But Jesus says no. Defilement does not come from the external to an otherwise pure internal. Defilement begins internally and works itself externally. In other words, the Jewish idea that they were okay since they were in covenant relationship with God was false. Paul focuses on this idea also in Romans 2-3. By clearing up this matter, Jesus puts away the old covenant imaging that emphasized the purity of God and need for purity. Jesus the Messiah was the reality that took the place of this image to actually purify the hearts of those who had faith in God.
From this confrontation Jesus travels west across the region of Galilee to the borderlands of Syria’s Phoenician area—a region dominated by the cities of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman (described in Mark as a Gentile and Syrophoenician) cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter (cast out a demon). Jesus ignores her. As she follows Jesus into a house (detail provided in Mark 7), the disciples ask Jesus to send her away (implying that he do as she asks so she’ll stop bothering them). Jesus responds to them and to her by saying what he has said before. Even though he has come to establish a New Covenant, he is the fulfillment of the old covenant and must finish that mission with his ministry first to the Jews.
The woman’s reply is astounding. She doesn’t argue that that is not fair. She doesn’t push any right or speak of how deserving she is. In fact, her answer seems to accept that Jesus is right in conducting his ministry as he saw fit (although she probably did not understand it fully). In other words, she did not lift up any contention for self/humanity that is almost constant in the demands of the non-Christian heart. Her faith was not in how she thought Christ’s ministry ought to be. Her faith was in Christ. Was there a way that the crumbs, the overflow, the secondary focus could fall on her? And Jesus rewards her faith with healing.
The next verses take us back to the Sea of Galilee and back over to the other side close to the region near Bethsaida where Christ fed the 5000. Here Matthew notes that the people were being healed, as he has mentioned on several occasions. But uncharacteristically (only mentioned early in Christ’s ministry), Matthew tells us that when the people saw these miracles, they glorified God. This again shows the trust/faith in God over the explanations/command of men.
These crowds, desiring so much to receive from Christ, stayed with him three days. Surely they had not planned to be there that long, and provisions were low. Jesus wants their need met, but he doesn’t want them to go. That the disciples seem befuddled as to what to do does not speak well for their faith (or their intelligence for that matter). They are close to the same area in which Christ fed the 5000. Surely they could have thought that he could do it again. But the focus is not on the disciples this time, so Matthew goes on to recount the miracle using 7 loaves and winding up with 7 baskets. No doubt there were actually 7 loaves and 7 baskets, but surely God orchestrated the event so as to use that number of completeness/perfection in this miracle.
From there Jesus crosses back over the sea to Magadan, an area on the western edge of the sea, south of Gennesaret. Here, beginning in chapter 16, Jesus faces the Pharisees and Sadducees who demand from him a sign from heaven. In Jesus’ response he shows that these leaders whose interest was only for control of religion (and the people through it), were indeed blind because they could not discern the many Messianic signs that Jesus had already shown. They wanted Jesus subjected to their control and their demands. After all, so they thought, weren’t they the great law-minded leaders of the Jews? Shouldn’t Jesus want and need their approval? But Jesus calls their teaching leaven—false and evil.
The theme of this section—15:1-16:12—was the priority of faith and trust in God over faith and trust in self/humanity. The section is organized in chiastic form as follows:
-Pharisees and Scribes arguing for faith in what they say
------Syrophoenician woman – faith in God’s way
-----------People healed – praised God
------4000 hungry – faith in God’s way
-Pharisees and Sadducees demanding faith on their terms
The central point is to place trust in God and worship him only.