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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Matthew 15

Verse 1

Matthew 15:1.Then scribes and Pharisees. As the fault that is here corrected is not only common but highly dangerous, the passage is particularly worthy of our attention. We see the extraordinary insolence that is displayed by men as to the form and manner of worshipping God; for they are perpetually contriving new modes of worship, and when any one wishes to be thought wiser than others, he displays his ingenuity on this subject. I speak not of foreigners, but of the very domestics of the Church, on whom God has conferred the peculiar honor of declaring with their lips the rule of godliness. God has laid down the manner in which he wishes that we should worship him, and has included in his law the perfection of holiness. Yet a vast number of men, as if it were a light and trivial matter to obey God and to keep what he enjoins, collect for themselves, on every hand, many additions. Those who occupy places of authority bring forward their inventions for this purpose, as if they were in possession of something more perfect than the word of the Lord. This is followed by the slow growth of tyranny; for, when men have once assumed to themselves the right to issue commands, they demand a rigid adherence to their laws, and do not allow the smallest iota to be left out, either through contempt or through forgetfulness. The world cannot endure lawful authority, and most violently rebels against enduring the Lord’s yoke, and yet easily and willingly becomes entangled in the snares of vain traditions; nay, such bondage appears to be, in the case of many, an object of desire. Meanwhile, the worship of God is corrupted, of which the first and leading principle is obedience. The authority of men is preferred to the command of God. Sternly, and therefore tyrannically, are the common people compelled to give their whole attention to trifles. This passage teaches us, first, that all modes of worship invented by men are displeasing to God, because he chooses that he alone shall be heard, in order to train and instruct us in true godliness according to his own pleasure; secondly, that those who are not satisfied with the only law of God, and weary themselves by attending to the traditions of men, are uselessly employed; thirdly, that an outrage is committed against God, when the inventions of men are so highly extolled, that the majesty of his law is almost lowered, or at least the reverence for it is abated.

Scribes who had come from Jerusalem. With what design those scribes came to Jesus is not stated; but I think it probable that their attention was excited by his fame, and that they came with the desire of receiving instruction, provided that they should approve of him as a competent teacher; (391) though it is possible that they were sent to spy. However that may be, as they had brought their haughty disdain along with them, they are easily provoked by the slightest offense to bite or snarl at Christ. Hence we see with what difficulty those who are influenced by ambition and the lust of power are brought to submit to sound doctrine. Those especially whose attachment to ceremonies has been strengthened by long practice cannot endure any novelty, but loudly condemn every thing to which they have not been accustomed. In short, any thing more haughty or more disdainful than this class of men cannot be imagined.

Both Evangelists mention that they were scribes and Pharisees; but Matthew puts the scribes first, and Mark puts them second. They convey the same meaning, that the scribes belonged to various sects, but that the Pharisees were the leaders, because they occupied an honorable station, and at that time held the government. That the Pharisees should be the first to take offense at disregard of the laws of which they were authors ought not to excite surprise; for, as we have said, though they boasted that they were expounders of the law, and though their name was derived from that circumstance, (392) they had corrupted by their inventions the purity of the word of God. All the traditions that then existed among the Jews had come out of their workshop; (393) and this was the reason why they displayed more than ordinary zeal and bitterness in defending them.

(391)En cas qu’ils l’eussent trouve bon maistre a leur gre;” — “provided that they should find him to be a good master to their liking.”

(392) See Harmony, vol. 1, p. 281.

(393)Elles avoyent este forgees en leur boutique;” — “they had been manufactured in their workshop.”

Verse 2

2.Why do thy disciples transgress? When we speak of human traditions, this question has no reference to political laws, the use and object of which are widely different from enjoining the manner in which we ought to worship God. But as there are various kinds of human traditions, we must make some distinction among them. Some are manifestly wicked, for they inculcate acts of worship which are wicked and diametrically opposed to the word of God. Others of them mingle profane trifles with the worship of God, and corrupt its purity. Others, which are more plausible, and are not chargeable with any remarkable fault, are condemned on this ground., that they are imagined to be necessary to the worship of God; and thus there is a departure from sincere obedience to God alone, and a snare is laid for the conscience.

