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MATTHEW - Chapter 15

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Matthew 15

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

3.  Second Period of the Ministry in Galilee and Across its Lake  5, 1 -- 15, 20 (continued)

15, 1-20:  Jesus and the Pharisees.  Parallel in Mark 7, 1-23.  This is a very important controversy, for here Jesus shows that he has broken clearly and definitively with Judaism.  One of the most characteristic features of Judaism, both as it was at the time of Christ and as it is today, is the insistence on numerous minute prescriptions concerning food, the so-called dietary or "kosher" laws.  These laws are partly based on the laws of Moses concerning clean and unclean food (cf. Lev. 11; Deut. 14) and partly on the tradition of the ancients, i.e., the interpretation of these laws and the new regulations which were given by the Rabbis ever since the Babylonian exile.  Cf. Paul's "zeal for the traditions of the Fathers" (Gal. 1, 14).  The main purpose of these laws and regulations was to keep the Jews, who had lost their political independence, as a distinct people.  Here Jesus rejects not only the Rabbinical traditions as not sanctioned by God and even at times contrary to God's basic law of morality, the Ten Commandments (1-9), but also the law of Moses itself concerning clean and unclean food (10-20).

1.  Not the local Scribes of Galilee but the more learned Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem raise this basic issue.  Perhaps they had come from the Sanhedrin in a more or less official capacity.  From the Fourth Gospel we know that Jesus had already aroused the leaders at Jerusalem to hostility.    2.  These wily Rabbis do not accuse Jesus Himself directly of violating the tradition.  Their charge is the He permits and thereby encourages His disciples to do so.  The particular example that they cite is the Apostles' disregard of the regulations concerning ritual washings.  Cf. Mark for a description of these customs which were based on Lev. 15.    3-6.  Jesus ignores this point of their traditions to attack the importance that they place on their traditions in general.  He shows that on at least one point their traditions are contrary to the fundamental law of God.    4.  Our Lord quotes the fourth commandment (cf. Ex. 20, 12; Deut. 5, 16).  The Hebrew verb honor means more than "show respect to"; it is also used in the sense of "repay a favor with gifts" (cf. e.g., Num. 22, 17.37; Jdgs. 13, 17): in the fourth commandment it certainly includes the idea of "support."  Christ immediately cites the penalty for cursing one's parents (cf. Ex. 21, 17; Lev. 20, 9).  The reason why He adds this is because the case which He now mentions involves a virtual curse of one's parents.

5.  Dedicated to God: Mark gives the original Hebrew word that was used in this vow, "Corban."  Some commentators have understood the passage to mean, that when a man dedicated to the temple the money that would otherwise have been used in supporting his parents, he could offer up the spiritual merits of this gift to the temple in favor of his parents and was thereby freed from all further obligation in their regard.  This would then be a trick of the Scribes for the purpose of enriching the temple.  But the "Corban" vow is clearly explained in the Talmud, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the temple.  Whatever be the origin of the custom, at the time of Christ the word "Corban" had become a mere oath-formula signifying that a man swore that such and such a thing would be used for such and such a purpose.  Thus a man could swear to abstain from wine by saying, "Any wine that may be offered to me is Corban."  Only by a fiction of law was the object considered as dedicated to God.  The Rabbis considered such a vow binding, even though the act itself that was vowed was sinful.  The very case referred to by Christ is given in the Talmud.  Only the most subtle casuistry of the Rabbis was able at times to circumvent the force of the vow.  Our Lord does not accuse the Rabbis of approving this vow as such.  But He condemns their traditions which consider the vow as binding.    6.  Note that the Scribes not only say that a man who has taken such a vow does not have to honor his father or his mother; they also "do not allow him to do anything further for his father or his mother" (Mark 7, 12).    7.  Jesus stigmatizes such teaching as hypocrisy.    8 f.  The very appropriate words of Scripture which He quotes are from Isa. 29, 13.  The passage is quoted in exactly the same way in Mark, although it differs slightly from both the Hebrew and the Septuagint texts.  Cf. also Ps. 77, 36 f; Col. 2, 22.

