Tradition includes the attitudes, rules, and customs which are handed down from a previous generation. Since it is unwritten, and often subconscious, tradition can have a tighter grip on our thinking than written law. Again and again Matthew presents the Messiah as a critic of tradition and he keeps teaching the need to go to the heart of what love is about.
Instead of human traditions, the only tradition (what is handed down) for his church is the Messiah saying "But I say to you" (5:28, 32, 34, 39, 44) and living out and explaining the perfection of God's kind of love. This is why the Gospel ends with "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (28:20). The result is that in every generation his church is responsible for checking every tradition that is added by that very simple standard.
15:1 Local Pharisees had already objected to Jesus' attitude to their tradition of avoiding bad people, fasting, and Sabbath observance (9:11, 14; 12:2). They must have reported this to the Pharisees and the experts in Jewish law in Jerusalem, and they came down to check out this preacher in far away Galilee.
15:2 Their particular concern was that Jesus and his disciples did not obey their rules for ritual washing to remove the pollution of the world before eating. This might have begun as a sensible health rule and then was given ceremonial significance. Or it could be based on the rules for priests before service in the tabernacle (Exodus 30:19-21). But there is no trace of this requirement for ordinary people. And the rule does not come under any of the categories of moral judgment listed in the ten commandments (see note on 5:12, 27).
15:3-5 Jesus answers the Pharisees by showing how they twisted the moral law about honoring parents. Instead of supporting their parents in their old age (necessary when there was no social security or Old Age Pension), they said the money was already given to God. This was to avoid the obvious intention of the moral law. But freeing his disciples from burdensome traditions for ceremonial washing did nobody any harm and it certainly did not go against the moral law.
15:6-9 The hypocrisy of Pharisee traditions will be exposed more fully in a whole chapter devoted to that topic (23:1-36). At this point Matthew wants us to know that the battle line with the Jerusalem religious establishment was already drawn over the question of tradition. And Jesus is not afraid to call his opponents legalistic hypocrites. As Isaiah saw, their hearts were far from God and their traditions were mere human inventions (Isaiah 29:13).
15:10-11 A key difference between the two models was that legalism made rules designed to change the human heart, and then required the willpower to obey them. Jesus' teaching was based on turning to God for a heart change that would express itself in appropriate words and behavior (see notes on 5:22, 27-30; 6:22-23, 33; 7:17-20; 11:28-30). As opposed to legalism, Jesus' teaching was based on the fact that "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (12:34).
15:12-14 The disciples were naturally concerned that the highly respected religious leaders from Jerusalem were offended by Jesus' tough words. But instead of toning down his words, the Messiah insists on calling the legalists "blind leaders of the blind."
Evidently Paul came to understand the reasons for Jesus' insistence on freedom from the rules of external discipline. And having wrenched himself free from Pharisaic self-effort, he is as vehement in attacking it as Jesus was (Galatians 1:6-9, 3:1-5).
15:15-18 Jesus has to explain that we cannot be put right by rules about eating and other kinds of external behavior. As in the Sermon on the Mount, there is adulteration of the heart long before it expresses itself in adultery (5:28).
15:19-20 If a person's heart is full of murderous, adulterous, or promiscuous sexual thoughts, compulsive stealing, or malicious gossip, no amount of making rules and good intentions can purify the source of the problem. The Epistle of James captured this exactly with the picture of a foul spring, which can only be purified by the wisdom from above or Holy Spirit (James 3:11-17).
Similarly Paul recognizes what Luther called the bondage of the will: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it." The good news is that instead of self-effort, he can set his mind on the power of the Spirit to change him (Romans 7:18, 23; 8:5-6). "It is God who energizes you to give both the will and the energy to do what is needed" (Philippians 2:13; literal translation).
And that is why the Pharisaic rules about external washing totally miss the point of what God has in mind for us.
Jesus has explained the heart change that faith requires as opposed to Pharisaic legalism. But Matthew now wants us to see that this is not merely a theological discussion. So he chooses three incidents to illustrate Jesus' concern for people of other nations, the handicapped, and the hungry. These are concerns that an obsession with rules and traditions is unlikely to address.
15:21 Jesus' visits across the Sea of Galilee (8:18, 28, 14:13) were still in the area originally occupied by the twelve Jewish tribes. He now makes a tour to the north outside the promised land into what had been Phoenician territory (Genesis 10:19).
