What Comes Out of the Heart Defiles a Person – Matthew 15:10-20

After calling the Pharisees hypocrites because they declare certain people unclean based on ritual purity or food traditions, Jesus describes what really defiles a person (Matthew 15:10-20). It is not external things life food that make a person unclean, but what comes out of their heart.

Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot

The verb translated “defile” (κοινόω) refers to making something or someone ritually unclean. For example, it is used to described Peter’s attitude toward the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:15; 11:9). Paul is accused of bringing an unclean Gentile into the Temple courts, “defiling this holy place” (Acts 21:28). The irony is the Pharisees tried to remain in a state of purity, yet by focusing on external purity the Pharisees do not understand what defiles a person.

Following John Nolland, both Jesus and the Pharisees are concerned with the purity of God’s people, but they were pushing in different directions (Matthew, 621). For the Pharisee, defilement could be avoided by closer attention to what renders a person ritually unclean, things in the external world that might be touched. For Jesus, he sees defilement as the things coming out of a person, their moral and ethical choices. Jesus is not challenging Torah purity laws (he is not advocating eating unclean foods), but by allowing his disciples to not practice hand washing according to the traditions of the elders, he is rejecting some of the practices of the Pharisees.

The disciples tell Jesus has offended the Pharisees (15:12-14). Some of the disciples approach Jesus and tell him the Pharisees were offended by this harsh condemnation, especially since Jesus publicly called them hypocrites. In Mark 7:17, this conversation takes place in private, back in the house, Matthew does not follow Mark here so that this speech happens in front of the crowd as well.

Jesus does not seem to care if he has offended the Pharisees (after all, they publicly called him an agent of Satan!) He predicts they will be “uprooted” when the kingdom comes and telling his disciples to “leave them, they are blind guides.” John the Baptist said a similar thing in Matthew 3:10, the axe is already at the root and every tree that is not bearing fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus says evil thoughts come out of the heart (15:15-20). When Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable, Jesus says he is still “without understanding” (15:15-16). Mark 7:17 does not identify the speaker, Matthew has already included Peter’s attempt to walk on the water, so he is building up to Peter’s confession in 16:16.

The word translated “without understanding” in the ESV (ἀσύνετος) has the connotation of senseless, foolish, or as the NIV translates, “a dullard.” BrillDAG suggests “obtuse, stupid.” The word is sometimes translated “foolish” and is rare in the New Testament. Paul uses it the other three times it is used, twice in Romans 1 to describe the foolishness of mankind in rejecting the creator, and once in chapter 10 of Romans to describe the foolishness of the nation of Israel in rejecting God.

Perhaps Jesus is not saying “Are you a dullard?” but more like “haven’t you started getting with it spiritually yet?” The disciples do not understand a simple parable in context, something they ought to have understood by this point in the story. In 15:10 Jesus told his listeners to “hear and understand,” one would expect this closest disciple to understand. At this point Peter does not understand what defiles a person.

What goes into a body does not matter as much as what comes out (15:17-20). Food simply passes through the body, but “evil thoughts” start inside the body and come out in the form of offenses against God’s character. For reasons that are not clear to me, the ESV and NIV do not translate the Greek phrase εἰς ἀφεδρῶνα, into the latrine. The NRSV properly translates the phrase “and goes out into the sewer.”

The rest of the list is more or less the Ten Commandments (Murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander). Jesus discussed murder and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-32). Matthew re-arranges and reduces Mark’s list, omitting acts of avarice, deceit, licentiousness, and evil eye, pride and folly. “Jesus sticks with matters which in Jewish terms would not only be immoral but also criminal…all his items relate to the Ten Commandments” (Nolland, Matthew, 627). Jesus referred to the fifth commandment in the previous paragraph, the fourth commandment in 12:1-14. True worship is the theme of the first three commandments, so potentially 15:7-9 covers the rest of the commandments.

In verse 20 Jesus states eating with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. This is different than Mark 7:19, the parenthetical comment (by this Jesus declared all foods clean). Virtually every translation takes these as words of Jesus, but it is possible these are Matthew’s conclusion to the matter, clarifying Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’s words.

Jesus makes a clear contrast between what defiles a person according to the Pharisees and what actually causes defilement. Jesus does not declare all foods clean here, nor does he allow his disciples to break the Law.

