The Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 15:1-20 (Matthew 15:1-20)

Discourse concerning ceremonial pollution. ( Mark 7:1-23 .)

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Matthew 15:17 (Matthew 15:17)

Whatsoever entereth in at the mouth, etc. Food taken into the mouth goes into the stomach, is assimilated into the bodily system, and its refuse passes away to the draught ( ἀφεδρῶνα ), the necessary house. It has nothing to do with the heart or the moral being; it affects only the material organization, and has no connection with the spiritual. Christ does not concern himself with questions, which modern philosophers would attempt to solve, concerning the mutual influence of soul and body, the animal and spiritual nature; he puts forth an argument which every one could receive, plain even to those "without understanding." This is the elucidation of the first part of Matthew 15:11 . The further explanation follows in Matthew 15:18 , Matthew 15:19 .

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Matthew 15:1-20 (Matthew 15:1-20)

Unwashen hands.


1 . They were of Jerusalem. It seems that a deputation had been sent by the leading inert in Jerusalem. The great discourse related in John 6:1-71 . had probably been reported to them; they had heard that the scribes and Pharisees of Galilee were unable to cope with our Lord; and they now sent some of their own body to watch him and to find opportunity for accusing him. Mark the reception which he met with on his return from the eastern side of the lake. The people of Gennesaret knew his power and mercy. They brought their sick; they besought him that they might touch the hem of his garment. The poor and simple came in their simplicity, seeking help; the zealots, the learned students of the Scriptures, came, with malice and envy in their hearts, seeking to compass the ruin of the Saviour. The outward show of sanctity will not deceive God, will not save our souls. Let us see that we come to Christ in single-hearted earnestness, seeking only to know him who is the Saviour of the world.

2 . Their question. They busied themselves, as formalists do, about the infinitely little. The Lord's holiness, wisdom, power, were of no interest to them in comparison with the small matters of ceremonial observance enjoined in their traditions. They thought that it was enough to secure salvation if a man lived in the land of Israel, if he ate his food with duly washed bands, and spoke the holy language, and recited his phylacteries morning and evening. They regarded these traditions of theirs as more sacred than the written Law. The Lord's disciples had, it seems, neglected these frequent washings. The Pharisees wished to fix the responsibility on him: "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" Strange perversity, to insist on these trivialities in the presence of that unearthly holiness; to ask these petty ensnaring questions of him who could teach them the way to heaven!

3 . The Lord ' s answer.

4 . His quotation from Isaiah. The Lord applies to the Pharisees what the prophet had said of his contemporaries. Prophecy is for all time; it is fulfilled again and again in the history of the Church. God's words spoken by Isaiah extended, in their prophetic range, to the scribes and Pharisees of our Lord's days. They honoured God with their lips, but their heart was far from him. Such worship is in vain. It is no true worship; it is false, counterfeit. Worship is the adoration of the heart when it loses sight of self in the contemplation of the glory of God. The worship of the Pharisees was full of self; they sought not the glory of God; they put the commandments of men above his holy Word. In truth, they worshipped themselves, and not God; for it was their own profit, their own advancement, their own honour, which they loved with all their heart. And that which we love with the whole heart is the object of our worship. Let us take heed to ourselves.


1 . The Lord called them. Perhaps they had stood aloof. They honoured the Lord; they had been taught to reverence the Pharisees; they were in perplexity. But now the Lord turned away from the Pharisees in holy indignation at their hypocrisy, their perversion of the truth of God. He called the multitude to come nearer; he would not have them lose the lesson. "Hear, and understand," he said. He bespoke their attention; for he was about to enunciate a great principle—a principle which seems simple enough to us; but it was new and startling then; it was contrary to accepted doctrines. It struck at the minute observances of the scribes and Pharisees; it swept them away by the application of one wide-reaching rule. And it did more than this; it pointed to the coming abrogation of the ceremonial law.

