Formations 03.15.2020: God’s Law vs. God’s Love

Matthew 15:1-20

Many memories of my life as a church member—at various churches over the years—are beautiful, positive, and sustaining. But some are difficult, burdensome, and troubling.

When I was a child, our church held deacon elections under a new provision that allowed women to be considered. My mother was one of the candidates, which brought her some grief. A few of the men questioned my father’s authority over our household, tossing Bible verses about women’s silence at him. One of them said my mother must be a lesbian since she wanted to be a deacon. One said he loved her but couldn’t vote for her because women shouldn’t be deacons. Only later in my life did I learn about the backlash that she endured. Hurt but undaunted, she eventually became a fine deacon and served for many years in that role.

When I was a teenager, our church hosted a youth trip. A concerned parent asked for the exclusion of my gay friend because he feared the close contact with his son. I will never forget the look on my friend’s face as he stormed out of a meeting with the pastor in which he was told he could not attend the trip. He never came back to church.

When I was an adult, our church endured a split when a small group began having private meetings. They touted the King James Version as the only true word of God, claimed decision rights because their relatives were buried in the church cemetery, and petitioned for the resignation of all three of our ministers because they disagreed with their ministry approaches. Our ministers suffered greatly during this time, their livelihoods threatened and their families devastated.

Jesus has words for those who uphold what they believe is God’s law to the detriment of real human beings with feelings and needs. To the Pharisees and scribes in today’s text who accuse Jesus and his disciples of not following proper religious rules, he says, “for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God” (v. 6). He even gives them an example, saying that while God has told them to honor their parents, they skew God’s law about tithing in ways that leave their parents in need—all the while claiming superiority in their religious obedience (vv. 4-5). Basically, they’re being “hypocrites” (v. 7)!

I realize that some situations are tender. I know that some churches aren’t sure how to approach particular issues and are doing the best they can. I understand that change takes time. Whenever a group of people come together, the potential for disagreement exists. And it must be noted that each of the above situations also involved kind, gracious, gentle, Jesus-loving people who worked hard to keep God’s love at the forefront. They did their best to love God and love others through these struggles.

Even in confusing, tender, and uncertain situations, followers of Christ are called—first and foremost—to love. A popular question in the 1990s (based on Charles Sheldon’s novel In His Steps, first published in 1886) was “What would Jesus do?” Abbreviated as WWJD, it was printed on t-shirts and bracelets and proudly worn. In the 2010s, someone proposed a solid answer: “He would love first.” While this answer runs the risk of becoming another overused and underappreciated acronym (HWLF), I think it communicates great truth.

When we in the church are unsure how to proceed in a situation, let’s remember what Jesus did every single time: he loved first.


• Have you ever endured a time of significant strife as a church member? What happened? Who was involved? How did this situation get resolved (if it did)? What were the repercussions?

• When have you seen what is perceived as God’s law win out over God’s love in the church? Why did this happen? Do you think God was pleased? Why or why not?

• Why do you think church people sometimes have difficulty showing the love of Jesus?

• Does loving Jesus and loving others mean compromising God’s standards? Why or why not?

• When what we believe is God’s truth contradicts with showing love, could we admit that maybe it’s not God’s truth but our truth? That maybe it’s not the word of God but our traditions? How can we tell the difference? Why should we want to?

Reference Shelf

Matthew 15:1 begins with what appears to be an official delegation of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem coming to investigate what Jesus is doing. Yet the bone is picked with Jesus’ disciples who eat with unwashed, and so ritually unclean, hands. They are said to violate the tradition of the elders. Strictly speaking, the washing of hands was only required before the breaking of bread. The practice involved washing with a handful of water. The issue however actually has to do with Jesus, who is seen as responsible for the behavior of his followers. It was Pharisaic practice to wash diligently before eating. In order to understand the Pharisees, one must recognize that they attempted to apply the Levitical laws for the cleanness of priests to everyone (see Exod 30:19; 40:13).

Jesus’ return salvo will accuse the Pharisees not merely of violating the traditions of the elders, but of violating the word of God. Verse 3 amounts to a pointed rebuke. “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your traditions?” In the Matthean account, Jesus turns immediately to an illustration from the Pentateuch. The issue involves the matter of korban or dedicating of gifts to God, which prevents them from being used for other purposes. The First Evangelist leaves out the term korban found in his Markan account. What is important here is that Jesus is affirming the essence of a divine commandment (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9) at the expense of legislation that vitiated something at the heart of the Law—honoring father and mother. In this case it appears Jesus is attacking the misuse of the practice of making something korban or dedicated to someone.

Jesus reminds his listeners that they are to honor both father and mother, which may be especially significant since some early Jewish teachers said the father was to be honored more than the mother (see m. Ker. 6:9). J. D. M. Derrett has shown that the term “honor” was often taken in early Judaism to mean provide financial support for (Prov 28:24). Notice that Jesus also asserts the negative form of the commandment to honor, saying the one who does the opposite of honoring by speaking evil of one’s parents should be executed (v. 4). Verses 5-6 indicate that the Pharisaic practice was to actually prohibit a person from reconsidering their pledge and so refusing to help their parents in extremis. Jesus calls this a clear violation of God’s word. It is truly hard to imagine a more strongly worded way of enforcing the obligations of children to their parents, especially of dependent parents.

