1. Then came to Jesus the scribes and Pharisees who [were] from Jerusalem, saying,
2. “Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread.”
3. But He answering said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
4. For God commanded, saying, ‘honor thy father and mother; and he that speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death.’
5. But you say, ‘whoever shall say to father or mother, [It is] a gift [to the temple], whatever thou mightest have profited by me’;
6. And he in no way honors his father or his mother. And you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.
7. Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, ‘saying,
8. This people is near to me with their mouth, and honors me with [their] lips, but their heart is far away from me,
9. And in vain do they serve Me, teaching teachings [which are] the precepts of men.’”
10. And calling the crowd, He said unto them, “Hear and understand.
11. Not that which enters into the mouth defiles the man, but that which comes out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”
12. Then His disciples coming said to Him, “Knowest Thou that the Pharisees, hearing the word, were offended?”
13. But He answering said, “Every planting which My heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted out.
14. Leave them; they are blind guides of the blind; and if the blind guide the blind, both shall fall into a pit.”
15. And Peter answering said to Him, “Explain to us this parable.”
16. And Jesus said, “Are you also yet without understanding?
17. Do you not yet consider, that everything going into the mouth departs into the belly, and is cast out into the latrine?
18. But the things going out from the mouth come forth from the heart, and these defile man;
19. For out of the heart come forth evil reasonings, murders, adulteries, harlotries, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.
20. These are the [things] that defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands defiles not the man.”
The scene now changes dramatically. We move from wonderful demonstrations of faith and miraculous healings among the receptive people of Galilee to confrontation and resistance among the rigid religious leaders of Jerusalem. Unmoved by the marvelous incidents surrounding Jesus’ ministry, the religious leaders can only focus on the most trivial details of tradition: “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” they ask. “For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (15:2).
In the light of Jesus’ many miracles, their question seems to miss the greater point. Did anybody really think about whether hands were washed during the incredible distribution of the bread and fish? The miracle itself was so awe-inspiring that everything else would have been overshadowed — including a trivial detail about whether or not they washed their hands before distributing food. Their question, therefore, seems extraordinarily petty. But it does reveal what is on their minds and in their hearts — destroying Jesus.
While it is relatively easy to criticize the rigidity of the religious leaders, we should keep in mind that we at times act in a similar fashion. How often do we set up petty expectations that keep us irritated and annoyed with others, so much so that we cannot enjoy the wonderful aspects of our relationships? We, too, have our rules about proper and improper behavior, traditions and customs that must be observed — and we sometimes make them more important than the commandments of God.
“Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” say the religious leaders. Instead of answering their question directly, Jesus questions them: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’”(15:4).
Jesus wants them to understand that the great commandments of God are of far greater value than the traditions of men. And He wants to expose how they have twisted the commandments to serve their own selfish purposes. For example, keeping the commandment to honor father and mother includes taking care of one’s parents in their old age. The religious leaders had circumvented this commandment by making up their own law: “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me has been dedicated to the temple,’ is released from honoring his father or mother” (15:5-6). Rather than honoring their parents and caring for them in accordance with divine law, this tradition provided a “religious” loophole for avoiding filial responsibility.
We need to keep in mind that there were no pension policies or retirement plans at that time, but there was a commandment about honoring one’s parents. The only insurance for elderly people who were too old and too feeble to care for themselves was the support of children. This loophole, however, gave people “religious” permission to abandon their parents who would have to fend for themselves.
The scheme worked well, especially because people had been persuaded to believe that they could buy their way into God’s favor by making generous offerings to the religious leaders. The temple, and the support of temple activities — even to the neglect of a suffering humanity — had become the focus and center of their religion. Maintaining the glory of the temple had become an end in itself. In the hands of the corrupt religious leaders, it became the center of a blasphemous religion, worshipping the idols of power, profit, pleasure and prestige rather than worshipping God and serving the neighbor.
Jesus is mindful of their blasphemous behavior, even as He deals with the accusation that His disciples do not wash their hands before eating. Religion had become so external by this time that people believed they could purify themselves from sins by external washings. Clean hands were to them not only a sign of external holiness, but also a proof of cleanliness within. If food were touched with unclean hands, the food was considered to be defiled, and whoever ate of that food would be seen as a despised sinner.
