Matthew 15 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Matthew 15)
2. Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.

[Why do they transgress the tradition of the elders?] How great a value they set upon their traditions, even above the word of God, appears sufficiently from this very place, verse 6. Out of infinite examples which we meet with in their writings, we will produce one place only; "The words of the scribes are lovely above the words of the law: for the words of the law are weighty and light; but the words of the scribes are all weighty."

"He that shall say, 'There are no phylacteries, transgressing the words of the law,' is not guilty; but he that shall say, 'There are five Totaphoth, adding to the words of the scribes,' he is guilty."

"The words of the elders are weightier than the words of the prophets."

"A prophet and an elder, to what are they likened? To a king sending two of his servants into a province. Of one he writes thus, 'Unless he shew you my seal, believe him not': of the other thus, 'Although he shews you not my seal, yet believe him.' Thus it is written of the prophet, 'He shall shew thee a sign or a miracle'; but of the elders thus, 'According to the law which they shall teach thee,'" &c. But enough of blasphemies.

[For they wash not their hands, &c.] The undervaluing of the washing of hands is said to be among those things for which the Sanhedrim excommunicates: and therefore that R. Eleazar Ben Hazar was excommunicated by it, because he undervalued the washing of hands; and that when he was dead, by the command of the Sanhedrim, a great stone was laid upon his bier. "Whence you may learn (say they) that the Sanhedrim stones the very coffin of every excommunicate person that dies in his excommunication."

It would require a just volume, and not a short commentary, or a running pen, to lay open this mystery of Pharisaism concerning washing of hands, and to discover it in all its niceties: let us gather these few passages out of infinite numbers:

I. The washing of hands and the plunging of them is appointed by the words of the scribes: but by whom, and when, it is doubted. Some ascribe the institution of this rite to Hillel and Shammai, others carry it back to ages before them: "Hillel and Shammai decreed concerning the washing of hands. R. Josi Ben Rabbi Bon, in the name of R. Levi, saith, 'That tradition was given before, but they had forgotten it': these second stand forth, and appoint according to the mind of the former."

II. "Although it was permitted to eat unclean meats, and to drink unclean drinks, yet the ancient religious eat their common food in cleanness, and took care to avoid uncleanness all their days; and they were called Pharisees. And this is a matter of the highest sanctity, and the way of the highest religion; namely, that a man separate himself, and go aside from the vulgar, and that he neither touch them, nor eat nor drink with them: for such separation conduceth to the purity of the body from evil works," &c. Hence that definition of a Pharisee which we have produced before, The Pharisees eat their common food in cleanness: and the Pharisaical ladder of heaven, "Whosoever hath his seat in the land of Israel, and eateth his common food in cleanness, and speaks the holy language, and recites his phylacteries morning and evening, let him be confident that he shall obtain the life of the world to come."

III. Here that distinction is to be observed between forbidden meats, and unclean meats. Of both Maimonides wrote a proper tract. Forbidden meats, such as fat, blood, creatures unlawful to be eaten (Lev 2), were by no means to be eaten: but meats, unclean in themselves, were lawful indeed to be eaten, but contracted some uncleanness elsewhere: it was lawful to eat them, and it was not lawful; or, to speak as the thing indeed is, they might eat them by the law of God, but by the canons of Pharisaism they might not.

IV. The distinction also between unclean, and profane or polluted, is to be observed. Rambam, in his preface to Toharoth, declares it.

Profane or polluted denotes this, that it does not pollute another beside itself. For every thing which uncleanness invades so that it becomes unclean, but renders not another thing unclean, is called profane. And hence it is said of every one that eats unclean meats, or drinks unclean drinks, that his body is polluted: but he pollutes not another. Note that, "The body of the eater is polluted by unclean meats." To which you may add that which follows in the same Maimonides, in the place before alleged: "Separation from the common people, &c., conduces to the purity of the body from evil works; the purity of the body conduceth to the sanctity of the soul from evil affections; the sanctity of the soul conduces unto likeness to God, as it is said, 'And ye shall be sanctified, and ye shall be holy, because I, the Lord that sanctify you, am holy.'" Hence you may more clearly perceive the force of Christ's confutation, which we have verses 17-20.

V. They thought that clean food was polluted by unclean hands, and that the hands were polluted by unclean meats. You would wonder at this tradition: "Unclean meats and unclean drinks do not defile a man if he touch them not, but if he touch them with his hands, then his hands become unclean; if he handle them with both hands, both hands are defiled; if he touch them with one hand only, one hand only is defiled."

VI. This care, therefore, laid upon the Pharisee sect, that meats should be set on free, as much as might be, from all uncleanness: but especially since they could not always be secure of this, that they might be secure that the meats were not rendered unclean by their hands. Hence were the washings of them not only when they knew them to be unclean, but also when they knew it not.

