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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Matthew 15

 

 

Verse 1

XV.

(1) Scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem.—The presence of these actors on the scene is every way significant. They had been prominent in like accusations. It was by them that our Lord had been accused of blasphemy in forgiving sins (Matthew 9:3), of eating and drinking with publicans and sinners (Matthew 9:11), of disregarding fasts (Matthew 9:14), of casting out devils by Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24), of Sabbath-breaking (Matthew 12:2; Matthew 12:10). It was, we may believe, their presence in the synagogue of Capernaum which led our Lord to adopt (as in John 6:26-65) a form of teaching so unlike the usual tenor of that of His Galilean ministry. And now they return to the charge again with a new and characteristic accusation.


Verse 2

(2) They wash not their hands when they eat bread.—St. Mark (Mark 7:3-4), writing for Gentiles, explains the nature of the tradition more fully. What the Pharisees insisted on was not cleanliness as such, but the avoidance of ceremonial pollution. They shrank not from dirt, but from defilement. If they had been in the market, they might have come in contact with the heathen or the publican. If they ate or drank out of a metal or earthenware cup, the last lip that touched it might have been that of a heathen, and therefore that too needed purification. The pride which led them to stand aloof from the rest of mankind showed itself in this, as in all their other traditions. Indifference to their rules in peasants and fishermen, as such—as belonging to the crowd whom they scorned as the brute “people of the earth”—they could afford to tolerate. What shocked them was to see the disciples of One who claimed to be a Prophet or a Rabbi indulging in that indifference. According to their traditions, the act of which they complained stood on the same level as sexual impurity, and exposed those who were guilty of it to the excommunication of the Sanhedrin, or great Council.


Verse 3

(3) By your tradition.—Better, for the sake of your tradition. Our Lord’s answer, it will be noted, is an indirect one, an argumentum ad hominem. He shows that their traditional casuistry was in direct opposition to the “commandment” of God, and the natural inference from that antagonism was that in itself, apart from the commandment, it had no binding authority as a rule of life.


Verse 4

(4) God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and thy mother.—At first it might seem as if our Lord Himself, no less than the Pharisees, had taught men to think lightly of the commandment on which He now lays stress. He had called on men to forsake father and mother for the sake of the gospel (Matthew 4:18; Matthew 4:22), and had excluded from discipleship those who loved father and mother more than they loved Him (Matthew 10:37). We need not close our eyes to the difficulty which thus presents itself. But the answer is not far to seek. In our Lord’s teaching, a lower, natural duty was to give way exceptionally to a higher and supernatural one; otherwise it remained in full force. In that of the Pharisees the natural duty, enforced by a direct divine commandment, was made to give way to one which was purely human, arbitrary, and conventional. The two cases were not only not analogous, but stood on an entirely different footing.


Verse 5

(5) It is a gift.—St. Mark (Mark 7:11) gives the Hebrew term, Corban, which was literally applied to that which had been consecrated—theoretically to God, practically to the service or ornamentation of the Temple. In Matthew 27:6, the treasury of the Temple is itself called the Corban. The casuistry of the scribes in this matter seems at first so monstrous that it would be hard to understand how it could have approved itself to any intelligent interpreters of the Law, were it not that the teaching of scholastic and Jesuit moralists presents instances, not less striking, of perverted ingenuity. The train of thought which led them to so startling a conclusion would seem to have been this: to divert to lower human uses that which has been consecrated to God is sacrilege, and therefore a man who turned all his property into a Corban was bound not to expend it on the support even of his nearest relations. But the time of fulfilling the vow of consecration was left to his own discretion, and no one had a right to call him to account for delay. With this loophole, the Corban practice became an easy method of evading natural obligations. It might be pleaded in bar of the claims of nearest relationship, and yet all the while the man might retain the usufruct of his property, and defer the fulfilment of his vow to the last hour of life. It would seem, indeed, that this casuistry went still further, and that the consecration might be only relative, as stopping the claims of this or that person, and expiring when they passed away.