To this last description the present passage unquestionably relates; for the washing of hands, on which the Pharisees insisted, could not in itself be charged with wicked superstition; otherwise Christ would not have permitted the water-pots to be used at the marriage, (John 2:6,) if it had not been an allowable ceremony; but the fault lay in this, that they did not think that God could be properly worshipped in any other way. It was not without a specious pretext that the practice of washings was first introduced. We know how rigidly the Law of God demands outward cleanness; not that the Lord intended that this should occupy the whole attention of his servants, but that they might be more careful to guard against every spiritual defilement. But in washings the Law preserved some moderation. Next came teachers, who thought that they would not be reckoned sufficiently acute, if they did not make some appendage to the word of God; (394) and hence arose washings of which no mention was made in the Law. The legislators themselves did not give out that they delivered any thing new, (395) but only that they administered cautions, which would be of service to assist in keeping the Law of God. But this was immediately followed by great abuse, when ceremonies introduced by men began to be regarded as a part of divine worship; and again, when in matters that were free and voluntary uniformity was absolutely enjoined. For it was always the will of God, as we have already said, that he should be worshipped according to the rule laid down in his word, and therefore no addition to his Law can be endured. Now as he permits believers to have outward ceremonies, by means of which they may perform the exercises of godliness, so he does not suffer them to mix up those ceremonies with his own word, as if religion consisted in them. (396)

For they wash not their hands. The ground of offense is explained more fully by Mark; but the substance of his explanation is, that many things were practiced by the scribes, which they had voluntarily undertaken to keep. They were secondary laws invented by the curiosity of men, as if the plain command of God were not enough. God commanded that those who had contracted any defilement should wash themselves, (Leviticus 11:25;) and this extended to cups, and pots, and raiment, and other articles of household furniture, (Leviticus 11:32,) that they might not touch any thing that was polluted or unclean. But to invent other ablutions was idle and useless. (397) They were not destitute of plausibility, as Paul tells us that the inventions of men have an appearance of wisdom, (Colossians 2:23;) but if they had rested in the Law of God alone, that modesty would have been more agreeable to Him than solicitude about small matters.

They were desirous to warn a person not to take food while he was unclean, through want of consideration; but the Lord reckoned it enough to wash away those defilements of which they were aware. Besides, no end or limit could be set to such cautions; for they could scarcely move a finger without contracting some new spot or stain. But a far worse abuse lay in this, that the consciences of men were tormented with scruples which led them to regard every person as chargeable with pollution, who did not on every occasion wash his body with water. In persons who belonged to a private rank they would perhaps have overlooked the neglect of this ceremony; but as they had expected from Christ and his disciples something uncommon and extraordinary, they reckoned it unbecoming that ceremonies, which were traditions of the elders, and the practice of which was held sacred by the scribes, should not be observed by the disciples of a master who undertook to reform the existing state of things.

It is a great mistake to compare the sprinkling of the water of purification, or, as the Papists call it, blessed water, with the Jewish washing; for, by repeating so frequently the one baptism, (398) Papists do all that is in their power to efface it. Besides, this absurd sprinkling is used for exorcising. (399) But if it were lawful in itself, and were not accompanied by so many abuses, still we must always condemn the urgency with which they demand it as if it were indispensable.

(394)Sinon qu’ils adioustassent a la parole de Dieu quelques repetasseries de leur invention;” — “if they did not add to the word of God some patches of their own invention.”

(395)Les premiers autheurs de ces loix ne disoyent pas qu’ils voulussent commander rien de nouveau;” — “the first authors of these laws did not say that they intended to issue any new command.”

(396)Qu’elles soyent meslees avec sa Parole, et mises en mesme rang, comme si quelque partie du service de Dieu gisoit en icelles;” — “that they should be mixed with his Word, and put in the same rank, as if any part of the worship of God lay in them.”

(397)C’a este un amusement de gens oisifs, et qui ne scavoyent que faire;” — “it was an amusement of persons that were idles and did not know what to do.”

(398)Le Baptesme, qui suffit une fois receu;” — “Baptism, which is enough when once received.”

(399)En apres, ceste badinerie d’eau beniste est appliquee a faire exorcismes et coniurations, et ils croyent fermement qu’elle a vertu d’effacer les pechez;” — “Besides, this foolery of blessed water is applied to exorcising and conjuring, and they firmly believe that it has power to blot out sins.”