Rambam in the preface to the tract of hands, hath these words; "If the hands are unclean by any uncleanness, which renders them unclean; or if it be hid from a man, and he knows not that he is polluted; yet he is bound to wash his hands in order to eating his common food," &c.

VII. To these most rigid canons they added also bugbears and ghosts to affright them.

It was the business of Shibta. Where the Gloss is, "Shibta was one of the demons who hurt them that wash not their hands before meat." The Aruch writes thus, "Shibta is an evil spirit which sits upon men's hands in the night: and if any touch his food with unwashen hands, that spirit sits upon that food, and there is danger from it."

Let these things suffice as we pass along: it would be infinite to pursue all that is said of this rite and superstition. Of the quantity of water sufficient for this washing; of the washing of the hands, and of the plunging of them; of the first and second water; of the manner of washing; of the time; of the order, when the number of those that sat down to meat exceeded five, or did not exceed; and other such like niceties: read, if you have leisure, and if the toil and nauseousness of it do not offend you, the Talmudic tract of hands, Maimonides upon the tract lavers, and Babylonian Beracoth: and this article, indeed, is inserted through the whole volume entitled cleanness. Let this discourse be ended with this canon; "For a cake, and for the washing of hands, let a man walk as far as four miles."

5. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;

[It is a gift by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me, &c.] I. Beside the law alleged by Christ, "Honour thy father and thy mother," &c., they acknowledge this also for law, A son is bound to provide his father meat and drink, to clothe him, to cover him, to lead him in and out, to wash his face, hands and feet. Yea, that goes higher, "A son is bound to nourish his father, yea, to beg for him." Therefore it is no wonder if these things which are spoken by our Saviour are not found verbatim in the Jewish pandect; for they are not so much alleged by him to shew that it was their direct design to banish away all reverence and love towards parents, as to show how wicked their traditions were, and into what ungodly consequences they oftentimes fell. They denied not directly the nourishment of their parents, nay, they command it, they exhorted to it; but consequently by this tradition they made all void. They taught openly, indeed, that a father was to be made no account of in comparison of a Rabbin that taught them the law; but they by no means openly asserted that parents were to be neglected: yet openly enough they did by consequence drawn from this foolish and impious tradition.

II. One might readily comment upon this clause, "It is a gift" (or, as Mark, "it is Corban") by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me, if we have read the Talmudic tracts Nedarim and Nazir, where the discourse is of vows and oaths; and the phrase which is before us speaks a vow or a form of swearing.

1. Vows were distinguished into two ranks, vows of consecration, and vows of obligation, or of prohibition. A vow of consecration was when any thing was devoted to holy uses, namely, to the use of the altar or the Temple: as when a man, by a vow, would dedicate this or that for sacrifice, or to buy wood, salt, wine, &c. for the altar: or for the reparation of the Temple, &c. A vow of obligation or prohibition was, when a man bound himself by a vow from this or that thing, which was lawful in itself; as, that he would not eat, that he would not put on, that he would not do this or that, &c.

2. This went for a noted axiom among them, All epithets of vows are as the vows themselves. They added certain short forms, by which they signified a vow, and which carried with it the force of a vow, as if the thing were spoken out in a larger periphrasis: as for example, "If one should say to his neighbour, Konem, Konah, Kones, behold, these are epithets of a thing devoted unto sacred uses."

The word Konem, Rambam thus explains; Let it be upon me as a thing devoted. So also R. Nissim, Konem, Koneh, are words of devoting.

We produced before, at chapter 5:33, some forms of oaths, which were only Assertive: these under our hands are Votive also. In the place from Beracoth just now alleged, one saith, Let the wine be 'Konem,' which I shall taste, for wine is hard to the bowels: that is, Let the wine which I taste be as devoted wine: as though he had said, I vow that I will not taste wine. "To which others answered, Is not old wine good for the bowels? Then he held his peace."

III. But above all such like forms of vowing, the word Corban, was plainest of all; which openly speaks a thing devoted and dedicated to sacred use. And the reader of those tracts which we have mentioned shall observe these forms frequently to occur. Let it be 'Corban,' whereby I am profitable to thee; and, Let it be 'Konem,' whereby I am profitable to thee. Which words sound the very same thing, unless I am very much mistaken, with the words before us, "Let it be Corban, or a gift, by which whatsoever thou mayest be profited by me."

Which words that they may be more clearly understood, and that the plain and full sense of the place may be discovered, let these things be considered:

First, That the word a gift is rather to be rendered, Let it be a gift, than It is a gift. For Konem and Corban, as we have noted, signified not 'It is' as something devoted, but 'Let it be' as something devoted. and He, of whom we had mention before...meant not, The wine which I shall taste is as something devoted, but Let whatsoever wine I shall taste be as something devoted: that is, To me let all wine be devoted, and not to be tasted.