Tradition and Hypocrites – Matthew 15:3–6

When the Pharisees ask Jesus why he breaks the tradition of handwashing before meals, Jesus turns the discussion around and condemns the Pharisees as hypocrites because of their practice of corban (Matthew 15:3-6). In the parallel passage, Mark uses the term corban, which simply means a gift given to God. Although Matthew does not use the word corban (Mark 7:11), it is clear Matthew is referring to this practice.

Jesus and Hypocrites

The issue is whether the oral law overrides the written law (Blomberg, Matthew, 238). For example, the Law says do not eat unclean food, the Pharisees developed traditions which defined unclean to include food touched by unclean hands.

In this case, there is a tension between the command to honor one’s parents and the commands to honor oaths especially to oaths to God.

Exodus 21:17 (ESV) “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.

Leviticus 20:9 (ESV) For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.

Deuteronomy 27:16 (ESV) “‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

One could potentially make a vow (qorban) to the Lord to give a gift to the temple that was payable if a vow was broken or even on death (like a bequest in a will) and the avoid using the money or property for the care of their parents.

By analogy, imagine making a faith promise to support missionaries when the decide to build a new church, but they have not started that project yet so you keep the money in your bank account so you can give it at some point. But then you tell your parents you cannot pay for their retirement home because you promised to give money to the missionaries (if they ever need it). You get the spiritual benefit of making a vow to God, you get to keep your money in the bank and earn some interest and you do not have to spend money on your parents.

The gift could be given as a “trust” so that the giver could earn an income from the gift, and it was still considered a corban. Nolland says the gift was not intended to be an actual gift to God,  but “a notional forfeit due God payable on failure to fulfill the vow made” (Nolland, Matthew, 617).  There is therefore a benefit as a gift and as an investment, and the giver avoids using the funds to support parents.

Sometimes this is described as a loophole in the Law that the Pharisees exploited, but it is better to see this as a ranking of significance of vows. When two or more vows come into conflict, which vow takes precedence? By analogy, if I promise my wife I will take her out to dinner, and I promise a friend I will help him move at the same time, which promise am I obligated to keep? Which promise is more significant? (In this analogy, which promise will hurt me more when I break it?)

It is necessary to address keeping foolish or hasty oaths or conflicting obligations, but the way these two traditions are used makes it possible for a person to avoid doing both good things. In my analogy, I would tell my wife I have to help my friend, and tell my friend I have to keep my promise to my wife, and then go off to the movies and avoid keeping either promise. I would be a hypocrite and the sort of thing Jesus condemn here.

Jesus however sees this tradition as a breaking the Law. For the sake of their own traditions the Pharisees are breaking the command of God” (Mark has “the command of Moses”). Matthew is emphasizing the origin of the Law of Moses, it is not a law that begins with men, but with God.

Although the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the traditions of the elders, Jesus says they are making the Law void (ἀκυρόω). They are rendering the Law ineffective so that someone could not honor their parents and (potentially) not ever give their offering to the Temple. Jesus could have agreed with one side of this debate within the party of the Pharisees, as he does on the issue of divorce (Hooker, Mark, 178). He does not, since using the Law to break the Law is hypocritical and sinful.

Jesus says Isaiah 29:13 prophesied about “these hypocrites” (15:7-9). By quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus is drawing a parallel between the Pharisees and the generation of Isaiah. The worship of God in the Temple may have been performed correctly, but it was only lip-service to God because the people did not wholeheartedly keep the covenant. In a similar context, Jesus quoted Isaiah 6;8-9 in Matthew 13:13-17 to describe that generation’s response to the revelation Jesus is the Messiah.

This verse is often quoted when we do not like a particular religious ritual or practice. Although the person quoting the verse seems pious, how are they not hypocrites themselves?


Bibliography: J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Qorban Inscription from Jebel Hallet et-Turi and Mk 7:1/Mt 15:5,” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (London: G. Chapman, 1971), 96.


Jesus and the Traditions of the Pharisees – Matthew 15:1-9

The stories in Matthew 15-16 begin with a challenge to Jesus (15:1-20) and end with another demand for a sign (16:1-12), both stories include a stinging rebuke of the Pharisees for their reliance on their own traditions. The two stories between in which Jesus encounters remarkable faith among the Gentiles. Jesus is not “turning to the Gentiles.” On the contrary, the two stories contrast the remarkable faith and openness to the Jewish Messiah from the Gentiles with the lack of faith from the Pharisees.