Verse 6

(6) He shall be free.—The words, as the italics show, are not in the Greek, and if we follow the better reading, are not wanted to complete the sense. “Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me, he shall not honour (i.e., shall not support) his father or his mother.” The “honour” which the commandment enjoined was identified with the duty which was its first and most natural expression.

By your tradition.—As before, for the sake of. They had inverted the right relation of the two, and made the tradition an end, and not a means. St. Mark (Mark 7:9) gives what we cannot describe otherwise than as a touch of grave and earnest irony, in the truest and best sense of that word, “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own traditions.”


Verse 7

(7) Ye hypocrites.—See Note on Matthew 7:5.


Verse 8

(8) This people draweth nigh unto me.—The quotation is given substantially from the Greek version of Isaiah. We have already seen in Matthew 13:14 how the Pharisees were taught to see their own likeness in the language of the prophet. Now the mirror is held up once more, and they are seen to have been anticipated in that very substitution of human for divine ordinances for which our Lord reproves them.


Verse 9

(9) Teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.—Neither word is quite adequately rendered. The “doctrines” are not articles of faith, propositions to be believed, but precepts which were taught as binding. The “commandments” are single, special rules as contrasted with the divine “commandment,” which was exceedingly broad.


Verse 10

(10) He called the multitude, and said unto them.—The act was more startling and suggestive than appears on the surface. He did not appeal to the authority of great names or of a higher tribunal. He removed the case, as it were, to another court, which His opponents did not recognise, and turned from the disputes and traditions of the schools to the unperverted conscience of the common people.


Verse 11

(11) Not that which goeth into the mouth.—Up to this time the question had been debated indirectly. The scribes had been convicted of unfitness to speak with authority on moral questions. Now a great broad principle is asserted, which not only cut at the root of Pharisaism, but, in its ultimate tendency. swept away the whole Levitical system of ceremonial purity—the distinction between clean and unclean meats and the like. It went, as the amazement of the disciples showed, far beyond their grasp as yet. Even after the day of Pentecost, Peter still prided himself on the observance of the Law which was thus annulled, and boasted that he had never “eaten anything common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). So slow were even those who had sat at the feet of Jesus to take in the thought that purity was inward and not outward, a spiritual and not a physical quality.


Verse 12

(12) Then came his disciples.—The sequence of events appears in Mark 7:17. The Pharisees drew back as in holy horror at the boldness with which the new Teacher set Himself, not only above their traditions, but above laws which they looked on as divine, and therefore permanent. The multitude heard in silence a teaching so unlike that with which they had been familiar from their youth. Even the disciples were half perplexed at the teaching itself, half afraid of what might be its immediate consequences. They came with their question, “Knowest thou not that the Pharisees were offended?” Had their Master calculated the consequences of thus attacking, not individual members or individual traditions of the party, but its fundamental principle, that which was, so to speak, its very raison d’être?


Verse 13

(13) Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted.—The disciples could hardly fail to connect the words with the parable which they had heard so lately. The system and the men that they had been taught to regard as pre-eminently religious were, after all, in their Master’s judgment, as the tares and not as the wheat (Matthew 13:37-38). So far as they were a sect or party, His Father had not planted them. They, too, were left, according to the teaching of that parable, to grow until the harvest, but their end was sure—they should be “rooted out.” The words which proclaim their doom were, however, intentionally general in their form. In that divine judgment which works through the world’s history, foreshadowing the issues of the last great day, that doom is written on every system, party, sect which originates in man’s zeal, in narrowness, in self-will. It has not been planted by the Father, and therefore it is doomed to perish.


Verse 14

(14) They be blind leaders of the blind.—It would appear from Romans 2:19 that the phrase was one in common use to describe the ideal of the Rabbi’s calling. Now they heard it in a new form, which told them that their state was the very reverse of that ideal. And that which was worst in it was that their blindness was self-chosen (Matthew 13:15), and that they were yet all unconscious of it, and boasted that they saw (John 9:41).

