A Major Break Part 1, Matthew 15:1-9

This section of Matthew gives us a glimpse of the sharp theological conflicts that Jesus will later face in Jerusalem. Jerusalem cast its shadow over Galilee by sending a group of religious leaders to create problems for Jesus. The resulting clash was extremely sharp, though our Gentile outlook and lack of exposure to regulations invented by the Pharisees make us blind to the gravity of the disagreement.

Sometimes it is hard to grasp the first signs of a major conflict. On the morning of December 7, 1941, an Army radar operator on the north shore the Hawaiian island of Oahu showed his superior officer a radar echo that stretched from one side of the radar screen to the other. But they decided not to report the echo to headquarters because they thought that the radar set must need adjustment. That echo was the first wave of the inbound Japanese strike force sent to attack Pearl Harbor!

To our eyes this disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders seems like just-one-more. But it proved to be a point of no return between those leaders and Jesus.

Matthew 15:1-9

1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They dont wash their hands before they eat!

3 Jesus replied, And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, Honor your father and mother and Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is devoted to God, 6 they are not to honor their father or mother with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

8 These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.


Remember that Matthew alternates between narrative sequences (with action) and discourses (with speeches or parables for crowds). Matthew 15 stands within one of the narrative sections. In a previous one, Jesus had a major conflict with the Jewish religious leaders, who accused him of performing his miracles by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:22-32). With opposition against Jesus hardening, he will soon strike a blow against one of the pillars of Jewish religion — its purity rules. We might also express this conflict with the term defilement. The key question is this: what does it take to defile someone in the eyes of God?

The main problem you will have in understanding the issues between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders is that they involve ancient laws and customs that are not part of our common experience. I will help you bridge that gap.

Hired Guns Shooting Blanks

Perhaps Jesus had so overwhelmed the Pharisees and scribes of Galilee that they had summoned help. But, whatever the reason, a new team came to Galilee from Jerusalem, and they promptly tried to undermine Jesus in the eyes of the people (verses 1-2). First, they tried exaggeration by saying that Jesus disciples were breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating (verse 2).

The Law of Moses required only that priests wash before doing their duties (Exodus 30:18-21) or eating their share of the food offered in sacrifice (Leviticus 22:4-7). In other words, ordinary Jews had no legal requirement to wash. The scribes had tried to broaden such requirements to all Jews and all eating, and the Pharisees had adopted this tradition.[1] Now they are acting like this tradition is an ancient requirement from God through Moses!

Without missing a beat, Jesus counters with a higher level charge that the scribes and Pharisees are breaking the command of God for the sake of your tradition (verse 3). Here, command is being contrasted to tradition, and the Jewish religious leaders are being contrasted with God in terms of primacy! Having made the general charge, Jesus follows with the specifics.

The commands Jesus cites in verses 3-4 are taken from Exodus 20:12 (for verse 3) and Exodus 21:17 (for verse 4). These commands are what God said on Mount Sinai. So, as part of the Ten Commandments, God commanded that every Jew honor their father and mother, and a subsequent command from God made violation of the commandment a capital offense. Jesus says that the Jewish religious leaders have committed and encouraged capital offenses. In verses 5-6, he provides the details.

An Unusual Custom

Jesus is showing that a certain Pharisaic tradition called korban (Greek) could be used to circumvent obeying the Fifth Commandment to honor your parents. Korban (also spelled corban) consisted of pledging money or other material resources to the temple to be paid when you died. You had full use of these funds or resources during your lifetime, with the one exception that you could not give them to anyone else — such as your needy parents — because they were pledged to God.[1] Jesus accuses the religious leaders of using their tradition of korban to nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition (verse 6).

The korban tradition allows a person to cover their lack of love and obedience with a cloak of spirituality. Jesus calls those who teach such ideas hypocrites, a term which means that they are not so much deceivers as disastrously self-deceived, failing to see things as God sees them.[2] But, he goes farther by applying to them the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13, where God says: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

We too are capable of hiding behind ritual by doing certain carefully selected church activities but avoiding those designed to meet the material or spiritual needs of those living in poverty and darkness.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 577.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 238.

[3] France, Matthew, 237.


Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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