2 . His teaching. "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." The words might be understood, according to the well known Hebrew idiom, as meaning only that moral defilement was far more serious and important than ceremonial defilement (compare the twice-quoted passage of Hosea, "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice;" or our Lord's words in John 6:27 , "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life"). But probably the Lord's meaning went further. It was an anticipation of the coming change. According to the reading of the most ancient manuscripts, as explained by Chrysostom and several modern commentators, St. Mark represents our Lord as saying this, "cleansing all meats" ( Mark 7:19 ). If this be correct, the Lord anticipates here the Divine announcement made afterwards to St. peter, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" ( Acts 10:15 ). The Lord's utterance was not so decided now. The Jews were not yet able to bear a peremptory declaration of the abolition of the laws respecting meats. The distinction between clean and unclean was to them of immense importance and significance, one of the marked characteristics of their religious life, one of the barriers between them and the Gentiles. They could not have endured to see all this elaborate system swept away at once; the disciples themselves were not ripe for such a change. Long afterwards St. Paul found it necessary to deal very tenderly with consciences that might be troubled by similar scruples. The Lord now indicates the coming abolition of the Levitical rules; he does not insist upon it; he returns to the original topic of discussion, "To eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man." It was one of those sayings which the apostles could not receive in their full meaning at once, but which remained in their memory, and afterwards were understood and brought forth fruit.


1 . Their fears. The Pharisees were offended. The Lord's words were a stumbling block to them; he had struck so hard at their prejudices, their traditions—those traditions which were so deeply interwoven with their whole life; he had called them hypocrites, too; he had said that they were no better than actors of a part, and had applied to them the strong condemnation of Isaiah. Again, in his address to the multitude, reported doubtless to the Pharisees, perhaps heard by them, he seemed to set aside the plain teaching of the written Law. At all this the Pharisees stumbled; it was an offence to them; such teaching was in direct opposition to all that they esteemed most sacred. They thought it dangerous, heretical. They were offended, irritated, alienated. And evidently the Lord's disciples had not wholly divested themselves of their old reverence for the rabbinical system, and for the received. teachers of the nation, the Pharisees. They were troubled at their increasing hostility; perhaps they were in their hearts somewhat vexed with the Lord himself; his words, it may be, seemed to them so stern, so needlessly strong. They apprehended difficulties, dangers; they feared for their Master and for themselves. And now they came to him privately, into the house ( Mark 7:17 ); they hinted at their anxieties; they sought to know what he would do. We must always come to Christ in our troubles; but we must trust him and yield up our wills to him; he doeth all things well.

2 . The answer.

3 . The request of Peter. He spoke in the name of all the disciples ( Mark 7:17 ). But we know that long afterwards he clung to his old Jewish habits of life ( Galatians 2:11-16 ); and at this time our Lord's words in verse 11 must have seemed a very hard saying to him. He called it a parable; it was very difficult for him with his Jewish training to receive it; he wanted to understand what was in our Lord's thoughts, the spiritual meaning of his words.

4 . The Lord ' s reply. "Are ye also yet without understanding?" he said to the disciples. They had been with him long; they ought to have understood by this time the spiritual character of his teaching. But it was hard for them to throw aside the beliefs, the practices, of a lifetime; they needed the plainest teaching on a subject like this. And Christ gave it them. It is the inner life of thought and feeling which determines the true cleanliness or uncleanliness of a man, not the quality of his food. "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." "All things indeed are pure;" there may be good and holy reasons for abstaining from certain things under certain circumstances; but "there is nothing unclean of itself." Such was the teaching of St. Paul, inspired, as he tells us, by the Lord Jesus; the same Lord anticipates that teaching here. It is that which cometh out of the mouth which defileth a man; for out of the mouth come evil words, and evil words issue from the evil treasure of the heart. Evil words imply evil thoughts, and evil thoughts are wrought into the inner moral being of the man, into the very centre of his personality. The man, the true self, is defiled, not by things external, not by meats or by unwashen hands; these and such like matters have to do only with his bodily frame. Cleanliness is good; it may be next to godliness; there is, as a rule, a certain connection between them; there must be a certain connection between the outward life and the inward, as long as we remain in the flesh. But cleanliness is not godliness; the body may be clean, but the heart within full of all uncleanness. It was so with these Pharisees who blamed the Lord; they took the greatest pains to secure the exactest external cleanness; but the Lord said to them, "Your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness" ( Luke 11:39 ). Let us remember the words of the wise man, "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life." Let us labour for that inner purification of the heart which is granted unto those who walk in the light, whom the blood of Jesus Christ is cleansing from all sin.