If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.—The proverb was probably a familiar one (it is given in St. Luke 6:39 as part of the Sermon on the Plain), but, as now spoken, it had the character of a prophecy. We have but to read the Jewish historian’s account of the years that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem to see what the “ditch” was towards which teachers and people were alike blindly hastening. Bitter sectarianism, and wild dreams, and baseless hopes, and maddened zeal, and rejection of the truth which alone had power to save them, this was the issue which both were preparing for themselves, and from which there was no escape.


Verse 15

(15) Declare unto us this parable.—The answer shows that Peter’s question referred not to the proverb that immediately preceded, but to what seemed to him the strange, startling utterance of Matthew 15:11. It was significant that he could not as yet take in the thought that it was a truth to be received literally. To him it seemed a dark enigmatic saying, which required an explanation, like that which had been given of the parable of the Sower, to make its meaning clear.


Verse 16

(16) Are ye also yet without understanding?—The pronoun is emphatic: “Ye, My disciples, who have heard from My lips the spiritual nature of My kingdom, are ye too, like the Pharisees, still such backward scholars?”


Verse 17

(17) Is cast out into the draught.—The word is used in its old English meaning, as equivalent to drain, sewer, cesspool (see 2 Kings 10:27). St. Mark (Mark 7:19) adds the somewhat perplexing words, “purging all meats,” on which see Note on that verse. The principle implied is that a process purely physical from first to last cannot in itself bring any moral defilement. It was possible, of course, that the appetites connected with that process might bring the taint of moral evil; but then these appetites were there before the food, and they took their place among the things that came “out of the heart,” and not into it.


Verse 19

(19) Evil thoughts, . . . blasphemies.—The plural form points to the manifold variety of the forms of guilt under each several head. The order is in some measure an ascending one, beginning with the “thoughts,” or rather trains of thought, which are the first suggestions of evil, and ending in the “blasphemies” or revilings which, directly or indirectly, have God and not man for their object. In this beginning and end we may trace a reference to those “evil surmises” which had led the Pharisees, as in Matthew 12:24, to words which were blasphemy against the Son of Man, and came perilously near to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.


Verse 21

(21) Into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.—St. Mark (Mark 7:31) says (in the best MSS.) our Lord passed, after the miracle, “through Sidon,” and so we have the one recorded exception to that self-imposed law of His ministry which kept Him within the limits of the land of Israel. To the disciples it might seem that He was simply withdrawing from conflict with the excited hostility of His Pharisee opponents. We may see a relation between the two acts not unlike that which afterwards connected the vision of Peter at Joppa with his entry into the house of Cornelius at Cæsarea. He was showing in act, as before in word (Matthew 11:21), that He regarded Tyre and Sidon as standing on the same level as Chorazin and Bethsaida. The dust of the heathen cities was not more defiling than that of Capernaum. The journey from Capernaum to Tyre was one which might be made in one long day of active walking.


Verse 22

(22) A woman of Canaan.—The terms Canaanite and Canaan, which in the earlier books of the Old Testament were often applied in a wider sense to all the original inhabitants of what was afterwards the land of Israel (Genesis 10:18; Genesis 12:6; Judges 1:10), were used more specifically of Phœnicia and its inhabitants (Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Ezra 9:1, and elsewhere), and are employed here with that meaning. St. Mark describes her more definitely as “a Greek” (i.e., a heathen, the name “Greek” having gained a wider connotation, much as “Frank” has done in recent times), a “Syro-Phœnician by nation.”

Came out of the same coasts.—Better, of those regions, coming forth (i.e., from some house or village), cried . . .