Verse 3

3.Why do you also transgress? There are here two answers that are given by Christ, the former of which is addressed, as we say, to the person; while the latter decides as to the fact and the question in hand. Mark inverts that order; for he first represents Christ as speaking on the whole subject, and afterwards adds the reproof which is directed against hypocrites. We shall follow the narrative of Matthew. When the Lord, in his turn, puts the question to the scribes why they break the Law of God on account of their traditions, he does not as yet pronounce a direct acquittal of his disciples from the crime charged against them; but only points out how improper and unwarrantable is this readiness to take offense. They are displeased when the commandments of men are not observed with exactness; and how much more criminal is it to spend the whole time in observing them, to the disregard of the law of God? It is manifest, therefore, that their wrath is kindled rather by ambition than by a proper kind of zeal, when they thus prefer men to God.

When he says that they transgress the commandments of God, the meaning of the expression is easily learned from the context. They did not openly or professedly set aside the law of God, so as to look upon any thing as lawful which the law had forbidden; but there was an indirect transgression of it, for they permitted duties which God had enjoined to be neglected with impunity. A plain and familiar instance is adduced by Christ. The commandment of God is, that children shall honor their parents, (Exodus 20:12.) Now as the sacred offerings yielded emolument to the priests, the observance of them was so rigidly enforced, that men were taught to regard it as a more heinous sin not to make a free-will offering than to defraud a parent of what was justly due to him. In short, what the Law of God declared to be voluntary was, in the estimation of the scribes, of higher value than one of the most important of the commandments of God. Whenever we are so eager to keep the laws of men as to bestow less care and attention on keeping the law of God itself, we are held as transgressing it. Shortly afterwards he says, that they had annulled the commandment of God on account of the traditions of men; for the scribes led the people to entertain so strong an attachment to their own injunctions, that they did not allow them leisure to attend to the word of God. Again, as they reckoned those persons to have discharged their duty well who obeyed these injunctions to the letter, hence arose a liberty to commit sin; for whenever holiness is made to consist in any thing else than in observing the Law of God, men are led to believe that the law may be violated without danger.

Let any man now consider whether this wickedness does not at present abound more among the Papists than it formerly did among the Jews. It is not indeed denied by the Pope, or by the whole of his filthy clergy, that we ought to obey God; but when we come to the point, we find that they consider the act of eating a morsel of flesh as nothing less than a capital crime, while theft or fornication is regarded as a venial fault, and thus, on account of their traditions, they overturn the Law of God; for it is utterly insufferable that the enactments of men shall withdraw any part of that obedience which is due to God alone. Besides, the honor which God commands to be yielded to parents extends to all the duties of filial piety. (400) The latter clause which Christ adds, that he who curseth father or mother deserves to be put to death, is intended to inform us, that it is no light or unimportant precept to honor parents, since the violation of it is so severely punished. And this is no small aggravation of the guilt of the scribes, that so severe a threatening does not terrify them from granting an extension of liberty to those who despised their parents.

(400)Comprend tous devoirs d’obeissance, secours, et soulagement;” — “includes every duty of obedience, assistance, and relief.”

Verse 5

5.But you say, etc. The mode of expression is defective, and is more fully exhibited by Mark, who adds, you suffer them not to do anything more to their father or to their mother The meaning is, that the scribes were altogether wrong in acquitting those persons who fail to perform their duties to their parents, provided that this deficiency be supplied, on their part, by a voluntary sacrifice, which might have been omitted without offending God. For we must not understand Christ’s words to bear that the scribes had forbidden men to render all proper obedience; (401) but they were so eager to pursue their own gain, that children were allowed, in the meantime, to neglect their duties to their parents.

(401)De faire aucune assistance au pere et a la mere;” — “to grant any relief to their father or mother.”