Sidon is twenty miles north of Tyre. Both cities are over five thousand years old, and they are still in existence in present day Lebanon. Between the two cities was the place where Elijah was able to hide at the home of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-10; Luke 4:26). From 15:24 it is evident Jesus was not on an evangelistic tour, so it is possible Jesus merely intended to take his disciples on a holiday visit to this historic place.
15:22 The Canaanites were a despised race (Genesis 9:25) that the invading Jews had intended to exterminate from the promised land. Most of those who remained to the north in the area of Phoenicia were wiped out by succeeding Assyrian, Babylonian and Greek invasions. This woman apparently claimed her original Canaanite ancestry.
Normally she would have expected outright rejection from a Jewish rabbi, but she had heard that Jesus was the expected Messianic Son of David. Having heard that he was a tourist in the area she came and demanded help for her daughter who kept being overpowered by evil forces.
15:22-25 At first Jesus said nothing, and the disciples complained she was disturbing their holiday. Perhaps Jesus was facing a struggle in his mind. Moved by the Holy Spirit the Messiah was committed to a strategy of first making the good news known among his own Jewish people. But this woman was insistent.
15:26 His answer to her is not as heartless as our translation suggests. He quotes a well known saying. "You don't feed the puppies ((the Greek word is "little dogs") under the table till the children have eaten what they want." This is not a contrast between Jews as children of God and other people as mere dogs. The saying suggests a sequence for the good news to go out in due course. Eventually his disciples would go to all nations (28:19-20), and in fact there would soon be a church in Tyre (Acts 21:7), but church planting in other countries would come later.
15:27-28 The woman is bold enough to point out that, even as the children eat, some crumbs fall to the ground and the puppies eat them. All she is asking for is a crumb. Jesus' answer suggests that he delights in this kind of familiar boldness in prayer, and the woman's daughter is healed immediately.
15:29 The way back from Tyre and Sidon probably took the disciples over the beautiful mountains of Lebanon to the north-east end of the Sea of Galilee. This is probably not the location of the Sermon on the Mount, or the transfiguration (5:1 or 17:1), but it seems to have been in Gentile territory because the people praised the God of Israel (15:31).
Rabbis always taught sitting down, so "he sat down" could suggest a teaching session for a wider circle of disciples who had not accompanied Jesus on their tour through Phoenicia.
15:30-33 They are soon interrupted by a great crowd (as in 8:16, 12:15) bringing their sick to the feet of Jesus.
15:32-33 The similarity with the feeding of the 5,000 and this incident (14:14-21; Mark 6:33-44; 8:1-9) has led critics to assume that both Mark and Matthew made a mistake in adding a second feeding, in this case of "four thousand men, beside women and children" (15:38). By comparing the differences in the two accounts it should be obvious that this is a very unlikely supposition. Jesus' explanation of the difference (see the comment on the different kinds of basket in 16:8-10) in the next chapter has no reason if there was only one feeding of a large crowd. Based on the words "they praised the God of Israel" (15:31) the easiest explanation is that in this case the people being fed were not pure Jews.
The crowds may have come from distant places as they are with Jesus and his disciples for three days. "In the desert" does not refer to a wilderness location, but to the fact that on this mountain there were no stores to buy food.
15:34-36 Both the previous meal and this feeding of the four thousand use the same communion service sequence of the people sitting in order, taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking the bread (see the expression "breaking of bread" in Luke 24:35; Acts 4:42), giving it for distribution, and all being more than satisfied (14:19-20; as in Psalm 63:5).
15:37 In the feeding of 5,000 people in Galilee seven small picnic baskets of fragments are left over (14:20). Here the different Greek word translated "baskets" means large bushel baskets. Perhaps Matthew wants us to notice that very much more is left over after feeding the mixed multitude (see Jesus' comment in 16:9,10).
15:39 After the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him. In this case he comes down from the mountain, and the disciples have a boat ready to take him along the shore of the Lake of Galilee to Magadan or Magdala. Previously they had crossed to Gennesaret a few miles to the north (14:34).
Magdala is mentioned here for the first time, perhaps to identify the home of Mary of Magdala, who will come into prominence later (27:56, 61, 28:1).