Matthew 15 presents us with a discussion between three groups of people: Jesus, some Pharisees from Jerusalem, and Jesus’ disciples. The section begins in 14:1ff with Herod’s “witness” to Jesus: his guilty conscience is attributing the miracles Jesus is performing to John the Baptist (whom he had put to death). Despite Herod’s confusion, Matthew would have us to see that even the rulers have heard about the Christ and the deeds He is performing. From there Matthew shows us Jesus’ power over hunger in the feeding five thousand and His authority over nature as He walks on the water (v. 13-36). In 15:1 were told “Some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem.” Even though there’s been a chapter change we’re still on the same subject—Jesus as the authoritative prophet from God and the presence of the Jerusalem group reinforces this.
They have come to challenge Jesus’ teaching (i.e., authority)—His disciples are forsaking the ritual purification (washing of hands) that is part of their tradition. Jesus’ response is a counterattack upon them for neglecting to follow the word of God. Rather than honoring their parents with financial assistance in their old age, they’re playing semantic games by saying that any extra funds for doing this have been “devoted to God” (v. 5) and can’t be used. His words remind us of the prophets, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (v. 6). Jesus might be failing to follow their status quo, but they are failing to follow Yahweh’s.
Matthew shows us Jesus exercising full Messianic authority in exposing the sinful hearts of the Jewish leaders. He applies Isaiah 29 to them—charging that their failure was neither accidental nor incidental. They were playing fast and loose with the commands of God because as was the case with original Isaiah’s audience, their hearts were far from Him. He teaches that following Yahweh with our heart involves submission to His word. Following our impulses, the crowd, or in this case religious leaders, whatever it might be, is not heart following. Worship of God isn’t possible under such circumstances.
But there’s more to say in regard to the heart and Jesus uses the occasion to do so. The real issue for man isn’t unclean hands—it’s an unclean heart (v. 10-11). The Pharisees were models, not of what was good but of what plagues man and how we want to substitute anything and everything to God in place of our heart. Even conformity to the word doesn’t always mean conformity of heart (1 Corinthians 13:2-3).
The disciples are dull to this and Jesus is put off by their lack of comprehension (“Are you still so dull?”-v. 16), because of the fundamental importance of the issue. He elaborates on the truth of v. 10-11 bringing it back around to the presenting cause of eating with unwashed hands. Implicit in His teaching is the idea that we need clean hearts—not ritually clean hands. Clean hearts come not just by loving and submitting to the word of God, but by loving the word of God as a means of loving the God of the word.
This is a prophetic message and shows that Christ is indeed the fulfillment of the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17).