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22. Jesus And The Traditions Of The Elders (Matthew 15:1-20)

We now come to a section almost entirely made up of Jesus’ teaching in response to the challenge from the elders. This kind of passage will require understanding the ideas involved and not so much the kind of miracle that Jesus might do. Here our study will be helped a good deal by getting behind the text to learn more about the culture in which Jesus ministered. As will be obvious from a straight reading of the passage, the controversy between Jesus and the leaders of his day are becoming sharper and sharper with each conflict.

The Reading of the Text

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 don’t 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 your mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if a man says to his father and mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father’ 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 but rules taught by men’.”

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’.”

12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you not know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” 13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean’.”

Observations on the Text

The passage unfolds step-by-step. First there is the challenge by the teachers and the response to them by Jesus (1-9). Then there is the report that Jesus turned to teach the crowd on the real source of uncleanness (10, 11). Third, the disciples ask about offending the Pharisees, and Jesus answered them with a parable that then had to be explained (12-20). In effect, then, the teachers raise the question, and Jesus answers them, explains his answer to the crowds, and explains his dealings with the teachers to the disciples. There was one occasion, but Jesus has three separate audiences to address, with separate issues.

In the study it will be important to learn about the traditions of the elders on the subject of washing or purifying the hands. For this you may start with a good book on the backgrounds to the Gospel, but may in fact go to the primary source, the Mishnah._ftn11 While tracing down that issue in early Judaism, you will also want to learn more about the issue of “Korban” that Jesus discusses here—how they got out of supporting parents by making a dedicatory offering.

A second important issue to be studied in this passage concerns the citation from Isaiah. The meaning of the passage is clear, and certainly appropriate here. But in what way did Isaiah prophesy about them, and not his own generation? This will open up your thinking on the way prophecy was used.

A third matter to think about is Jesus’ interpretation of the laws of uncleanness from Leviticus. Was he making a radical break here from the laws of the Bible, or was he looking at the spirit of the law and not just the letter?

This will lead finally to Jesus’ use (again) or parabolic style to explain to his disciples what He was doing.

Once again, though, you will see that some of the main principles of Bible study will be brought forward and used in this passage as well. Here we will not see so much interplay between story and speech, since this is mostly speech. But the content of the speeches will show how they relate to the story line, and the speeches reflect the culture and teaching of that century, as well as the message of the Old Testament.

There will be some key words that will need clarification here: “the traditions of the elders,” “ korban” —its a gift, unclean, and in the citation honor as well as the contrast between lips and heart, and then the image of blind guides. Of course the words for the different sins should not be too hard to study at this point.

The Parallel with Mark 7:1-23

The main differences in the two accounts are: Matthew omits the material that we have in Mark 7:3-4, adds Matthew 15:12-14 that Mark does not have, omits Mark’s interpretation that Jesus made all foods clean (7:19), and adds 15:20b to keep the focus on food eaten with unwashed hands. In general, it looks like according to Matthew Jesus disagrees with one Jewish teaching about the Law, whereas in Mark it appears that he is annulling the Law. These issues will be best discussed as they come up in the passage.

The Old Testament Background

The two issues from the Old Testament that will need some clarification will be the laws on cleanness and uncleanness from Leviticus, and the citation from Isaiah about hypocrites. These too will be best treated in the context as they come up. But a good word study book2_ftn2 will certainly help with the difficulty of “clean” and “unclean,” and a commentary or two on Isaiah may be consulted for the passage used.

The Analysis of the Passage

I. Challenge and Response: In response to the challenge by the teachers about the disciples’ violation of their traditions, Jesus rebuked the teachers for their hypocrisy (15:1-9). I put this first part together because it is essentially Jesus’ response to the charge of the teachers. For easier study purposes, it can be further broken down into sections:

First, the accusation (1, 2). The men who bring the accusation are from Jerusalem, meaning that they were the best trained and most highly respected teachers in the land. They also had a good deal of zeal to be this far away from home. Their appearance here must be a deputation or mission of some kind. Whatever the reason for their presence, they were the source of the most direct confrontation and personal attack that Jesus had to endure.

