Matthew chapter 15

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What does Matthew chapter 15 mean?

Jesus' fame and influence over the people has grown to the point where the religious leaders are concerned about Him. A delegation of Pharisees and scribes travels from Jerusalem to Galilee to challenge Jesus. They pick the issue of ritual handwashing to confront Him. However, they are looking for any way to discredit Him. The Pharisees ask why Jesus' disciples break the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before they eat. These "traditions" were rules added to the Law of Moses by prior generations of Pharisees. The current religious leaders honored the elders' wisdom by practicing these additional rules as if they were commands of God. The rules were often designed to keep the people from unknowingly or accidentally breaking one of God's commands (Matthew 15:1–2).

Their challenge is so hypocritical that Jesus doesn't even bother to answer it, at first. Instead, He immediately fires a question of His: why do they break the actual command of God for the sake of tradition? As Jesus sees it, the Pharisees criticize Him for ignoring tradition in favor of God's actual intent, while they ignore God's intent in favor of tradition! For example, the Pharisees allowed people to claim some of their possessions and money as "devoted to God." Anything so devoted was meant to be given to the temple. A loophole allowed the people to keep the designated items, and even continue to use them. It had become a way for adult children to avoid caring for their aging parents because all their money and possessions were ostensibly "devoted to God" (Matthew 15:3–6).

Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites for allowing this to happen. They cared more about the traditions than the true commands of Scripture. One of Isaiah's prophecies is applied to them: their worship of God is pointless since they replace God's doctrines with human legalism and loopholes (Matthew 15:6–9).

Turning to the people, Jesus then answers the Pharisee's original charge about handwashing. This point can be misunderstood unless one remembers that Jesus is not ignoring Old Testament law, He is accurately expressing it (Matthew 5:19–20). It's not the edible material which enters the body—the physical substance—that causes one to be sinful or unclean. Sin and corruption come from what's inside a person, as it expresses itself on the outside. Jesus explains to the disciples that accidentally eating a speck of unclean food can't defile a person. People are defiled by their own sinfulness, which they express when they speak—or, when they purposefully eat that which God has forbidden. He states flatly that eating with unwashed hands has nothing to do with one's spiritual state (Matthew 15:10–20).

Christ withdraws from Israel with His disciples and heads into the pagan Gentile district of Tyre and Sidon. This is the same region Jesus once mentioned while shaming Israel for stubbornness (Matthew 11:20–24). A Canaanite woman finds Him somehow. She knows He is the Messiah and can heal her daughter from demon oppression. To draw out her faith, and give an example to the disciples, Jesus refuses at first. His mission is to Israel alone. His metaphor is that of a Master choosing not to take bread from His children to give to pet dogs. The woman persists—noting that for dogs to eat crumbs passed over by the children would be different. Jesus praises her great faith. He heals her daughter—setting up for the disciples the idea that Gentiles, as well, will share in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 15:21–28).

Jesus travels from there to the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee, another mostly-Gentile region. He spends three days healing many people and then repeats the miraculous feeding He performed at Bethsaida (Matthew 14:13–21). This event is for a slightly smaller group of four thousand men, plus additional women and children. As with the encounter with the Canaanite woman, this establishes how the gospel will spread beyond the nation of Israel (Romans 9:30–33; Acts 1:8). After sending the people away, Jesus and the disciples travel by boat back to the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and back into Jewish territory (Matthew 15:29–39).
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