Secondly, This form of speech A gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me, does neither argue, that he who thus spake devoted his goods to sacred uses, nor obliged him (according to the doctrine of the scribes) to devote them; but only restrained him by an obligation from that thing, for the denying of which he used such a form; that is, from helping him by his goods, to whom he thus spake. He might help others with his wealth, but him he might not.

Thirdly, The words are brought in as though they were pronounced with indignation; as if, when the needy father required food from his son, he should answer in anger and with contempt, Let it be as a thing devoted, whatsoever of mine may profit thee. But now, things that were devoted were not to be laid out upon common uses.

Fourthly, Christ not only cites the law, 'Honour thy father and mother,' but adds this also, He that curseth father or mother. But now there was no cursing here at all; if the son spoke truly and modestly, and as the thing was, namely, that all his estate was devoted before.

Fifthly, Therefore, although these words should have been spoken by the son irreverently, wrathfully, and inhumanly, towards his father, yet such was the folly, together with the impiety, of the traditional doctrine in this case, which pronounced the son so obliged by these his words, that it was lawful by no means to succour his needy father. He was not at all bound by these words to dedicate his estate to sacred uses; but not to help his father he was inviolably bound. O excellent doctrine and charity!

Sixthly, The words of the verse, therefore, may thus be rendered, without any addition put between, which many interpreters do: Whosoever shall say to his father or mother, Let it be a [devoted] gift, in whatsoever thou mayest be helped by me: then let him not honour his father and mother at all.

11. Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

[Defileth the man.] Or, maketh him common;...because they esteemed defiled men for common and vulgar men: on the contrary, a religious man among them is a singular man...

20. These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

[With unwashen hands.] He saith not with unclean hands, but unwashen; because, as we said before, they were bound to wash, although they were not conscious that their hands were unclean. In Mark it is with common or defiled hands, Mark 7:2; which seem to be called by the Talmudists impure hands, merely because not washed. Judge from that which is said in the tract Challah: "A cake is owing out of that dough which they knead with the juice of fruits: and it is eaten with unclean hands."

22. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

[A woman of Canaan.] In Mark it is, A Greek woman, a Syrophoenician by nation, chapter 7:26.

I. Of Canaan. It is worthy observing, that the Holy Bible, reckoning up the seven nations, which were to be destroyed by the Israelites, names the Perizzites, who were not at all recited among the sons of Canaan, Genesis 10; and the Canaanites as a particular nation, when all the seven, indeed, were Canaanites. See Deuteronomy 7:1, Joshua 9:1, 11:3, Judges 3:5, &c.

The reason of the latter (with which our business is) is to be fetched thence, that Canaan himself inhabited a peculiar part of that (northern) country, with his first-born sons, Sidon and Heth: and thence the name of Canaanites was put upon that particular progeny, distinguished from all his other sons; and that country was peculiarly called by the name of 'Canaan,' distinctly from all the rest of the land of Canaan. Hence Jabin, the king of Hazor, is called the 'king of Canaan,' Judges 4:2, and the kings of Tyre and Sidon, if I mistake not, are called 'the kings of the Hittites,' 1 Kings 10:29.

II. A Greek woman, a Syrophoenician Although Judea, and almost the whole world, had now a long while stooped under the yoke of the Romans, yet the memory of the Syro-Grecian kingdom, and the name of the nation, was not yet vanished. And that is worthy to be noted, In the captivity, they compute the years only from the kingdom of the Greeks. They said before, "That the Romans, for a hundred and fourscore years, ruled over the Jews before the destruction of the Temple"; and yet they do not compute the times to that destruction by the years of the Romans, but by the years of the Greeks. Let the Jews themselves well consider this, and the Christians with them, who reckon the Roman for the fourth monarchy in Daniel.

Therefore that woman that is here spoken of (to reduce all into a short conclusion) was a Syro-Grecian by nation, a Phoenician in respect of her habitation, and from thence called a woman of Canaan.

26. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it to dogs.

[To the dogs.] By this title the Jews, out of spite and contempt, disgraced the Gentiles, whose first care it was to hate, to mock, and to curse, all beside themselves. The nations of the world [that is, the heathen] are likened to dogs. From the common speech of the nation, rather than from his own sense, our Saviour uses this expression, to whom 'the Gentiles' were not so hateful, and whose custom was to speak with the vulgar.

This ignominious name, like a stone cast at the heathen, at length fell upon their own heads; and that by the hand and justice of God directing it: for although they out of pride and contempt fixed that disgraceful name upon the Gentiles, according to their very just desert, the Holy Spirit recoiled it upon themselves. See Psalm 59:6; Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15, &c.

36. And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.

[He gave thanks and brake.] See here the tract Beracoth, where it is discoursed of the manner of giving thanks when many ate together: Three who eat together ought to give thanks together: that is, one gave thanks for the rest (as the Gloss writes) "in the plural number, saying, Let us give thanks." So when there were ten, or a hundred, or a thousand or more, one gave thanks for all, and they answered after him Amen, or some words which he had recited.