10 f.  Turning from the Pharisees to the crowd, Jesus considers the original question of eating with unwashed hands.  But He treats it on the general principle, that all externals as such have no moral value, but it is solely the evil dispositions of the soul that defile a man.    12.  This statement of Christ went further than the rejection of the traditions of the ancients: it abrogated the Mosaic distinction between clean and unclean food.  It is therefore hardly surprising that the Pharisees should have taken offense at hearing this saying.  We need not suppose, however, that the Apostles grasped the full import of our Lord's teaching at that time.  In this matter, as in others, they were slow of understanding (cf. 16, 9) and it was not until several years after Christ's ascension that the Apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit definitely settled the moot question of the obligation of the Mosaic Law.    13.  The traditions of the Pharisees have no divine approval, for the development of this spirit is a spurious growth that the heavenly Father has not planted.  For God's work among men under the figure of His care for a plant, especially a vine, cf. Ps. 79, 9-16; Isa. 5, 1-7; Jer. 2, 21; 12, 2; Matt. 21, 33.  If a work is not from God it will not prosper (cf. Acts 5, 38).    14.  Blind guides: cf. 23, 16.24.  A learned Jew boasted of being "a guide to the blind" (Rom. 2, 19).  "The blind leading the blind and both falling into a pit" was evidently a proverbial saying, for it is quoted in almost the same words in Luke 6, 39.    15-20.  The third and final part of this episode took place privately between Christ and His disciples (cf. Mark 7, 17).  Even the disciples found it hard to understand this revolutionary teaching that abolished the distinction between clean and unclean food.  Therefore Christ repeats in clearer language what He had already said in 11.  Even after Pentecost St. Peter still needed a special revelation from heaven to free him from this racial prejudice against unclean food (cf. Acts 10, 9-16.28; 11, 1-10).  A remnant of the Mosaic legislation (the prohibition of partaking of "anything strangled" or of "blood," cf. Lev. 3, 17; 17, 10 ff) was still preserved by the Apostles assembled at the Council of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15, 20.29), lest they unnecessarily offend the Jews (cf. 1 Cor. 10, 32).  But St. Paul insisted on the full force of Christ's teaching in this matter (cf. Rom. 14, 14; 1 Cor. 10, 25-30; 1 Tim. 4, 3 f; Titus 1, 14 f).  By these words Christ did not wish to deprive the Apostles or the Church of the right to make positive precepts concerning food; but a Catholic who breaks the laws of the Church on fast and abstinence commits sin not by eating the food as such but by his disobedience.    18.  Cf. 12, 34b.

4.  Ministry Mostly in the Regions Bordering on Galilee  15, 21 -- 18, 35

15, 21-28:  The Canaanite Woman.  Parallel in Mark 7, 24-30.  The two accounts are independent but harmonize perfectly.  Mark gives only the conversation between Jesus and the woman after "He entered a house;" Matthew also tells us what was said while Jesus and His disciples were on the way to this house (22-24).

21.  These words imply a definite departure of Christ from Galilee,  most probably in order to avoid the growing hostility of the Pharisees.  Hereafter we find Him but rarely in Galilee proper.  His instructions are henceforth mostly limited to the Apostles, to whom He now begins to reveal they mystery of His approaching passion, death and resurrection.  The district of Tyre and Sidon: the region near the coast of the Mediterranean sea northwest of Galilee.  Here Jesus was also out of the jurisdiction of Herod, for this district belonged to the province of Syria.  On these two cities see Commentary on 11, 21.    22.  A Canaanite woman: in true Jewish fashion Matthew uses the Old Testament name for this people; but the Canaanites as such had long since disappeared from history.  Mark calls her a "Syro-phoenician" woman, i.e., a Phoenician of Syria.  The Phoenicians were descended from the Canaanites (cf. Gen. 10, 15).  Out of that territory: according to Mark 7, 21 this event took place nearer Tyre than Sidon.  In the neighborhood was Sarepta where Elias had aided the widow and restored her son to life (cf. 3 Kgs. 17, 9 ff; Luke 4, 26).  Jesus wished His presence in that region to remain secret (cf. Mark), but the woman recognized Him and acknowledged Him as the Messias by the typical Jewish title, "Son of David."  Possibly she had been among "the large crowd of those about Tyre and Sidon" who came to hear His preaching (cf. Mark 3, 8; Luke 6, 17).  Matthew places together the various cries which the woman uttered as she followed Christ and the Apostles, crying after them.    23.  "Send her away": from besought and from Christ's response the sense seems to be, "Grant her request and dismiss her."  The Apostles probably felt embarrassed by the scene she was making and were losing their patience with her.    24.  According to the divine plan the gospel was first to be preached to the chosen people, Israel, before it would be announced to the Gentiles.  See Commentary on 10, 5 f.    25.  She came: i.e., she came into the house where He had entered (cf. Mark); and worshipped him: i.e., fell on her knees before Him, the natural and traditional posture of a supplicant.    26.  The children are the members of the house of Israel, "who have the adoption as sons" (Rom. 9, 4); the dogs are the Gentiles (cf. 7, 6).  The Greek has the diminutive "little dogs," i.e., household pets as distinct from the stray dogs so common in eastern cities.  Perhaps our Lord intentionally softens the opprobrious term that the Jews used for the Gentiles.    27.  The woman then understands the hint and keeps up the figure by pointing out that the little dogs of the house receive the leavings of the children's food.  However, at this time the Greek diminutive had often lost it original force.    28.  The woman's faith was great not only because she acknowledged Jesus as the Messias who could and would grant her request, but also because she had such marvelous perseverance in her prayer despite the first rebuffs and humiliations.  Cf. our Lord's words to the centurion at Capharnaum (8, 10.13) whose request Christ granted more readily because of the different circumstances of his case.