O Lord, thou son of David.—The words show that the fame of the Prophet of Nazareth had travelled beyond the limits of Galilee, and that He was known to the people of the Tyre and Sidon district by the most popular of the Messianic names. This was natural enough, even if we think only of popular rumours as the channel through which the fame had reached her. Luke 6:17, however, suggests a more direct source of knowledge. Among the multitude that listened to the Sermon on the Plain, and brought those that were “vexed with unclean spirits,” had been people “from the sea-coast of Tyre and Sidon.” The mother of the demoniac daughter may well have cherished for months the hope that one day the great Deliverer would come within her reach. And now, beyond all expectation, He had come across the boundary of Israel, and she saw Him in her own country. St. Mark adds, significantly, that “He would have no man know” of His presence, but He “could not be hid” (Mark 7:24). The scene, as described by St. Mark, was in the house into which He had retired in order to avoid notice.


Verse 23

(23) He answered her not a word.—Two alternative views present themselves as to our Lord’s action in this matter. That which has found favour with nearly all ancient and most modern interpreters assumes that from the first He had purposed to comply with her request, and spoke as He did only to test and manifest her faith. Men have been unwilling to recognise the possibility of a change of purpose in the human nature of our Lord which they, unconsciously heretical, confused with the divine, and have preferred to fall back on the supposition of a simulated harshness. The truer and more reverential course, I venture to think, is to accept the impression which, apart from any à priori theory, the facts seem naturally to make, and to see, in what passed, the prevailing power of prayer working on the sympathy of Christ, and leading Him to pass beyond the ordinary limits of His appointed work. On this assumption, it is our work to trace, with all reverence, the successive stages of the process. And first, even the silence is significant, and implies a conflict. It would have been easy to dismiss her with a word. But the tenderness which He felt towards this sufferer, as towards others, forbade that course, and yet the sense of the normal limitation of His work forbade the other. Silence was the natural outcome of the equilibrium of these conflicting motives.

Send her away; for she crieth after us.—The disciples were clearly unable to enter into either of the two feelings which were thus contending for the mastery. Their words, as interpreted by our Lord’s answer, were, in some sense, a plea in favour of the woman. They wished Him to grant what she asked for, and so to dismiss her. And yet we feel that their words were far harsher than their Master’s silence. They wanted only to be rid of her presence, which had followed them from the streets into the house, to be freed from the loud eager cries which vexed them.


Verse 24

(24) I am not sent (better, I was not sent) but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.—This, then, was what had restrained Him. Those wandering sheep, without a shepherd, were the appointed objects of His care. Were He to go beyond that limit in a single case, it might be followed by a thousand, and then, becoming, as it were, before the time, the Apostle of the Gentiles, He would cease to draw to Himself the hearts of Israel as their Redeemer. We call to mind the case of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:10), and wonder that that was not decisive as a precedent in the supplicant’s favour. The two cases stood, however, on a very different footing. The centurion who had built a synagogue was practically, if not formally, a proselyte of the gate. As the elders of the synagogue pleaded for him as worthy, the work of healing wrought for him would not alienate them or their followers. The woman belonged, on the contrary, to the most scorned and hated of all heathen races, to the Canaan on which the primeval curse was held to rest (Genesis 9:25), and had as yet done nothing to show that she was in any sense a convert to the faith of Israel.


Verse 25

(25) Then came she and worshipped him.—The word implies the act of prostrate homage. She had apparently stood apart during the conversation between the Prophet and His disciples, and now came again, renewing her passionate entreaty.


Verse 26

(26) To cast it to dogs.—The word used was diminutive in its form, and as such pointed not to the wild, unclean beasts that haunt the streets of an Eastern city (Psalms 59:6), but to the tamer animals that were bred in the house, and kept as pets. The history of Tobias and his dog, in the Apocrypha, furnishes the one example in Biblical literature of this friendly relation between the dog and his master (Tobit 5:16).