Jesus sees this as hypocrisy parading as piety. And so He says, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (15:8-9). Then, driving home His point, He adds: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a person; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a person” (15:11).
Peter, who is present at this confrontation, has learned that Jesus’ words always contain a more interior meaning. Therefore, he says, “Explain this parable to us” (15:15). So Jesus says, “Whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated. But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (15:17-19).
It is noteworthy that Jesus continues to remind the religious leaders of the Ten Commandments. They have already violated the commandment about honoring parents. Jesus now adds murder, adultery (including fornication), thefts, and false witness — the exact order of the second table of the Ten Commandments. To this list he adds “evil thoughts” and “blasphemies.”
Interestingly, blasphemy is the main accusation against Jesus (9:3). But Jesus decides to turn the tables on the religious leaders, accusing them of blasphemy. He also includes “evil thoughts,” knowing that they hate Him, want to publicly discredit Him, and eventually plan to destroy Him. Jesus is speaking about these destructive intentions when He says, “These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (15:20).
A practical application
This episode calls us to reflect on the relatively petty things that upset us, the “man-made traditions” that sometimes take precedence over “the commandments of God.”
A Woman of Great Faith
21. And Jesus, going out thence, departed into parts of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And behold, a woman of Canaan coming out of those borders cried out, saying to Him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is badly demon-possessed.”
23. And He answered her not a word; and His disciples coming to Him, besought Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries after us.”
24. And He answering said, “I am not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. And she, coming, worshiped Him saying, “Lord, help me.”
26. And He answering said, “[It] is not good to take the children’s bread, and to cast [it] to little dogs.”
27. And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from the table of their lords.”
28. Then Jesus answering said to her, “O woman, great [is] thy faith; be it unto thee as thou willest.” And her daughter was healed from that [very] hour.
29. And Jesus, passing on thence, came to the Sea of Galilee; and ascending into the mountain, He sat there.
30. And many crowds came to Him, having with themselves the lame, the blind, the mute, the maimed, and many others, and laid them down by the feet of Jesus; and He cured them,
31. So that the crowds marveled, seeing the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.
Throughout the gospel narratives, the simple faith of sincere believers is held in stark contrast to the complicated, argumentative, disbelief of the religious leaders. For example, the scene of open confrontation in the previous episode should be contrasted with the simple beauty of the one that preceded it: the healing of multitudes of sick people who merely touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.
These simple believers, who had little theological training but great faith, lived in and around the Sea of Galilee, and were called “Gentiles.” 1
Originally a “Gentile” was anyone who was not a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel,” all of his descendants and their various tribes became known as “the children of Israel.” All others were considered non-Israelites. They were therefore “Gentiles,” meaning “not a part of the clan.”
Nevertheless the Israelites often treated the Gentiles well and sometimes even granted them special privileges. But over the course of time, and especially in the time of the New Testament, Gentiles came to be regarded as unclean and contemptible. The religious leaders in Jerusalem hated them and spoke of them as being heathen, as filthy dogs, and as enemies of God’s people. So the term “Gentile,” rather than simply meaning someone who was not a descendant of Israel, came to have a negative and derogatory connotation.
This was largely because the religious leaders in Jerusalem were zealous about protecting their faith and anxious that it not be contaminated by heathen influences. They therefore taught and practiced a rigid, highly prejudiced, exclusive lifestyle. Israelites were to have no association with the Gentiles, lest they be corrupted by them.
This attitude, which was especially strong in and around Jerusalem, extended outward from there. The further away people lived from Jerusalem, the greater the chances were that they would be considered “Gentiles.” For example, although the region of Galilee is geographically in the land of Israel, it was nevertheless regarded as the “land of the Gentiles” because it was seventy miles from Jerusalem.
In addition, many foreigners were attracted to the fertile region in and around Galilee, with its rich soil and abundant opportunities for fishing and farming. With so many foreigners living in Galilee, many of whom knew little or nothing about the God of Israel, the religious leaders in Jerusalem felt justified in referring to the people of Galilee as “Gentiles.”