15, 29-31:  Jesus Heals the Suffering.  There is no strict parallel in the other Gospels, but Mark 7, 31-37 mentions the same journey and gives one example in detail (the healing of the deaf-mute) of the miracles which Matthew refers to in general.    29.  Jesus first went further north along the coast of the Mediterranean (cf. Mark), then turned east, crossing the high mountain ranges of the Libanon and the Antilibanon (or Hermon), and finally journeyed towards the south, so that He went along the sea of Galilee on the heights above its eastern shores, until He arrived in "the midst of the district of Decapolis" (Mark).  The purpose of such a circuitous route was to avoid Galilee completely.    30.  For other occasions when the miraculous cures performed by our Lord are mentioned only in general cf. 4, 23 f; 8, 16; 9, 35; 12, 15; 14, 14.35 f; 19, 2; 21, 14; similar summary accounts in all the other Gospels.    31.  The expression the God of Israel shows that the people who witnessed these miracles were mostly Gentiles who worshipped many gods.  This agrees with Mark who places our Lord's activity at this time Decapolis.

15, 32-38:  Jesus Feed Four Thousand.  Parallel in Mark 8, 1-9.  Since no new indication of place is given in either Gospel, the scene is probably still in Decapolis.  See Commentary on 14, 13-21, the very similar miracle of the first multiplication of the loaves.  St. Jerome sums up the differences between the two miracles as follows: "There were five loaves and two fishes, here seven loaves and a few little fishes; there they reclined upon the grass, here upon the ground; there five thousand are fed, here four thousand; there twelve baskets were filled; here seven large baskets."  Most non-Catholic critics consider the two miracles as two varieties of one original story.  But both Matthew and Mark give both accounts, and both of these Evangelists cite the words of our Lord in reference to these miracles as two distinct events (cf. Matt. 16, 9 f; Mark 8, 19 f).  To admit that they were mistaken in this matter is contrary to the Catholic doctrine on the inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.  Nothing could prevent Christ from working two similar miracles, and the early oral tradition naturally recounted both events in very similar words.    32.  Three days:  At the first multiplication of the loaves the people were with Christ only one day and were miraculously fed because it was too late in the day for them to buy food.  On this occasion the people were not necessarily without food for all three days, but they had already finished the food that they had brought with them.    33.  In a desert, for large regions of Decapolis were sparsely inhabited, despite its dozen fair-sized cities.    35.  On the ground, for it is now later in the season and the plentiful grass of early spring is already withered.    36.  He gave thanks: in Mark, "He blessed;" both terms are synonymous.    37.  Seven baskets: the Greek and Latin have a different word here than is used for the "twelve baskets" of the former miracle.  In 16, 10 and Mark 8, 20 it is more exactly translated "large baskets."  It was in one of the "large baskets" of this type (perhaps similar to our "wash-basket" as distinct from our "market-basket") that St. Paul was let down over the wall of Damascus (cf. Acts 9, 25).