Hand Washing Old Jerusalem

In Matthew 9:14-17 the Pharisees questioned Jesus’s disciples about his non-practice of fasting. In Matthew 12:1-14 they question Jesus’s activity on the Sabbath (his disciples glean, and he heals on the Sabbath). This results in the Pharisee’s pronouncement Jesus casts out demons by the power of Beelzebub (12:22-24) and the demand or a sign (12:38). This sequence represents a break with the Pharisees and Jesus turns to teaching the crowds in parables for the first time in Matthew because the present generation has become like the people in Isaiah 6:8-9, always seeing, never understanding (13:11-17).

There are several important changes from Mark 7, including the explanations of hand washing and corban, both added in Mark to explain a Jewish tradition to a non-Jewish audience. Another significant deletion is Mark’s comment that Jesus declared all foods clean. Remarkably, Craig Blomberg titles Matthew 15:1-20 as “Kosher Laws Rescinded” in his NAC Matthew commentary. Kosher food (or not) is not the subject in Matthew, but rather the traditions of the elders.

The Pharisees and scribes approach Jesus and ask about his disciples not washing their hands (15:1-2). These Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem to Galilee, indicating Jesus’s reputation has reached religious authorities in Jerusalem. The problem is Jesus’s disciples do not follow the “traditions of the elders.” This phrase can be used for the legal decisions made by respected teachers of the Law in the Second Temple period (Antiq. 13.10.6), but here refers specifically to the oral tradition curated by the Pharisees.

The problem with eating with unwashed hands is that it will render the food unclean and eating unclean food makes a person ritually impure. If you are in a state of cleanliness, but you have touched something or someone who is unclean, then your hands are unclean and that will defile your food. The solution, for the Pharisees, was to always ritually wash one’s hands before eating.

The Mishnaic tractate m.Yadim (“Hands”) describes various ritual washings, although this dates to at least AD 250. This tractate covers washing of hands as a process of purification and is different than immersion in an immersion-pool (miqveh) for purification from uncleanness. For example, in Jubilees:

Jubilees 21:16–17 “Wash thyself with water before thou approachest to offer on the altar, and wash thy hands and thy feet before thou drawest near to the altar; and when thou art done sacrificing, wash again thy hands and thy feet.”

As much as possible, they were practicing the kind of separation from uncleanliness required of a priest working in the Tabernacle (Exod 30:19, 40:13) in everyday life. “the analogy between the domestic table and the Temple altar which is probably the source for the requirement to wash hands before eating” (Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities, 19:104).

Although Aristeas 305 says “all the Jews washed their hands and prayed to God” (cf. Judith 12:7, Sib.Or. 3.591-583), only the Pharisees sought to create “in everyday life the conditions of purity required in the Temple” (Jacob Neusner, “‘First Cleanse the Inside,’” 494, n. 2).  The average Jewish person would avoid contact with uncleanliness but would not overly concern themselves with accidental contact with unclean things.

Some Jews think food could defile a person, see, for example 4 Maccabees 7:6.

4 Maccabees 7:6 O priest, worthy of the priesthood, you neither defiled your sacred teeth nor profaned your stomach, which had room only for reverence and purity, by eating defiling foods.

Why would the Pharisees think Jesus and his disciples ought to conform to their traditions? By analogy, an Amish person probably does not get too upset when an Episcopalian does not follow their traditional practices (they probably assume they are going to hell and not worry too much about it).

But since Jesus is closest to Pharisees in terms of theology, they may have thought of Jesus as one of their own, or close enough to ask the question. If the Pharisees had the sense Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, then certainly the Messiah would follow their interpretations of the Law!



Bibliography: Jacob Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities: Tebul Yom and Yadayim, ed. Jacob Neusner, vol. 19, Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007). Jacob Neusner, “‘First Cleanse the Inside,’” NTS 22 (1975–76) 486–95; 494, n. 2. See also G. J. Wenham, “Christ’s Healing Ministry and His Attitude to the Law,” Christ the Lord (ed. H. H. Rowdon; Leicester: InterVarsity, 1982).

Why Does Peter Ask to Walk on the Water?  Matthew 14:28-30

In a previous post, I suggested walking on the water alluded to descriptions of God in the Exodus. Whether or not Isaiah 43 was in Matthew’s mind when he shaped this story, Jesus’s words emboldened Peter, who will ask Jesus to command him to also walk on the water. Peter’s attempt to walk on water to Jesus is only found in Matthew. When Peter walks on the water, is this a faithful act or bravado?