Verse 7

7.Well hath Isaiah prophesied concerning you. Our Lord now proceeds farther; for he decides on the question in hand, which he divides into two clauses. The first is, that they relied on outward ceremonies alone, and set no value on true holiness, which consists in sincere uprightness of heart; and the second is, that they worshipped God in a wrong way, according to their own fancy. Now though his reproof of pretended and hypocritical holiness appears hitherto to be restricted to persons, yet it includes the substance of this doctrine, from which the full conclusion was, first, that the worship of God is spiritual, and does not consist in the sprinkling of water, or in any other ceremony; and, secondly, that there is no reasonable worship of God but what is directed by the rule of his word. Although Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13) did not prophesy for futurity alone, but had regard to the men of his own age, yet Christ says that this prediction relates to the Pharisees and scribes, because they resemble those ancient hypocrites with whom the prophet had to contend. Christ does not quote that passage exactly as it stands; but the prophet expressly mentions two offenses by which the Jews provoked against themselves the divine vengeance. With their lips only, and by an outward profession, they made a pretense of godliness; and, next, they turned aside to modes of worship invented by men. First, then, it is wicked hypocrisy, when the honor which men render to God is only in outward appearance; for to approach to God with the mouth, and to honor him with the lips, would not be in itself evil, provided that the heart went before. The substance of what our Lord states on this subject is, that, since the worship of God is spiritual, and as nothing pleases him that is not accompanied by the inward sincerity of the heart, they who make holiness to consist in outward display are hypocrites.

Verse 9

9.But in vain do they worship me The words of the prophet run literally thus: their fear toward me has been taught by the precept of men. But Christ has faithfully and accurately given the meaning, that in vain is God worshipped, when the will of men is substituted in the room of doctrine. By these words, all kinds of will-worship, ( ἐθελοθζησκεία,) as Paul calls it, ( Colossians 2:23,) are plainly condemned. For, as we have said, since God chooses to be worshipped in no other way than according to his own appointment, he cannot endure new modes of worship to be devised. As soon as men allow themselves to wander beyond the limits of the Word of God, the more labor and anxiety they display in worshipping him, the heavier is the condemnation which they draw down upon themselves; for by such inventions religion is dishonored.

Teaching doctrines, commandments of men In these words there is what is called apposition; (402) for Christ declares them to be mistaken who bring forward, in the room of doctrine, the commandments of men, or who seek to obtain from them the rule for worshipping God. Let it therefore be held as a settled principle, that, since obedience is more highly esteemed by God than sacrifices, (1 Samuel 15:22,) all kinds of worship invented by men are of no estimation in his sight; nay more, that, as the prophet declares, they are accursed and detestable.

(402) “ C’est une figure et facon de parler que les Latins nomment Apposition;” — “it is a figure and mode of speech which the Latins call Apposition.” — “The Latin Grammarians employ the word Appositio to denote a figure, by which two words, denoting the same thing, are put in the same case, such as, Urbs Roma, Fluvius Sequana In the same sense the Greek word ἐπεξήγησις was often used. — Ed.

Verse 10

Matthew 15:10.And having called the multitudes to him. Here Christ turns (404) to those who are ready to receive instruction, and explains more fully the truth at which he had formerly glanced, that the kingdom of God does not consist in meat and drink, as Paul also teaches us, (Romans 14:17;) for, since outward things are by nature pure, the use of them is free and pure, and uncleanness is not contracted from the good creatures of God. It is therefore a general statement, that pollution does not come from without into a man, but that the fountain is concealed within him. Now when he says that all the evil actions which any man performs come out of the mouth of man, he employs a synecdoche; (405) for he says so by way of allusion to the subject in hand, and conveys this instruction, that we do not draw uncleanness into our mouth along with meat and drink, but that every kind of defilement proceeds from ourselves.

Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended? As the scribes were presumptuous and rebellious, Christ did not take great pains to pacify them, but satisfied himself with repelling their hypocrisy and pride. The offense which they had formerly taken up was doubled, when they perceived that—not through oversight, but seemingly on purpose—Christ despised their washings as trifles. Now when Christ did not hesitate to inflame still more, by keen provocation, wicked and malicious persons, let us learn from his example, that we ought not to be exceedingly solicitous to please every one by what we say and do. His disciples, however—as is usually the case with ignorant and unlearned people—no sooner perceive the result to be unfavorable, than they conclude that Christ’s reply had been unseasonable and improper. (406) For the object of their advice was, to persuade Christ to soothe the rage of the Pharisees by softening the harsh expression which he had employed. (407)