The answer has, even taking this into account, a somewhat harsh sound, but it did not go beyond the language with which the woman must have been familiar, and it was probably but a common proverb, like our “Charity begins at home,” indicating the line of demarcation which gave a priority to the claims of the family of Israel to those of strangers. We may well believe that there was no intentional scorn in it, though it emphasized an actual distinction.


Verse 27

(27) Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs.—The insertion of the conjunction “for” in the Greek gives it a force which it is hard to reproduce in English, “Yet grant what I ask, for the dogs under the table . . .” The woman catches at the form which had softened the usual word of scorn, and presses the privilege which it implied. She did not ask that the “children” might be deprived of any fragment of their portion; but taking her place, contentedly, among the “dogs,” she could still claim Him as her Master, and ask for the “crumbs” of His mercy. The Talmud contains a story so singularly parallel to this that it is worth reproducing. “There was a famine in the land, and stores of corn were placed under the care of Rabbi Jehudah the Holy, to be distributed to those only who were skilled in the knowledge of the Law. And, behold, a man came, Jonathan, the son of Amram, and clamorously asked for his portion. The Rabbi asked him whether he knew the condition, and had fulfilled it, and then the supplicant changed his tone, and said, ‘Nay, but feed me as a dog is fed, who eats of the crumbs of the feast,’ and the Rabbi hearkened to his words, and gave him of the corn.”


Verse 28

(28) O woman, great is thy faith.—The answer of the woman changed the conditions of the problem, and therefore, we may reverently add, changed the purpose which depended on them. Here again, as in the case of the centurion, our Lord found a faith greater than He had met with in Israel. The woman was, in St. Paul’s words, a child of the faith, though not of the flesh, of Abraham (Romans 4:16), and as such was entitled to its privileges. She believed in the love of God her Father, in the pity even of the Prophet who had answered her with words of seeming harshness.

Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.—St. Mark adds, as spoken by our Lord, “Go thy way, the devil is gone out of thy daughter,” and that when the woman went to her house, she found her child laid on the bed, calm and peace and slumber having taken the place of restless frenzy.

It is obvious that the lesson of the story stretches far and wide. Wherever man or woman is by birth, or creed, or even sin, among those whom the judgment of the heirs of religious privileges counts unworthy even of the lowest of spiritual blessings, among outcasts and heirs of shame, the excommunicated and the lost, there the thought that “the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs” may bring, as it has often brought, the faith that changes despair into something not far short of the full assurance of hope.


Verse 29

(29) Jesus departed from thence.—As St. Mark (in the better MSS.) gives the narrative, His journey led Him actually through Sidon. It was the one instance in which He visited a distinctly heathen city, and walked by the shore of the Great Sea, and looked out towards the isles of Chittim, the isles of the Gentiles, to which His name was to come in after years as the message of joy and peace and life. It is significant, as Sidon lay to the north of Tyre, that He thus extended His journey, as though seeking for Himself and His disciples a longer period of rest for prayer and meditation. His return to Galilee must have been through some of the mountain passes of the Hermon range, bringing Him down upon the eastern shore of the lake.


Verse 30

(30) Blind, dumb.—St. Mark (Mark 7:31-37) relates one memorable instance of a work of healing in this connection. Here we get a great aggregate of miracles, unrecorded in detail, working on the minds of the multitude, and leading them to repeated utterances of praise in the form of a doxology—they “glorified the God of Israel.”