If the people of Galilee (which was in the land of Israel), were considered Gentiles, much more so were the people from the region of Tyre (110 miles from Jerusalem) and Sidon (130 miles from Jerusalem). These seaside cities, which were situated northwest of Galilee on the Mediterranean Sea, in the land of Phoenicia, were not in the land of Israel. Therefore, it was regarded, most definitely, as the “land of the Gentiles.”
And this is where we find Jesus as He resumes His journey. We read, “And Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” While He is there, a woman from that region cries out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David. My daughter is severely demon-possessed” (15:22). Jesus does not answer her. And the disciples say, “Send her away, for she cries after us” (15:23).
The disciples are simple men who desire to follow Jesus’ instructions. Jesus has already commanded them not to go into the way of the Gentiles, or to enter the cities of the Samaritans. Instead, He has instructed them to go to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5). So it appears that when they tell Jesus to “send her away,” they are only obeying Jesus’ instructions. After all, she is a Gentile woman, not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It appears, at first, that Jesus also intends to comply with His own command. He does not immediately respond to her request. Instead, He replies, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24).
But the Gentile woman will not be put off. Persevering, she says “Lord, help me.” Again, Jesus appears to reject her request, saying, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (15:26). As we have seen, the religious leaders taught that non-Israelites were heathen and “dogs.” But the woman is not troubled by this put-down. Instead she replies, “True, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (15:27). Pleased with her humble, non-defensive response, Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be to you as you desire” (15:28). And so it was done. “Her daughter was healed from that very hour” (15:28).
The Gentile woman, in begging to be fed by the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, shows that she has a truly humble heart. Seeing this, Jesus answers her prayer and heals her daughter. But it must be remembered that all of this takes place before the eyes of the disciples, for whom Jesus is providing an “object lesson” in ministry. Through this living example they are to understand that “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” are all who sincerely hunger for divine love — especially people like this Gentile woman who is so humble and persistent. As Jesus said when He sat on the mountaintop and delivered His first sermon, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (5:6).
This new approach to ministry will involve the healing of humble, receptive people everywhere, regardless of their religious upbringing or nationality. Whether Jew or Gentile, Roman or Greek, slave or free, these would be “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As Jesus has already said, “Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (12:50) The disciples would now go forth to find the lost sheep, from every tribe and every nation, and gather them together in one fold, with One Shepherd. From now on there would be neither Jew nor Gentile, but brothers and sisters in Christ — with one Father in heaven.
Having made His point about this new and broader approach to ministry, Jesus resumes His mighty work of healing among the Gentiles: “And Jesus departed from there and skirted the Sea of Galilee, and went up on the mountain and sat down there. Then great multitudes came to Him, having with them those who were lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others; and they laid them down at Jesus’ feet, and He healed them” (15:29-30).
Here is a touching picture of the Gentiles coming from far and wide in search of healing. It is a vivid picture of the spiritual hunger for goodness, and the spiritual thirst for truth that is deeply seated in all people, and constitutes our essential humanity. Suffering the hardships of long journeys, climbing the mountain with the lame and the blind, carrying the maimed in their arms, they come to Jesus and lay their loved ones at His feet. This is the journey that each of us must make, supporting one another along the way, as we come before God. It is a simple Gentile faith — a faith that has total belief in God’s healing power. This faith, however simple, is always rewarded. Therefore, we read, “And He healed them” (15:30).
The Gentiles were drawn to Jesus — not because of His religious or ethnic background, but because of His love, wisdom and power to heal all people. In Jesus they could see something that transcended all racial and religious stereotypes, a manifestation of a God who is simply pure love, pure wisdom, and pure power. In Jesus they could see, in some way, God made visible. And so, “the crowds marveled, seeing the dumb speaking, the lame walking, and the blind seeing.” As a result, “They glorified the God of Israel” (15:31).
A Second Feeding of the Multitudes
32. And Jesus, calling for His disciples, said, “I am moved with compassion for the crowd, because they are staying on with Me already three days, and have not anything to eat; and I am not willing to send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.”
33. And His disciples say to Him, “Whence should we have so many loaves in the wilderness, as to satisfy such a crowd?”
34. And Jesus says to them, “How many loaves have you?” And they say, “Seven, and a few little fish.”
35. And He ordered the crowds to recline on the earth.
36. And taking the seven loaves and the fish, giving thanks, He broke, and gave to His disciples, and the disciples to the crowd.
37. And they did all eat and were satisfied; and they took up the excess of the fragments, seven baskets full.
38. And they that had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and little children.
39. And sending away the crowds, He stepped into the ship, and came into the borders of Magdala.
After spending three days healing the people, Jesus wanted to feed them: “I have compassion on the multitude He said, “because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry lest they faint on the way” (15:32).
The disciples, forgetting that Jesus has only recently fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, reply, “Where could we get enough bread in the wilderness to fill such a great multitude?” Jesus does not rebuke them for their short memory span. Instead He simply asks, “How many loaves do you have?” (15:34). And they answer, “Seven, and a few little fish” (15:34).
In the previous feeding of the multitudes, they had only five loaves, but this time they have seven. The number “seven” brings to mind many things associated with holiness in the Word: The seventh day is a day of rest, holy to the Lord (Exodus 31:15); there are seven branches on the lampstand in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:37); seven priests with seven trumpets marched around Jericho for seven days — and on the seventh day they marched around the city seven times (Joshua 6:13); Solomon’s temple was built in seven years (1 Kings 6:38); Naaman was to wash himself in the Jordan seven times (2 Kings 5:10); David said that he would praise the Lord seven times a day (Psalm 119:164); the light of the sun shall be sevenfold as the light of seven days (Isaiah 30:26); and we are to forgive our brother seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22). 2
So, the number “seven” in scripture is associated with that which is holy. Certainly, the disciples are developing an increasing sense of Jesus’ holiness, and a developing awareness of the divinity that is within Him. This is suggested here by the fact that they now have “seven loaves,” rather than five — representing a holy state of love. They also have only “a few fish,” representing their limited understanding of what is happening, but also their growing humility. Their training is coming along perfectly.
Once again the disciples are given the privilege of dispensing the bread and fish among the multitude, and once again Jesus begins with a blessing: “And He took the seven loaves and the fish and gave thanks and broke them and gave them to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitude” (15:36). When the feeding is complete, the number “seven” recurs: “So they all ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets full of the fragments that were left” (15:37). 3
The sacred number “seven” speaks louder than any explanation. It suggests a time of great holiness — solemn, serene, beautiful, and pure. We have come a long way from the beginning of this chapter when the religious leaders were accusing Jesus for permitting His disciples to eat with unwashed hands — overlooking the fact that He had just turned five loaves of bread into enough to feed five thousand people!
Once again we are on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples, and the admiring multitudes, witnessing another miraculous feeding. This time four thousand are fed from seven loaves. There is a sense of sublime holiness as we witness God’s overflowing love and infinite compassion. The message is clear: even though we may receive all the love we desire, there will always be plenty left over — “seven large baskets full.”
At the time of the first feeding of the multitudes the Greek word used for “basket” was κοφίνους (kophinous), meaning, “a small basket.” But this time the Greek word used for “basket” is σπυρίδας (spyridas), meaning, “a large basket.” Baskets are made to receive what is put into them. Similarly, the human mind is designed to receive what flows in from the Lord. The implication is that there is now, in the overflowing of the seven large baskets, an even greater reception and overflow of the Lord’s love and wisdom. 4
1. This term comes from the Latin word “gens” meaning “a clan,” or “group of families.”
2. It should also be noted that in addition to the seven days of the week, there are seven colors in the spectrum, seven notes in the musical scale, and seven bones in the neck.
3. AE: 617:4: “The Lord's feeding the five thousand men, besides women and children, with five loaves and two fishes, and also His feeding four thousand from seven loaves and a few fishes… [signifies that] when the Lord wills, spiritual food which also is real food but only for spirits and angels, is changed into natural food…. This is what is meant by, ‘eating bread in the kingdom of God.’”
4. Arcana Coelestia 9996:2 “And you shall put them in a basket” (Exodus 29:3). A ‘basket’ is the container of all more internal things; …. Regarding the things which were put in the basket, they mean kinds of celestial good. And since the sensory level is the last and lowest of them and so contains them all, it says that all those things should be put in a basket.”