It almost always happens with weak persons, that they form an unfavorable judgment about a doctrine, as soon as they find that it is regarded with doubt or meets with opposition. And certainly it were to be wished, that it should give no offense, but receive the calm approbation of all; but, as the minds of many are blinded, and even their hearts are kindled into rage, by Satan, and as many souls are held under the benumbing influence of brutal stupidity, it is impossible that all should relish the true doctrine of salvation. Above all, we ought not to be surprised to behold the rage of those who inwardly nourish the venom of malice and obstinacy. Yet we ought to take care that, so far as may be in our power, our manner of teaching shall give no offense; but it would be the height of madness to think of exercising greater moderation than we have been taught to do by our heavenly Master. We see how his discourse was made an occasion of offense by wicked and obstinate men; and we see at the same time, how that kind of offense which arose from malignity was treated by him with contempt.

(404)Christ laissant la ces orgueilleux, se retourne vers les dociles;” — “Christ, leaving there these proud men, turns towards the teachable.”

(405)Au reste, quand il dit que les maux qu’un chacun fait procedent de la bouche, c’est autant comme s’il disoit qu’ils procedent de la personne mesme; et c’est une figure et maniere de parler qu’on appelle Synecdoche, quand on prend une partie pour le tout;” — “besides, when he says that the evils which any man does proceed out of the mouth, it is as much as if he said that they proceed from the person himself; and it is a figure and way of speaking that is called Synecdoche, when a part is taken for the whole.”

(406)Voyans que le propos n’avoit pas este bien prins, il leur semble avis que Christ a respondu peu autrement qu’il ne faloit;” — “perceiving that the discourse was not well taken, they conclude that Christ had replied somewhat differently from what he ought to have done.”

(407)En redressant ce qu’il avoit dit un peu trop asprement, comme il leur sembloit;” — “by correcting what he had said a little too harshly, as they imagined.”

Verse 13

13.Every plant. As the indifferent success of the doctrine had wounded their weak minds, Christ intended to remedy this evil. Now the remedy which he proposes is, that good men ought not to be distressed, or entertain less reverence for the doctrine, though to many it be an occasion of death. It is a mistaken view of this passage which some have adopted, that all the inventions of men, and every thing that has not proceeded from the mouth of God, must be rooted up and perish; for it was rather to men that Christ referred, and the meaning is, that there is no reason to wonder if the doctrine of salvation shall prove deadly to the reprobate, because they are always carried headlong to the destruction to which they are doomed.

By the persons that have been planted by the hand of God we are to understand those who, by his free adoption, have been ingrafted into the tree of life, as Isaiah also, when speaking of the Church renewed by the grace of God, calls it a branch planted by the Lord, (Isaiah 60:21.) Now as salvation depends solely on the election of God, the reprobate must perish, in whatever way this may be effected; not that they are innocent, and free from all blame, when God destroys them, but because, by their own malice, they turn to their destruction all that is offered to them, however salutary it may be. To those who willingly perish the Gospel thus becomes, as Paul assures us, the savor of death unto death, (2 Corinthians 2:16;) for, though it is offered to all for salvation, it does not yield this fruit in any but the elect. It belongs to a faithful and honest teacher to regulate every thing which he brings forward by a regard to the advantage of all; but whenever the result is different, let us take comfort from Christ’s reply. It is beautifully expressed by the parable, that the cause of perdition does not lie in the doctrine, but that the reprobate who have no root in God, when the doctrine is presented to them, throw out their hidden venom, and thus accelerate that death to which they were already doomed.

Which my heavenly Father hath not planted. Hypocrites, who appear for a time to have been planted like good trees, are particularly described by Christ; for Epicureans, who are noted for open and shameful contempt of God, cannot properly be said to resemble trees, but the description must be intended to apply to those who have acquired celebrity by some vain appearance of godliness. Such were the scribes, who towered in the Church of God like the cedars in Lebanon, and whose revolt might on that account appear the more strange. Christ might have said that it is right that those should perish who disdainfully reject salvation; but he rises higher, and asserts that no man will remain steadfast, unless his salvation be secured by the election of God. By these words he expressly declares, that the first origin of our salvation flows from that grace by which God elected us to be his children before we were created.