Their attack came because of the activities of the disciples (but see, the disciples were doing what Jesus did [Luke 11:37-41]). The whole section is abbreviated, more so than in Mark, because Matthew is a Jew writing to a Jewish audience. They know what all this means. Matthew does not list all the array of Pharisaical traditions (see Mark 7:1-3), but focuses on the one critical issue.

The point of their accusation is telling: Jesus and his disciples had violated the “traditions of the elders” (Mark: “tradition of men”), as if those traditions were now authoritative and could be sinned against. These traditions were still oral in Jesus’ days, but were written down a couple of centuries later. The traditions about washing would be found in the tractate called Yadayim or “Hands” (see Mishnah Yadayim 2:1). What this means is that the traditions of men had been elevated to the status of Scripture, so that one could be guilty of violating them. By the way, the same problem exists today as many groups have their “biblical” views, and to violate them means criticism or expulsion from the group. But some of those views are applications and not what the Bible actually teaches.

Second, the Rebuke of Jesus (3-9). The reply of Jesus is more a counterattack than a reply to their question. He first accuses them of breaking the commands of God in order to keep their traditions. This puts the issue back to them—they were the sinners, not Jesus and his disciples, because they had broken God’s commands and not just some teachings of elders.

To press his point he reminds them of their tradition of getting around the law of God. They could pronounce a vow on their things with the word, “Korban,” meaning it is a gift (see tractate Nedarim in the Mishnah, chapters 1, 9, 11). The word “Korban” is based on the word in Leviticus for bringing something near to God. If because of greed, for example, a man did not want to help support his aging parents, he would announce “Korban.” That would mean the money was frozen, and could not be used for taking care of the parents. Thus, they could use their traditions to get out of taking care of their father and mother (which the Law required). Then, they might find a way of nullifying the vow so they ended up keeping the money. A clever tradition of swearing or taking oaths had grown up as a way around a clear cut teaching of the word of God.

This, Jesus says, is hypocritical, and thus they fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. Here is the first place that He called them hypocrites. Here he quotes Isaiah 29:13, which was clearly addressed to the prophet’s own audience. But by quoting it Jesus was saying that his generation was doing the same thing as Isaiah’s generation, and so the words are also addressed to this generation. In both contexts, Isaiah and Matthew, the people spoken to are Jews from Jerusalem who had a religion that was characterized by externals that often crowded out truths. The Jews in Jesus’ day were just preserving the spirit of the folks in Isaiah’s day. They said all the right things, giving the impression they were pious; but their hearts and wills were not obedient at all (they would not honor father and mother, for one example). They had a religious form, but not the reality that goes with it. So their teaching was in vain because there was nothing of God’s authority behind them.

The quotation from Isaiah generally follows the shorter form of the verse found in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. The point is very clear: Jesus was saying to his audience what Isaiah said to his, that their worship was vain because they were far from God in their hearts.

II. Teaching: Jesus explained to the crowd that what went into a man’s mouth did not make him unclean, but what came forth (15:10,11). The Old Testament had a lot to say about clean and unclean (for which see the discussions in commentaries or in word study books). Everything was classified as either clean or unclean, and what was unclean was not allowed in the temple. So defilements, diseases, sins, contaminations, discharges and the like made a person unclean. The Pharisees were rigid in observing the laws of cleanness as well as the sabbath observances and the tithes. In the process they were so concerned with the outward observance of these defilements and contacts with things unclean that they failed to realize that the real defilement was sin. The diseases, discharges, and defilements that made a person unclean were things in life that were the result of the presence of sin and death. To observe the outward rituals and miss the connection with sin was a waste of time. The real source of uncleanness was the human heart, as Jesus will say shortly. To harbor sin (such as hatred and murder for Jesus) and wash hands with ritual washing was hypocritical.

