The Impartiality of the Law--Part 4 (Matthew 15)
Aug 17, 2011
In Matthew 15 we read about how the Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus' disciples for not washing (purifying) their hands before they ate bread. It was customary to pour water over their hands as a purification ceremony, though this was not commanded in the law.
Jesus' response was to criticize the Pharisees for using their traditions to put away the law. Then beginning in verse 10 we are given teaching to support Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees.
(10) And after He called the multitude to Him, He said to them, "Hear and understand. (11) Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man."
The disciples then warned Jesus that He had offended the Pharisees.
(13) But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up. (14) Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit."
He was speaking of the Pharisees and of their traditions of men as "plants." The "Word of the Kingdom" is like seed sown (Matt. 13:19). Anyone who sows good seed is of God, while those who sow the traditions of men are just weeds that "shall be rooted up."
The disciples then asked for an explanation of his statement in verse 11. He told them that what we physically eat passes through us, and what we cannot use becomes dung. We should be more concerned about what comes out of our mouths than what passes through the dung gate, because that is what truly defiles us.
Immediately after this explanation, we read in verse 21,
(21) And Jesus went away from there and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon.
Why did He immediately go there? Look at the flow of information that Matthew provides. First, the problem is brought up by the Pharisees. Secondly, Jesus defends His disciples and accuses the Pharisees of putting away the law of God by their traditions. Third, He gives teaching to the multitude about this, which the disciples do not understand. Fourth, they ask and receive an explanation. Now, finally, Jesus takes them on a field trip to uproot the "weeds" (traditions of men) that had been planted in their own hearts.
(22) And behold, a Canaanite woman came out from that region and began to cry out, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed."
Canaanites were traditionally thought of as "the enemy." The Jews of that day viewed the Canaanites as worthy only to be exterminated. They viewed the establishment of the Kingdom in terms of God's command to destroy the Canaanites. This was the basis of their traditional view that Israelites were more favored than other ethnos. Hence, they believed it was pleasing to God for them to despise and hate Canaanites, Samaritans, and virtually everyone else.
But when we look at Matthew's account, we see that Jesus had taken His disciples to the district of Tyre and Sidon for one reason only. It was to encounter this Canaanite woman. She obtained her desire in verse 28, "And her daughter was healed at once."
Then immediately we read in verse 29, "And departing from there, Jesus went along by the Sea of Galilee." In other words, Jesus had no other purpose for going to the district of Tyre and Sidon except to meet with this woman. When that encounter was concluded, and the lesson was impressed upon the minds of the disciples, then they turned to go to the Sea of Galilee.
In view of this, then, it seems strange that Jesus would appear to be so reluctant to heal the woman's daughter. If this encounter were His sole purpose in making such a long trip, why would He seem to snub her request at first? Was this really a revelation of the heart of Jesus? Look at how Jesus responded to her request:
(24) But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
That was true enough, of course, for Jesus had already instructed His disciples in Matt. 10:5-7,
(5) Do not go in the way of the ethnos, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans, (6) but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; (7) and as you go, preach, saying, "The Kingdom of heaven is at hand."
The traditions of men (or the traditional understanding of the Word) dictated that these Samaritans and Canaanites were under a curse and could not be saved. God wanted nothing to do with them, even if they might wish to be converted and come into covenant relationship with God. The disciples were steeped in that tradition, and this is precisely why Jesus brought them to the district of Tyre and Sidon to meet this woman of faith.
At first, Jesus simply acted in the traditional manner. He ignored the woman's pleas for mercy. The disciples certainly agreed, because they said in verse 23, "Send her away, for she is shouting out after us." The disciples, however, did not know that Jesus was entrapping them to expose their hearts. His lesson in the end would be that they needed an attitude adjustment.
(25) But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, "Lord, help me!" (26) And He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
It was common Jewish tradition to treat them all as "dogs." Lightfoot quotes the Talmud about this, saying,
vs. 26. To the dogs. By this title the Jews, out of spite and contempt, disgraced the Gentiles, whose first care it was to hate, to mock, and to curse, all beside themselves. The nations of the world [that is, the heathen] are likened to dogs. [Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. II, p. 230.]
So Jesus appears to agree with the common attitude of the day, implying that she was one of the "dogs."
(27) But she said, "Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."
It is difficult for us today to imagine the effect of her response upon the disciples. I can imagine Jesus looking at their faces as they were totally speechless and taken aback at the simple logic of the statement. Above all, her persistence manifested FAITH that Jesus really could heal her daughter, and her motherly love would not let Jesus go without obtaining healing.
(28) Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed at once.
The whole point of this trip was to expose the hearts of the disciples who were still infected by this well-established tradition that non-Jews were just dogs. It caused the people to despise and hate all others. They were loathe to dispense the blessings of Abraham to those "dogs." Those blessings were only for the "children." That was the common opinion of the day.
But Jesus showed His disciples that non-Jews were just as capable of having faith in Christ as any genealogical descendants of Abraham. This is the climactic lesson of Matthew 15. Those who do not understand the purpose of that field trip often use Jesus' words to the woman to justify their incorrect attitudes toward non-Jews (and non-Israelites). They do not see the irony in the situation, because they do not understand that Jesus' purpose was to EXPOSE the hearts of the disciples and to root out the weeds in their hearts.
This is the final part of a series titled "The Impartiality of the Law." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones