The point of Matthew 15 as a whole is that the kingdom of God is for Gentiles as well as Jews because Christianity rests on an entirely different foundation than did Judaism.

There are three teaching conversations in these verses: one, between Jesus and the Pharisees, another between Jesus and the crowds, and a third between Jesus and His disciples. The first is Jesus’ response to those who had complained about the disciples’ non-traditional practices. The Pharisees had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.” According to the Pharisees’ way of thinking, such action meant the disciples were “unclean” and therefore “non-religious.” If Jesus were a true teacher, He would have straightened out these disciples, they thought.

Jesus’ response was twofold. He confronted them directly in regard to their own religious practices, and He condemned their false understanding of religion.

“You break the command of God for the sake of your tradition.” This was a direct counterattack, but it was not as if Jesus were merely saying, “If I am guilty, then you are guilty too.” Rather, He shifts the issue from the matter of tradition to the revealed law of God. The Pharisees accused Him of breaking the tradition of the elders, but He accused them of breaking God’s commands because of their traditions.

The issue Jesus raised was a particularly despicable practice of that time. The fifth of the Ten Commandments, the first from the second table of the law, said that a man must “honor [his] father and mother.” One chapter later Exodus states, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” These verses add a specific divine command to a universally recognized human obligation, to provide for one’s parent when a father or a mother is in need. But the Pharisees had devised a way of avoiding this obligation. They even had a word for it: corban. It referred to a gift dedicated to God, and it worked this way. If a parent approached one of these children asking to be helped and the child did not want to help, all he had to do was say “corban,” meaning that the money that might have been used to relieve the parent’s need had been dedicated to God and was no longer available.

What made this practice even worse, the greedy and uncaring son did not even have to give the money to God. It was enough that he had promised to give it. He could give it later, on his deathbed perhaps, or not at all. In this way the parents of such men were dishonored and God’s law was broken. What concerned Jesus most was that by this false piety these men nullified the Bible, making it of no effect, which is the problem with traditions. It is what human traditions often do.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus’ second response was even stronger than the first, for He reminded His accusers of Isaiah 29:13, thus accusing them of hypocritical and therefore utterly false worship.

That is a damning accusation for people who were regarded as the best people of their day, but it was a just condemnation, for a love of tradition more than a genuine love of God always leads to false religion. In fact, it leads to self-righteousness, which was the chief characteristic of these men. Self-righteousness does not bring a person into heaven. Rather, it leads to judgment and death since the only possible basis for our justification before God is Christ’s righteousness, not our own.

This point was so important that Jesus called the crowds to Him and strongly applied what He had said. This is the second of the three teaching conversations. He told them, “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.’” This was a direct contradiction of the Pharisees, for He was saying that what matters before God is not clean hands or kosher food, which is what they were concerned about, but a purified heart.

It is obvious from these verses that “clean hands” does not refer to removing physical dirt by ceremonial washings, but to a blameless way of life flowing from a transformed heart. A “pure heart” refers to inward holiness. It is what Jesus was speaking of in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” “Clean hands” refers to one who is holy in outward actions as well as inwardly, because He has been changed within. It is the exact opposite of Pilate, who although he washed his hands publicly, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” nevertheless was guilty in his condemnation of the Lord.

The Pharisees should also have been aware of Psalm 15, which asks, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” Psalm 15 answers: He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellow man, who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

This is the character of those who please God, but the only people who will ever have such a character are those who have had their nature changed by God. Or to put it in the language Jesus used when He spoke to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”


Pastor Steve can be reached at