1 . The Pharisees found fault with our Lord; men will find fault with the holiest of his servants. Remember the eighth Beatitude; be patient.

2 . God is our King; he is to be obeyed; not men, when they would draw us from his commandments.

3 . Follow those who follow Christ. There are blind guides; let them alone.

4 . The pure in heart shall see God; seek earnestly that precious grace of purity.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 15:1-20 (Matthew 15:1-20)

On hand washing.

The omission with which the Pharisees here charge the disciples was that of a ceremonial observance on which they laid immense stress. Certain washings for purification had been commanded by the Law of Moses, but to these countless additions of a minute and vexatious kind had been added by the rabbis. Even when no defilement had been consciously contracted, the washings must be observed because, unwittingly, a man might touch what would defile him. Wherever in religion such human inventions are accepted as binding, they tend to become more prominent than the fundamental moral law. It was so in this case, and it is to this our Lord's words point. "By your tradition," he says, "ye make the Word of God of none effect. You put aside his commandment that you may keep your own tradition. You accept as the important things such trifles as these, while the truly great things of the Law you utterly neglect." But the evil of Pharisaism lay even deeper than this. The Pharisees were not mere formalists; those of Paul's type could honestly say that, touching the Law, they were blameless. Their mistake was that they thought their good actions made them good men. Our Lord came to give men clear perception and hold of the real distinction between good and evil. Men were not to be allowed to suppose the distinction between good men and bad was a slight one, that could be bridged over by a few acquired habits or formal observances. They were to be made to see that the distinction was deep as humanity itself; that their goodness must be one that would be eternal; not being the result of a superficial imitation, or attempt to satisfy the expectations or win the applause of men, but springing from the man's inmost self. To illustrate the principle that respect to human tradition tends to disrespect of God's Law, our Lord cites an instance well known to them. Under the guise of extra devotion to God, a man could evade the first of human duties by merely saying over anything he wished to keep, "Corban"—"It is devoted." This was monstrous, and the system which encouraged it manifestly "a plant which his Father had not planted." The principle which lies at the root of our Lord's teaching here he enounces in the words, "There is nothing from without a man that, entering into him, can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile a man." We may apply this in two ways.

1 . To those who, under the guise of greater religiousness than that of other men, evade the common duties of life ; who, in defending some trifle that hangs to the skirt of religion, do not scruple to transgress the broad laws of justice, truth, and charity which form its life. Every age has had its representatives of the Pharisees, the defenders of traditional religion, who have shown the same unscrupulousness and intolerance in defence of what they suppose to be religious truth. And when we consider the damage done to religion by such persons, and the difficulty of convincing them of their error, we do not wonder that no class was so frequently and so unsparingly denounced by our Lord. In every religious community there is a tendency to place the keeping of certain observances that are added to the Law above the Law itself; to consider these extra things as the marks of a religious man, and to call a man religious or irreligious according as he does or does not things that have as little to do with fundamental morality as the washing of hands before eating. We are apt, all of us, to pay attention to the means rather than to what is the great end of all religion; to wash our hands instead of our hearts. "These things ye ought to have done, but not to have left the others undone." All these things that are peculiar marks of religious people are good, but become enormous evils when out of proportion to the essential matters of the Law— of morality, of justice and truth between man and man, of love to God and to our fellows. Or:

2 . We may consider the principle as enouncing the general truth that man ' s life is determined in all respects by what is within, not by what is without. Our Lord was sinless, not because he was not in circumstances of temptation, but because there was nothing on which temptation could fix. We lay the blame of our low spiritual condition, our actual fails, on our circumstances. But why is it these circumstances tempt us? Others pass through them without peril. The blame is within. We must seek for the remedy, also, within. The change that determines our destiny is a change in ourselves.—D.