Verse 14

14.Let them alone. He sets them aside as unworthy of notice, and concludes that the offense which they take ought not to give us much uneasiness. Hence has arisen the distinction, of which we hear so much, about avoiding offenses, that we ought to beware of offending the weak, but if any obstinate and malicious person take offense, we ought not to be uneasy; for, if we determined to satisfy all obstinate people, we must bury Christ, who is the stone of offense, (1 Peter 2:8.) Weak persons, who are offended through ignorance, and afterwards return to just views, must be distinguished from haughty and disdainful men who are themselves the authors of offenses. It is of importance to attend to this distinction, in order that no one who is weak may be distressed through our fault. But when wicked men dash themselves through their obstinacy, let us walk on unmoved in the midst of offenses; for he who spares not weak brethren tramples, as it were, under foot those to whom we are commanded to stretch out the hand. It would be idle to attend to others, whom we cannot avoid offending, if we wish to keep the right path; and when, under the pretext of taking offense, they happen to fall off and revolt from Christ, we must let them alone, that they may not drag us along with them. (408)

They are blind leaders of the blind. Christ means that all who allow themselves to be driven hither and thither at the disposal of those men will miserably perish; for when they stumble on a plain road, it is evident that they are willfully blind. Why then should any one allow himself to be directed by them, except that he might fall into the same ditch? Now Christ, who has risen upon us as the Sun of righteousness, (Malachi 4:2,) and not only points out the road to us by the torch of his Gospel, but desires that we should keep it before us, justly calls on his disciples to shake off that slothfulness, and not to wander, as it were, in the dark, for the sake of gratifying the blind. (409) Hence also we infer that all who, under the pretense of simplicity or modesty, give themselves up to be deceived or ensnared by errors, are without excuse.

(408)De peur qu’ils nous tirent en perdition avec eux;” — “lest they draw us to perdition along with them.”

(409)A bon droict retire ses disciples de ceste nonchalance et stupidite de suyvre les aveugles, et pour leur faire plaisir d’aller tastonnant en tenebres comme eux;” — “properly withdraws his disciples from that indifference and stupidity in following the blind, and—for the sake of gratifying them—in groping in the dark like them.”

Verse 15

Matthew 15:15.And Peter answering said. As the disciples betray excessive ignorance, Christ justly reproves and upbraids them for being still void of understanding, and yet does not fail to act as their teacher. What Matthew ascribes in a peculiar manner to Peter is related by Mark, in the same sense, as a question put by them all; and this is evident from Christ’s reply, in which he reproves the ignorance, not of Peter only, but of all of them alike. The general meaning is, that men are not polluted by food, but that they have within themselves the pollution of sins, which afterwards shows itself in the outward actions. Is it objected that intemperance in eating is defilement? The solution is easy. Christ speaks only of the proper and lawful use of those things which God has put in our power. To eat and drink are things in their own nature free and indifferent: if any corruption be added, it proceeds from the man himself, and therefore must be regarded not as external, but internal. (410)

(410)Et pourtant le vice est tousiours interieur, et ne vient point d’ailleurs;” — “and therefore sin is always internal, and does not come from without.”

Verse 19

19.For out of the heart proceed wicked thoughts Hence we infer that the word mouth, as I have mentioned, was used by Christ in a former verse by way of allusion to the context; for now he makes no mention of the mouth, but merely says that out of the heart of man proceeds all that is sinful and that corrupts by its pollution. Mark differs from Matthew in this respect, that he gives a larger catalogue of sins, such as lusts, or irregular desires. The Greek word ( πλεονεξίαι) is by some rendered covetousness; but I have preferred to take it in a general acceptation. Next come fraud and intemperance, and those which immediately follow. Though the mode of expression be figurative, it is enough to understand Christ’s meaning to be, that all sins proceed from the wicked and corrupt affections of the heart. To say that an evil eye proceeds from the heart is not strictly accurate, but it involves nothing that is absurd or ambiguous; for it means, that an unholy heart pollutes the eyes by making them the ministers, or organs, of wicked desires. And yet Christ does not speak as if every thing that is evil in man were confined to open sins; but, in order to show more clearly that the heart of man is the abode of all evils, (411) he says that the proofs and results appear in the sins themselves.

(411)Que le coeur de l’homme est le siege et la source de tous maux;” — “that the heart of man is the seat and the source of all evils.”