In essence, then, the sayings of Jesus here agree with Mark’s conclusion in his account that Jesus was saying all foods were clean. The ceremonial laws, including the dietary laws, were given to keep Israel distinct from the nations, but in the coming of the Messiah the believers from the nations would be united with believing Israel in the new covenant. Here Jesus would address the real source of uncleanness, which got to the heart of the matter. They were holding to externals and missed the real spirit of the law and the reason for the washing.

III. Question and Answer: Jesus answer’s the disciples’ question about his treatment of the Pharisees by stating that they were blind guides (15:12-20). The question of the disciples showed that the Pharisees must have understood what Jesus had said and taken offence at it. The people held these teachers in high regard, and so the disciples were worried that Jesus was too hard on them. They wanted to be exactly clear on what Jesus had said and meant that offended them; and Jesus wanted them to be clear on the unreliability of the Pharisees’ teaching. The basic issue was their misunderstanding of the Law—they dwelt on the externals as the source of uncleanness and did not realize that the source of the defilements was sin in the world, so uncleanness originated in the human heart.

In short: the human heart produced sin, and sin brought the curse, and the curse brought disease, defilement and death. God legislated rituals to deal with the defilements and the death as a way of reminding Israel of the fact that they were defiled by sin. And Jesus often healed people as a way of showing that He could deal with the cause of the sickness, sin, as well as the results.

To answer the disciples Jesus used a couple of images. The first was that any plant that the Father had not planted would be rooted up (v. 13). The image comes from the Old Testament again that pictures true Israel, the covenant believers, as God’s planting (see Isa. 5:1-7). Jesus was not saying that false teaching would be rooted out, but false teachers. In other words, the Pharisees are not part of God’s planting. This is a theme that gets clearer and clearer in the book.

The second image is that the teachers of Israel saw themselves as guides for the blind (as Isaiah described the ignorant people of the land; Isa. 42:18).3_ftn3 But Jesus says that these leaders were blind themselves, and so blind leaders of the blind, and both would fall into a pit. The leaders were blind because they failed to understand the Scriptures that they taught, and so majored on externals and missed the reality. And, since they were so weak in spiritual understanding, they also failed to perceive who Jesus was and failed to follow Him—that is the ultimate spiritual blindness (see John 5:39-40). Therefore, as leaders they will lead people away from Christ, because they do not rightly discern the Scriptures.

The disciples have faith in Jesus, but are still weak in their understanding of all that Jesus taught. So Peter asked the meaning of the parable mentioned in verse 11, and the disciples’ failure to understand shocked Jesus: “Are you so dull,” meaning, “Are you still without understanding?” This question draws greater attention to their failure to understand.

So Jesus explains in some detail what it is that defiles a person. What someone eats goes in the mouth and is cast out into a latrine eventually. That in one sense is eventually unclean, either the wrong foods being eaten, or what is excreted. But Jesus is saying that the real issue is not what enters the mouth but what comes out, because that comes from the heart. And what are the products of the heart or will? — murder, anger, immorality, etc. (following generally the order of the latter commandments). The point that Jesus is making is that it is what a person actually is that brings defilement. The external laws of cleanness and uncleanness if properly understood to reflect the effects of sin in the world were helpful for a devout Israelite to avoid the impurities as a way of following a life of purity. But as is so often the case, it was easier to focus on the external rituals and forget the spiritual reality behind them. Jesus is teaching that true religion must deal with the true nature of men and women, not just the outer performances. The teachers would have known this if they had been concerned about inner purity.

Jesus finally ends this teaching by saying that eating with unwashed hands does not make a man unclean, but what comes from the heart does. This is a radical departure from not only the traditions of the elders but also the details of the Law. But Jesus has already made it clear (see Matt. 5:21-48) that He has fulfilled the Law, and therefore whatever the laws teach must be determined by their relationship to Him. Not only had Jesus rejected the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law as the authentic teachers of his day, but he had assumed that role for himself—he is the teacher. The conflict between what he was teaching and what the traditions of the Jews taught would come to a head later. But now that the Messiah has come and fulfilled the Law, every detail of the Law has to be seen in that way, in the light of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Him.4_ftn4 And that usually means that the external regulations of the Law are no longer binding, but what it revealed about God and about His will are. After all, the spirit of the Law was to develop righteousness, not to provide a number of binding external regulations. Jesus was more concerned that people understand that to develop righteousness they would have to be transformed in their hearts so that they would produce righteousness and not uncleanness. Washing hands, therefore, ceased to be a significance step in that direction when the heart was unclean. And the only way that people could be transformed in their hearts was to turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior and find forgiveness. But the Jewish teachers would have none of that.