15, 39 -- 16, 4:  The Pharisees and Sadducees Ask a Sign.  Parallel in Mark 8, 10-12.  Cf. also the earlier incident of the "Sign of Jonas" (Matt. 12, 38-40; Luke 11, 16.29 f).    39.  Magedan is the reading of the best manuscripts of Matthew, while the best manuscripts of Mark have "Dalmanutha."  Neither name is known outside of this passage and therefore the site of this incident is uncertain.  All that can be said is that it is somewhere near the sea of Galilee, since Christ and His disciples go there by boat.  Either Magedan is the name of a town and Dalmanutha the name of the region in which this town lay, or vice versa.  The identification of Magedan with Magdala is improbable.  [Commentary on this section is continued at the beginning of the next chapter.]


Confraternity Bible:

Jesus and the Pharisees  1 Then Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem came to him, saying, 2 "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the ancients?  For they do not wash their hands when they take food."  3 But he answered and said to them, "And why do you transgress the commandment of God because of your traditions?  4 For God said, 'Honor thy father and thy mother'; and, 'Let him who curses father or mother be put to death.'  5 But you say, 'Whoever shall say to his father or mother, "Any support thou mightiest have had from me is dedicated to God," 6 does not have to honor his father or his mother.'  So you have made void the commandment of God by your tradition.  7 Hypocrites, well did Isaias prophesy of you, saying,
8* 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

9* And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.'"
10 Then he called the crowd to him, and said to them, "Hear, and understand.  11* What goes into the mouth does not defile a man; but it is what comes out of his mouth that defiles a man."  12 Then his disciples came up and said to him, "Dost thou know that the Pharisees have taken offense at hearing this saying?"  13 But he answered and said, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.  14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of blind men.  But if a blind man guide a blind man, both fall into a pit."

15 But Peter spoke to him, saying, "Explain to us this parable."  16 And he said, "Are you also even yet without understanding?  17 Do you not realize that whatever enters the mouth passes into the belly and is cast out into the drain?  18 But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is they that defile a man.  19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, immorality, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.  20 These are the things that defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."

The Canaanite Woman  21 And leaving there, Jesus retired to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22 And behold, a Canaanite woman came out of that territory and cried out to him, saying, "Have pity on me, O Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is sorely beset by a devil."  23 He answered her not a word.  And his disciples came up and besought him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us."  24* But he answered and said, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  25 But she came and worshipped him, saying, "Lord, help me!"  26 He said in answer, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and to cast it to the dogs."  27 But she said, "Yes, Lord; for even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their master's table."  28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is thy faith!  Let it be done to thee as thou wilt."  And her daughter was healed from that moment.

Jesus Heals the Suffering  29 And when Jesus had departed from there, he went along the sea of Galilee; and he went up the mountain and sat there.  30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the dumb, the blind, the lame, the maimed, and many others; and they set them down at his feet, and he cured them; 31 so that the crowds marvelled to see the dumb speak, the lame walk, and the blind see.  And they glorified the God of Israel.

Jesus Feeds Four Thousand  32 Then Jesus called together his disciples and said, "I have compassion on the crowds, for they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat; and I am unwilling to send them away fasting, lest they faint on the way."  33 And the disciples said to him, "But in a desert, where are we to get enough loaves to satisfy so great a crowd?"  34 Jesus said to them, "How many loaves have you?"  And they said, "Seven, and a few little fishes."

35 And he bade the crowd recline on the ground.  36 Then taking the seven loaves and the fishes, he gave thanks, broke them and gave them to his disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowd.  37 And they all ate and were satisfied; and they took up what was left of the fragments, seven full baskets.  38 Now those who had eaten were four thousand men, apart from children and women.  39 When he had dismissed the crowd, he got into the boat, and came into the district of Magedan.
__________

*

8-9: Isa. 29, 13.

11: Jesus enunciates a principle which will eventually free Christians, not only from the rabbinical traditions, but from the law concerning clean and unclean food.  The Apostles themselves did not know, until they received further revelation, that they were freed from this law.  Cf. Acts 10-11.

24: The departure of our Lord for the region of Tyre and Sidon begins a period in His life in which He devotes Himself chiefly to the instruction of the Apostles.