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Matthew 15:1-20 (Matthew 15:1-20)

Casuistry reproved.

The fame of the miracles and ministry of Jesus passed from Galilee to Jerusalem, whence came certain Pharisees and scribes, who were probably sent to watch him, and find matter of accusation against him (cf. Matthew 22:15 , Matthew 22:16 ). "Jerusalem—the high school of hypocrisy. Rabbi Nathan says, 'If the hypocrites were divided into ten parts, nine would be found in Jerusalem, and one in the world beside'" (Stier). These zealots set up the traditions of the elders against the character and claims of Jesus. Their accusation is contained in the question, "Why do thy disciples," etc. 7 ( Matthew 15:2 ). The reply takes the form of a retort, an admonition, and an exposition; the former being hurled at the accusers, and the latter given for the edification of disciples and the people.

I. THE RETORT . "Why do ye transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?"

1 . The appeal was followed up by an example.

2 . This was a triumphant defence of the disciples.

3 . It was a heavy impeachment of the accusers.

II. THE ADMONITION . This was addressed to the disciples. "Then came the disciples," etc. ( Matthew 15:12-14 ).

1 . The doom of the hypocrite is declared.

2 . Their dupes will share their doom.

(a) A rich profligate.

(b) An infidel.

(c) A man of learning.

(d) A politician.

(e) A teacher of heresy or of levity.

"If both fall together into the ditch, the blind leaders will fall undermost, and have the worst of it" (Henry). But that will be slender comfort to the sufferers in the crush that will follow.

III. THE EXPOSITION . This was given alike to the disciples and the people (verses 10, 11, 15-20).

1 . It distinguishes between Moses and the elders.

2 . It distinguishes between the letter and the spirit of the Law.

(a) recognizes original sin. "Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what is in him before" (Dr. Owen).

(b) Before evil becomes sin it must have the sanction of the understanding (see 1 John 3:4 ).—J.A.M.

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Matthew 15:11-20 (Matthew 15:11-20)

The secret of human defilement.

It is quite possible to exaggerate in presenting the teachings of our Lord in these verses. We do so if we make too absolute the distinction between what goes into a man and what comes out of a man. Our Lord's illustration needs to be kept within its natural and proper limits. The Pharisees had objected to the disciples eating their bread with unwashen hands, their notion being that something causing ceremonial defilement might be upon their hands, and this taken in with the bread would make them ceremonially unclean. It was a ridiculous subtlety, and yet it had become quite an established notion. It was best met by such scorn as Jesus poured upon it. You cannot defile a man's soul by putting some dirt into his food; that may bring on disease in the man's body, but it cannot defile the man himself. Our Lord strikes hard at the insincerities of the Pharisee class, who were foul in speech, unclean in life, and self-seeking in relations, however anxious they were about ceremonial defilement. What came out of them—their speech, conduct, relations—these defiled them.

I. THE SECRET OF HUMAN DEFILEMENT IS THE WRONG INSIDE A MAN . A man is very largely responsible for the contents of his mind. True, he may have been placed in circumstances beyond his control which have brought evil associations; but the law is always working, that the things only are retained and effective on which attention is continuously and persistently fixed. Then we must have fixed our attention on what our minds now have in them, and so we must be responsible for their contents. Can we bear to look at the actual contents of our minds? How utterly unimportant ceremonial defilements seem in view of this real evil! A man is in a state of defilement, heart defilement, to begin with. From this may be shown the absolute need of regeneration.

II. THE FURTHER SECRET OF HUMAN DEFILEMENT IS THAT THIS INSIDE WRONG GETS STRENGTHENED BY EXPRESSION . If the foul things inside a man would just stay quiet, things would not be so serious. But they are persistently active, ever trying to get expression, to say something or to do something. And they become stronger and more active by every expression. How that which comes out of a man defiles him may be shown by indicating the way in which a foul thought, gaining utterance in a foul speech, becomes an act of the will; the man is made foul thereby.—R.T.

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