Conclusions and Applications

The passage focuses on the main idea that spiritual uncleanness is in the heart, the will, the mind, or whatever term is used for the spiritual nature of the person. It does not come from eating without washing the hands. The keeping of external regulations was to have directed the faithful to focus on inner spirituality, but it did not do this. And so external ritual replaced inner spiritual reality. And so Jesus took this opportunity to teach that truth—at the expense of the teachers’ reputation. As far as He was concerned, they had failed in their task because they misunderstood the Scripture, and so they were useless as guides. They would be rooted out and destroyed.

One clear lesson, then, for this passage would concern external rituals. If people participate in Church services and follow all the ritual perfectly, religiously, that may represent a heart of faith, but it may not. Unbelievers can have the appearance of being devout, but if there is not faith their ritual will not help. Ritual without the reality of faith is worthless. It is more important for people to get their hearts right with God than to get the order of the ritual down; and getting the heart right with God begins with faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, finding forgiveness and cleansing from God through Him, and following faithfully His teachings about the spiritual life.

Even true believers in Christ can at times go through ritual performances without it affecting the heart. God sees past the worship service, the footwashing service, the season of lent, the bowed head at the confession, or whatever other external routine is followed, to the heart. And if the heart is not cleansed, the forms of religious mean nothing.

One particularly telling witness of uncleanness in the heart comes from this business of Korban. If people are trying to legitimize ways of not fulfilling their spiritual duties then the heart needs cleansing.

Before we come down too hard on the Pharisees for focusing on externals and outer show, we need only to remind ourselves that week in and week out we spend far more time getting the outer body ready for church than we do the heart.

A second lesson is that there is a real danger to replace the true meaning of the word of God (the letter and the spirit of it) with traditions. Traditions can be very helpful, but they have a way of crowding out the basic Christian standards. You do not have to look very far to see that the attitude of these teachers appear in our churches. So many traditions have grown up over the centuries that many of them have become sacrosanct. We are more concerned that people might violate our man-made rules for the running of the church, the institutions of baptism and communion, or the set of rules that our particular group follows in the name of holiness, than we are about righteousness. We are more concerned about which way to stand at the communion rail than we are about meeting the needs of people in the community. If we are not careful, these traditions quickly achieve the level of canonicity, and we might even forget what the word of God actually says about some of those things we do.

Then, when someone comes along who keeps tradition in its proper place (you do not sin against tradition—you sin against God and His word), we are offended if not outraged. But then we remember the teaching of Christ that God is more concerned with what we actually are than what our outward performance looks like. I am not saying ritual and tradition should be shelved; I am saying, however, they must retain their proper place.


1 The Mishnah is the collection of teachings from the sages from about 200 B.C. to about 250 A.D. It may be obtained as a separate publication, or it may be obtained with the Talmud for the Talmud includes Mishnah. The material is arranged topically, and so you would have to locate the discussions of washing hands and on vows (for “Korban”).

2 There are a number of word study books that are quite good; but for someone who plans to do a lot of Bible study in Old Testament issues like this, the recent multi-volume set edited by Willem vanGemeren, The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan). One volume provides topical studies, and one of the topical studies concerns “clean and unclean.” The set is arranged by the order of Hebrew words, but is so well cross-referenced that a person who has no Hebrew can use it easily.

3 In that passage the nation is described as the servant of the LORD, and as the oracles develop, eventually Messiah will be the servant of the LORD.

4 I develop this approach in great detail in my commentary on the Book of Leviticus, called Holiness to the LORD, published by Baker Book House; 2002.