Peter Walks on Water Otto Runge

In some ancient texts, only the arrogant to think they can walk on the water. For example, Caligula building a bridge over the gulf of Puteoli “as he was lord of the sea” (Josephus, Antiq., 19:5-6). 2 Maccabees 5:21 describes Antiochus as arrogantly thinking he could “walk on the sea.”

2 Maccabees 5:21 So Antiochus carried off eighteen hundred talents from the temple, and hurried away to Antioch, thinking in his arrogance that he could sail on the land and walk on the sea, because his mind was elated.

The fourth Sibylline Oracle describes the arrogance of Xerxes:

Sib. Or. 4.76-79 A king will come from Asia, brandishing a great spear, with countless ships. He will walk the watery paths of the deep and will cut through a lofty mountain as he sails. Him will wretched Asia receive as a fugitive from war.

Among the Son of Lawlessness’s deceptive signs in the Apocalypse of Elijah is walking on the water:

Apoc. El. 3.5-8 But the son of lawlessness will begin to stand again in the holy places. He will say to the sun, “Fall,” and it will fall. He will say, “Shine,” and it will do it. He will say, “Darken,” and it will do it. He will say to the moon, “Become bloody,” and it will do it. He will go forth with them from the sky. He will walk upon the sea and the rivers as upon dry land.

Was Peter arrogant when he asked to walk on the walker with Jesus? Perhaps not. He is the only disciple who expresses faith in Jesus. The rest are cowering in the boat terrified of the storm and the ghostly figure walking toward them. Whether Peter is faithful or not, the rest of the disciples remain in the boat, they are the “ones of little faith.”

Yet it may be the case Peter doubted the one walking on the water is Jesus. He says, “if it is you.”  For some, the phrase could be read, “if you are the Lord” (ἐγώ εἰμι), but it is probably the case Peter only means, “if it is you Jesus, and not a ghost.”

When Peter walks on the water, he sees the storm and begins to sink, crying out “Lord, save me!” As he sinks into the water Jesus reaches out to him and lifts him into the boat. This may anticipate Peter’s reaction to another theophany in Matthew 17. When Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration, they hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my son, listen to him.” When all three disciples fall to the ground and are terrified by this voice, Jesus touches them and says “rise, have no fear.” In both cases Peter is terrified, falls, Jesus touches him and lifts him up.

When Peter walks on water he demonstrates his belief in Jesus as the Son of God, but he does not fully understand what that means yet. This anticipates Matthew 16:16, Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Loving God. After than expression of faith, Jesus tells Peter the Messiah is going to Jerusalem to die and Peter rebukes Jesus (16:22). Jesus says “Get thee behind me Satan” and calls Peter a stumbling block who does not have in mind the things of God (16:23).

Jesus then asks Peter “Why did you doubt?” (14:32) When Jesus calmed the sea, he asked why the disciples had little faith (vocative, ὀλιγόπιστος; 8:26). The word appears in Matthew 16:8 (the disciples arguing about what Jesus meant by yeast) and Luke 12:28. Even if Peter is “little faith” he is better than Nazareth 13:53-58 and Herod Antipas (14:1-12) who had no faith at all in Jesus (Wilkins, Matthew, 517). Peter doubted (διστάζω). After the resurrection, some disciples will believe Jesus was raised from the dead and will worship him, but some doubted (28:17).

When Jesus and Peter enter the boat, storm stops and disciples worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the son of God” (14:33). The disciples now understand who Jesus us and confess Jesus is the Son of God. Peter will confess this again in 16:16, and the centurion uses same phrase in 27:54 as he witnesses Jesus’s final breath.

If the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on the water answer the question asked in Matthew 13:54, where did Jesus get his wisdom and miraculous powers, then the answer is that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who walks on the water and subdues the chaos of the seas (as in the Exodus) and provides for his people in the wilderness. We might expect a scene evoking Mount Sinai next, but Matthew will hold the revelation from Heaven declaring Jesus is the Son of God until Matthew 17.

Why Does Jesus Walk on the Water? Matthew 14:22-33

When Jesus walks on water in Matthew 14:22-33 he answers the question asked in the Nazareth synagogue, “Where did Jesus get his authority to teach and do miracles?” In the feeding of the 5000, Jesus revealed he was the one who provides food in the wilderness, and in this story, he reveals he is the one who walks upon the waters as if they were dry land. Both miracles use biblical imagery to declare Jesus is the Son of God, and the only response is to worship him as the Son of God.