Verse 32

(32) I have compassion on the multitude.—The obvious resemblance between the details of this narrative and that of the feeding of the Five Thousand has led the schools of critics, who do not regard either as the record of a fact, to treat this as only another version of the same incident, or rather, from their point of view, of the same legend. The notes of distinctness are, however, too numerous to admit of that explanation. The number of the people fed, their three days’ waiting till their food was exhausted, the number of the loaves at hand, and of the baskets in which the fragments were collected after the meal, are all different. More than this, the words rendered in both narratives by “basket” in the Authorised version are not the same in the Greek. Here the word is σπνρις (spuris), the hamper in which provisions were packed as for a party travelling together, large enough, as in St. Paul’s escape from Damascus (Acts 9:25), to hold a man; while in the other it was the κόφινος (cophinus), or smaller basket, which a man carried in his hand. Lastly, our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:9-10, distinctly recognise the two miracles, and connect the close of each with the word which was thus specially appropriate to it. Unless we adopt the incredible hypothesis that the one narrative was first so disguised that it lost the marks of its identity, and that the Evangelists, having combined the two, then invented our Lord’s words, with all their apparent freshness and adaptation to the special circumstances of the hour, they must be admitted to be decisive as proving that there had been two events, like in kind, to which He thus referred. It is significant that here, as so often before, the display of miraculous power in its highest form originates not in answer to a challenge, or as being offered as a proof of a divine mission, but simply from compassion. Three days had passed, and still the crowds hung on His words and waited for His loving acts, and now they began to show signs of exhaustion that moved His sympathy.


Verse 33

(33) His disciples say unto him.—Here, on the assumption that we are dealing with a true record, a difficulty of another kind meets us. How was it, we ask, that the disciples, with the memory of the former miracle still fresh in their recollection, should answer as before with the same child-like perplexity? Why did they not at once assume that the same divine power could be put forth to meet a like want now? The answers to that question may, perhaps, be grouped as follows:—(1.) It is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of men who witnessed, as they did, these workings of a supernatural might. We think of the Power as inherent, and therefore permanent. To them it might seem intermittent, a gift that came and went. Their daily necessities had been supplied, before and after the great event, in the common way of gift or purchase. The gathering of the fragments (Matthew 14:20; John 6:12) seemed to imply that they were not to rely on the repetition of the wonder. (2.) The fact that three days had passed, and that hunger had been allowed to pass on to the borders of exhaustion, might well have led to think that the power was not to be exerted now. (3.) Our Lord’s implied question—though, as before, He Himself “knew what He would do” (John 6:6)—must have appeared to them to exclude the thought that He was about to make use again of that reserve of power which He had displayed before. They would seem to themselves to be simply following in His footsteps when they answered His question as on the level which He Himself thus appeared to choose.


Verse 34

(34) Seven, and a few little fishes.—The resemblance of the answer to that which had been given before is, at least, interesting as showing what was the provision habitually made by the travelling company of preachers for the supply of their daily wants. The few barley loaves and dried fishes, this was all their store, as they went from village to village, or passed days and nights on the hills of Galilee.


Verse 35

(35) He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground.—Probably, with the same orderly precision as before, by hundreds and by fifties, the women and children, as we learn from Matthew 15:38, being in this instance also grouped together apart from the men.


Verse 37

(37) Seven baskets full.—The nature of the baskets has been explained above. As it is hardly likely that these could have been carried by the disciples on their journey, we must think of them as having been probably brought by some of the multitude to hold their provisions. The fact that the disciples were shortly afterwards (Matthew 16:7) again without provision, suggests the thought that the fragments themselves had been in their turn distributed to the poor of the villages in the district to which our Lord and the disciples now turned their courses.


Verse 39

(39) Into the coasts of Magdala.—The better MSS. give the reading Magadan. The narrative implies that it was on the western shore of the lake, and it is probably to be identified with the modern village of El Mejdel, about three miles above Tabarieh (Tiberias). The name would seem to be an altered form of the Hebrew Migdol, a tower. On the assumption that “Mary, called Magdalene,” derived her name from a town of that name, we may think of our Lord’s visit as having been in some way connected with her presence. It is clear that the company of devout women who ministered to Him could hardly have followed Him in the more distant journey to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, and it was natural, if they did not, that they should have returned for a time to their homes. St. Mark gives Dalmanutha as the place where our Lord disembarked. This has been identified with the modern Ain-el-Bârideh, the “cold fountain,” a glen which opens upon the lake about a mile from Magdala.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 15:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/matthew-15.html. 1905.

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