At vv. 7-8, Jesus responds with a further stinging rebuke, quoting a prophecy from Isaiah 29:13. Here we have again the familiar Matthean critical term, “hypocrite,” applied to the Pharisees and scribes he addresses. The contrast in the quote highlights those who give lip service to God but whose hearts are far removed from him. Their worship is in vain, for their teachings are but the rules or commandments of human beings. Doubtless Jesus focuses on the latter part of the quotation. The point of the quote seems to be as follows: the Pharisees, in their concern for external observances, had substituted these practices for heart religion, which amounted to substituting the traditions of human beings for God’s word.

The danger was that mere human traditions or interpretations of God’s word would be taken as the word itself, and one would be categorized as a bad Jew if one did not follow this halakah. Thus Jesus accuses them of neglecting the actual commandments of God to keep their own commandments. This amounted to more than mere neglect. It amounted to annulling or canceling out the commandment of God. What happens in such cases, according to G. Bornkamm, is that the Law has been separated from God himself and has become the real authority. Thus ironically the Law becomes an obstacle to real encounter with God because the means has been mistaken for the end. Sometimes humans of various religious traditions, including the followers of Jesus, have been able to hide behind legal observance and assume that this establishes their righteousness and God’s indebtedness to them.

At vv. 10-11 Jesus takes his case to the crowd, calling them to him and making clear that what his disciples did was no accident nor was it a result of laxness. Rather it was grounded in principle. Verse 11 states unequivocally that what enters a person’s mouth does not defile them, rather it is the unclean things that come out of a person’s mouth that defiles them. If indeed one takes this statement in a straightforward manner, it means Jesus saw a significant portion of the Levitical law code as no longer applicable now that God’s divine saving activity, his eschatological Dominion, was breaking into human history. Jesus’ approach to holiness was not going to focus on the ritual part of the holiness code.

One might say the Jesus movement and the Pharisaic movement were both holiness movements, but they disagreed on the proper approach to creating a holy people of God. Even the Matthean Jesus then is not merely declaring Pharisaic halakah defunct or invalid. He is declaring at least some portions of Leviticus obsolete as well. When all is said and done, Jesus believes not food but moral attitudes and “unclean” speech defile a person.

At v. 12 the disciples come to Jesus and state the obvious—“Do you realize that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” This suggests they cared about the opinions of the Pharisees, who were widely revered by ordinary Jewish people. Here our Evangelist inserts three verses (vv. 12-14) from some non-Markan source, and the gist of the matter is a strong rejection of the Pharisaic approach. In the first sapiential saying, Jesus says every plant not planted by “my heavenly Father” [“My Father”] will eventually be pulled up by the roots, a not so veiled reference to eschatological judgment. That Jesus uses the phrase “my Father” indicates not only his special relationship with God, but his source of authority for critiquing the Pharisees so boldly. Here in v. 14 we have for the first time the reference to the Pharisees being blind guides, a theme that will be amplified in Matthew 23:16-24. The aphorism in v. 14b about the blind man leading the blind is an image of lostness and futility, but more to the point the fact that they fall into a pit is a vivid image of leading someone straight to death, to the cemetery, to the grave, to the land of the dead, to Sheol.

It is Peter, in v. 15, who steps forward and asks for an explanation of this little metaphorical saying, but in fact the answer is given about the earlier aphorism concerning clean and unclean. There follows a mild rebuke of not only Peter, who speaks as the disciples’ representative, but of all of them—“Are you [plural] still without understanding?” Jesus explains that food only goes into the stomach and then passes out of the body. Jesus’ point is that food, which enters a person, is not “dirty” (i.e., people do not eat physically dirty things). Instead, it is one’s excretion that is considered “dirty”; what comes out of a person is what is unclean. The simple point of the comparison is the contrast between the “cleanness” of food versus the “filthiness” of excretion. The actual interpretation of the comparison will be given in the following verses.

The sorts of things that do defile a person are listed at vv. 19-20. Here, as v. 18 suggests, the heart is seen as the source and center of human action, determining its character. This catalog of vices is thoroughly Jewish and traditional. Here we have seven items listed, and the similar list in 1QS 4.9-11 should be compared. The First Evangelist has only one item not listed in the Mark 7 parallel, “lies,” thus making this list include four items from the second table of the Ten Commandments—evil thoughts, all sorts of sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adulteries (these words are in the plural), bearing false witness/lies, and slanders/blasphemies. J. Neyrey suggests that the list of vices here is based roughly on the Ten Commandments, and this is basically so.

Notice that in the Matthean form of the list, unlike in Mark, we are focusing entirely on deeds rather than attitudes and deeds. Jesus in his own way heightens the demand for purity beyond what the Pharisees expected, but his approach involves strict moral purity. Personal sin, not food or eating with unwashed hands, is what now defiles, rendering them unfit for fellowship with God or other humans. In Matthew the story concludes with a sort of inclusion in v. 20, referring back to the initial question of the Pharisees. It is these sorts of activities, not eating with unwashed hands, that makes a person unclean.

Jesus’ radical teaching here, even in its ameliorated form compared to Mark, can be seen as performative in nature, which is to say that “Jesus in our passage is not just holding a mirror up to nature, depicting what has always been the case, but actually changing things by his apocalyptic pronouncement that all foods are (now) clean” (J. Neyrey, “The Idea of Purity in Mark’s Gospel,” Semeia 35 [1986]: 121). Such a pronouncement is not unlike what we find in Genesis 9:3, where before the Mosaic Law but after the flood all animals could be eaten.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2006),294–300.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.


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