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Matthew 15:1-28 – Polar Opposites: Pharisee & Phoeniecian

Matthew 15 begins with an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus then took His disciples into Phoenicia where a woman from there, learning He was in the neighborhood, came to Him with a request. These two encounters are polar opposites in virtually every way. Each of them provided a “learning experience” for Jesus’ disciples, but in dramatically different ways.

The Pharisees came with an accusation, specifically against Jesus’ disciples but implicitly against Jesus as their Rabbi. The Phoenician woman came asking for help for her daughter whom a demon “possessed.” The Pharisees came seeking to uphold the traditions of “the elders.” The woman came seeking grace from God.

The Pharisees

Jesus had previous confrontations with these spawn of Satan. See here for discussion of some of these. As time went on, they became more and more aggressive in their approaches to Jesus. In chapter 12, the confrontations were either in the Synagogue or when they observed Jesus or His disciples doing something of which they disapproved. Have you ever noticed how some people are always looking for something to which they can register objections? Have you also noticed that such people never seem to get much of anything done – except register objections? To our sorrow, we still have folks like that in churches across the land today.

On this occasion, they demanded to know, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

How do you respond when someone aggressively questions you this way? I’m not sure that I always respond calmly and quietly. Here even Jesus seems to be somewhat aggressive in His response: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Then He gave a specific example, documented by Edershem from the Rabbinic writings, of how the rabbis discussed whether or not a previous vow of support to the Temple would override a man’s obligation to help his parents in their need. This was in spite of other statements in the written traditions of the Jewish elders that no tradition should “trump” a commandment of God.

Jesus continued by calling them hypocrites and said that what Isaiah said about the people of his day was also fulfilled in them – as it continues to be fulfilled in people today who respond to the Word of God as these pretenders to righteousness did:

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. – Matthew 15:8-9; see also Isaiah 29:13.

Note that the particular teaching Jesus referred to here had nothing to do with the ritual of worship directly. It had to do with their respect for the Word of God. This is not a passage that is intended to ban innovations in worship, though it might well do that. The intent of what Jesus said was that you cannot worship me as God while you continue to prefer your own regulations for life above what I have commanded you. I have written more extensively about this here.

All of this had to be explained further to the crowd. Even the disciples asked for more explanation. After all, the Pharisees were supposed by others to be the finest examples of those who were obedient to God and who kept the Law most perfectly.

Jesus explained that “uncleanness” comes from the heart, not from eating with unwashed hands. When the disciples asked for further explanation, He replied:

Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man “unclean.” For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man “unclean”; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him “unclean.” – Matthew 15:16-20

It was always so. When people approached God with impure hearts, God despised their worship; He would not accept it (cf. Micah 6:6-8 & many more from the prophets). Jesus equated binding the traditions of men as of equal (or greater) importance than the commands of God with impure hearts. From such hearts, all manner of evil may come.

The Woman of Phoenicia

In stark contrast to this, the woman of Phoenicia who came beseeching Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter came with humility and deep faith.

In some ways, this is one of the most difficult passages to understand in the gospels. This is because the actions of Jesus seem to be out of character for Him.

First, He ignored her – as if He wished she would just give up and go away. The disciples even begged Him to send her away, she was so persistent in her asking and “crying out after” them.

Second, Jesus said He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, though this may be addressed to the disciples, not to the woman.

Next, the woman knelt before Him (the posture of worship) as she said again, “Lord, help me!” Jesus’ reply really appears to be insensitive (which is out of character for Him): “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

Why would He say that to her?

To understand this, we must remember that Jesus was always a teacher. His disciples were also a part of this scene. They had already begged him to send her away. She was an annoyance, an embarrassment,  or a distraction to them – or perhaps all three. They shared the common Jewish attitude toward Gentiles, that they were no better than dogs. Is it possible that Jesus was putting into words what the disciples were thinking?

Yet, the woman came back with a wonderful response: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. – Matthew 15:28

When thinking of this incident, remember that in the end Jesus granted her request. He taught that we ought to be persistent in our prayers. Here is an example of this in action. In this, he taught that people should be judged by their faith, not by their nationality.

When you contrast this with the previous encounter with the Pharisees, you see a vast difference. The respected Pharisees were hypocrites. The despised woman was a person of faith. It was the woman with faith who was accepted by Jesus. The hypocrites were merely “blind leaders of the blind” whose worship was in vain.


  1. What lessons do you see for us in the contrast between the hypocritical Pharisees and the Phoenician woman of faith?
  2. What made the Pharisees’ worship vain?
  3. Why were the disciples concerned that the Pharisees were offended (v. 12)? Why didn’t they show this same concern for the woman of Phoenicia? What lesson does this have for us?
  4. To which do we pay more attention? Correctness of ritual or matters of the heart? Why?
  5. Why do you think Jesus acted as He did toward the Canaanite woman? How would you have felt about it if you had been there seeing what was happening?

NEXT: Yeast of the Pharisees

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  1. […] PREVIOUS: Matthew 15:1-28 – Polar Opposites: Pharisee & Phoeniecian […]

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