Christ Walking on the Waters Julius Sergius Von Klever

After compelling his disciples to go to the other side of the lake, Jesus dismisses the crowd after the miraculous feeding miracle (Matt 14:22-23). He made the disciples cross the lake in a boat, or better, he ‘compelled” them to go. The verb (ἀναγκάζω) has the sense of force (Judaizers compel Gentiles to be circumcised), but most commentators see this as strongly urging the disciples to begin crossing the sea. (Consider a mom telling her child to take the trash out: the tone of voice might be enough to force the child into action!)

After Jesus dismissed the crowd, he spent time alone on a mountain to pray. Is this an anticipation of the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-42)? It is the next time in Matthew Jesus goes away from his disciples to pray in private.

The disciples try to cross the lake, but they are moving against the wind and make little progress. The boat was a long way from shore. This smooths out the “many stadia” in Greek. A στάδιον was one eighth of a mile, a little more than 600 feet (192 meters). John 6:19 translates the phrase as “three or four miles.”

It was the fourth watch of the night when they see Jesus, or just before dawn. If the disciples left at dusk, about 8PM and dawn was about 5:30AM, then they have been fighting against the wind for more than nine hours!

They are going against the wind and are “beaten by the waves.” Usually the verb beaten (βασανίζω) has the sense of harassment and torture (Mark 6:48 in the ESV, they were “making progress painfully”). The classical usage of the verb has the sense of being put to the text (usually through torture, BrillDAG). Perhaps this long night of rowing against the wind was like physical torture, but there might be a hint the disciples are being tested with respect to their understanding of who Jesus is.  Since they end up at Gennesaret. From Tagbha to Tel Kinneret is about 14 miles (23 km) south, near the southern tip of the lake. In Mark 6:45 Jesus told them to go to Bethsaida, about seven miles from Tabgha, although the winds blow them south to Gennesaret.

Several disciples are fishermen who are used to being on the Sea of Galilee at night. They know what they are doing! But like the previous lake-miracle (Matthew 8:23-27), the disciples are in a dangerous place and are terrified when they see Jesus walking toward them.

Jesus walks on the water of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 14:25-27).  In the Old Testament, walking on the water is associated with God. “In antiquity walking on water was of great interest to people—not only and not primarily the Jews. It was a dream, a fascinating idea. It is impossible for human beings and is reserved for God, unless humans are in a special way sons of God or achieve divine powers by magic” (Luz, Matthew, 320).

Matthew intended the story of Jesus walking on the water to intentionally call to mind the Exodus. This would then build on the Exodus imagery in the feeding of the 5000 as similar to God’s provision of manna in the wilderness. Mark 6:52 connects the two stories more clearly. The reason the disciples were afraid is “they did not understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.”

The Old Testament describes God as walking on the Sea when retelling the Exodus story. Isaiah 43:2-3 and 43:16-17 use the imagery to describe the return of Judah from Exile in a new Exodus. Psalm 77:19 describes God making a path through the sea to lead Moses, Aaron, and the people like a flock. Only God can walk on the seas. In Job 9:8, God is described as the one “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” The Septuagint is closer to Matthew, Job 9:8 reads “walks about upon the sea as upon the ground.”

Seeing Jesus, the disciples are terrified and think he is a ghost (14:26). In any circumstance, the disciples do not expect to see someone walking on the water towards them. The Greek (φάντασμα) is only used here and in Mark 6:49 and Luke 24:37 (again, the disciples think Jesus is a ghost after the crucifixion).  In the ancient world, a ghost was always a bad thing, in LXX Isaiah 28:7 a related word (φάσμα) is translated “a bad omen” (LES).

Jesus calls out to the disciples and tells themTake heart!” θαρσεῖτε (imperative from θαρσέω) means “to be firm or resolute in the face of danger or adverse circumstances” (BDAG). He adds to this, “do not be afraid,” often associated with an angelic appearance (Dan 10:12, 19, for example).

Jesus identifies himself, “It is I” (ἐγώ εἰμι). This is usually associated with the name of God in the Old Testament For example, the name of God in Exodus 3:14 is ἐγώ εἰμι in the Septuagint. Isaiah 43:10-11 is in the context of the Lord walking on the waters in the Exodus. The Lord declares he is the only God and there is no savior besides him. In Matthew, Peter will cry out for the one walking on the water to save him.

Isaiah 43:10–11 (ESV) “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he (ἐγώ εἰμι). Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior (participle from σῴζω).

Why does Jesus walk on water? In order to reveal to his disciples that he is more than a miracle worker or charismatic teacher. He is demonstrating to his disciples he is the God of the Exodus.