1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” – Matthew 15:1-20 ESV
Matthew now moves the scene from Jesus walking on water to Him walking the streets of Jerusalem, where He was confronted by a contingent of Pharisees and scribes. These self-righteous religious leaders had a bone to pick with Jesus, and were anxious to expose what they believed to be His blatant disregard for the tradition of the elders. This was a reference to the man-made rules and regulations established by men and found in the Mishnah. In this case, the Pharisees and scribes were wanting to know why the disciples of Jesus did not follow the regulations concerning ceremonial cleansing. This had nothing to do with personal hygiene, but was about cleansing from defilement, including that which resulted from contact with Gentiles.
These men were not accusing the disciples of violating the Mosaic law, but of failing to keep the rabbinical interpretations of the law. So, Jesus responds to them with a question of His own, asking them, “why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3 ESV). This was a bold move on the part of Jesus, because it exposed the real issue at hand and blatantly accused these religious leaders of breaking the Mosaic law.
But before they could respond, Jesus provided proof for His accusation, explaining their tradition of korban. This was a form of offering that entailed the dedication of a gift to God that was to be offered at a later date. Think of it as a kind of tax-free savings plan. According to the tradition of the elders, someone could dedicate money or an item of value to God, but not be required to offer it immediately. The actual offering was postponed indefinitely, allowing the individual to continue to benefit from the item in the meantime. And Jesus gave an example of this interesting loophole that allowed someone to openly disregard God’s command to honor your father and mother.
This man-made rule allowed someone to circumvent their God-given responsibility to care for their aging parents by simply claiming that their resources had been dedicated to God. But all the while, they would retain full access to those resources. And Jesus exposes this clever plan for what it was: Hypocrisy and an open disregard for the law of God.
“So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” – Matthew 15:6 ESV
And Jesus used the words of God, found in the writings of Isaiah the prophet, to condemn them.
8 “These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT
These men were revered for their apparent righteousness. They were respected for their knowledge of and adherence to the Mosaic law. But Jesus exposed them as hypocrites. They were all about appearances. Their concern for what men thought about them took precedence over how God perceived them. And Jesus revealed that the real issue here had nothing to do with ceremonial cleansing, but defiled hearts.
“…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” – Matthew 15:11 ESV
While the Pharisees and scribes were concerned about defiling themselves by failing to properly following the prescribed forms of ritual purification, Jesus revealed that their problem was an internal one. And the religious leaders were fully aware of what Jesus was implying and offended by it. His disciples, somewhat naively asked Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matthew 15:12 ESV). Yes, He knew and that had been His intention all along.
According to Jesus, these men may have been religious leaders, but they had not been commissioned by God. They were self-appointed and little more than blind guides. In other words, they were worthless leaders. They had no idea where they were going and anyone who followed them would end up in a ditch. This would not be the last time Jesus attacked the hypocrisy of these men. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records even more scathing words from Jesus aimed at the Pharisees and scribes.
23 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24 Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!
25 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
27 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23: 23-28 NLT
Peter, most likely speaking on behalf of all the disciples, asked Jesus to explain Himself. Peter felt like Jesus was using yet another parable and was anxious to understand what He meant. But Jesus, expressing surprise at their lack of understanding, explained, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19 ESV). This was all about the condition of the heart, not the keeping of man-made rules. Ritual purification could do nothing to change the inner state of a man. Keeping rules regarding outward purity will not produce a clean heart. But a defiled heart will produce all kinds of unclean behavior. The religious leaders were focusing all their attention on the outside, but Jesus had come to renew the inside. He was offering true cleansing from sin that began with a new heart.
As will be the case from this point on, Jesus is attempting to teach His disciples some very important truths regarding righteousness. It begins in the heart. Our outward behavior cannot make us righteous before God, because He sees the true condition of our hearts. And His assessment is that the human heart is in bad shape.
9 “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
and desperately wicked.
Who really knows how bad it is?
10 But I, the Lord, search all hearts
and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
according to what their actions deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT
No man can make himself righteous before God through outward adherence to rules and regulations. Our good behavior, even on our best day, is viewed by God as tainted by sin.
We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT
The problem with the Pharisees and scribes was that they were blind to their need for a Savior. They viewed themselves as right before God because they were religious about rule-keeping. They were ritually pure, but sadly, inwardly defiled because of their sin-filled hearts. And they refused to accept the remedy for their heart problem: Jesus Christ.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.