Verse 20

And pollute the man. Instead of the verb pollute, the Greek term is κοινοῖ, make common; as Mark, a little before, ( Mark 7:2,) used the phrase, κοιναῖς χερσὶ, with common hands, for with unclean hands. (412) It is a Hebrew phrase; (413) for, since God had set apart the Jews on the condition that they should separate themselves from all the pollutions of the Gentiles, everything that was inconsistent with this holiness was called common, that is, profane.

(412)Les mains communes pour souillees et non lavees ; ” — “common hands for polluted and not washed.”

(413)C’est une facon de parler propre aux Hebrieux;” — “it is a mode of speaking peculiar to the Hebrews.”

Verse 21

In this miracle we are informed in what manner the grace of Christ began to flow to the Gentiles; for, though the full time was not yet come when Christ would make himself known to the whole world, yet he intended to give some early manifestations of the common mercy which was at length offered indiscriminately to Jews and Gentiles after his resurrection. A remarkable picture of faith is presented to us in the woman of Canaan, for the purpose of instructing us by means of comparison, that the Jews were justly deprived of the promised redemption, since their impiety was so shameful.

The woman, whom Matthew describes as of Canaan, is said by Mark to have been a Greek, and a Syrophenician by birth But there is no contradiction here; for we know that it was the prevailing custom among the Jews to call all foreign nations Greeks, and hence that contrast between Greeks andJews, which occurs so frequently in the writings of Paul. As she was a native of the territories of Tyre and Sidon, we need not wonder that she is called a Syrophenician; for that country was called Syria, and formed part of Phenicia. The Jews disdainfully gave the name of Canaanites to all the inhabitants of that district; and it is probable that the majority of them were descended from the tribes of Canaan, who when banished from their native country, fled to a sort of retreat in the neighborhood. Both agree in this point, that the woman was a native of a heathen nation, that she had not been instructed in the doctrine of the law, and that she came of her own accord to Christ, humbly to entreat his aid.

Verse 22

Matthew 15:22.Have compassion on me, O Lord. Though this woman was an alien, and did not belong to the Lord’s flock, yet she had acquired some taste of piety; (416) for, without some knowledge of the promises, she would not have called Christ the Son of David. The Jews indeed had almost entirely departed, or at least had greatly turned aside, from the pure and sound doctrine of the Gospel; but a report of the promised redemption was extensively prevalent. As the restoration of the Church depended on the reign of David, whenever they spoke of the Messiah, it was customary for them to employ the name, Son of David; and indeed this confession was heard from the lips of all. But when the true faith had died out amongst them, it was an amazing and incredible display of the goodness of God that the sweet savor of the promises reached the neighboring nations. Though this woman had not been regularly educated by any teacher, yet her faith in Christ was not a notion adopted by her at random, but was formed out of the law and the prophets. It was therefore not less absurd than wicked in that dog, Servetus, to abuse this example for the purpose of proving that faith may exist without promises. I do not deny that, in this sense, there may sometimes be a sort of implicit faith, that is, a faith which is not accompanied by a full and distinct knowledge of sound doctrine; provided we also hold that faith always springs from the word of God, and takes its origin from true principles, and therefore is always found in connection with some light of knowledge.

(416)Quelque goust de piete et vraye religion;” — “some taste of piety and true religion.”

Verse 23

23.But he made no reply to her. In various ways the Evangelists bestow commendation on the faith of this woman. Here they bring before us her unshaken constancy; for the silence of Christ was a sort of refusal, and there is reason to wonder that she was not cast down by this trial, but her continuance in prayer was a proof of her perseverance. This appears, however, to be inconsistent with the nature of faith and of calling upon God, as it is described by Paul, who assures us that no man can pray aright till he has heard the word of God.

How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?
and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?
(Romans 10:14.)

Who then will say that this woman had faith, who takes courage from her own feelings, though Christ is silent? But as Christ has two ways of speaking and of being silent, it must be observed, that though he withheld at that time the words of his mouth, yet he spoke within to the mind of the woman, and so this secret inspiration was a substitute for the outward preaching. Besides, her prayer arose out of the hearing of faith, (Romans 10:17;) and, therefore, though Christ does not immediately reply, she continually hears the sound of that doctrine (417) which she had already learned, that Christ came as a Redeemer. In this way the Lord often acts towards those who believe in him; he speaks to them, and yet is silent. Relying on the testimonies of Scripture, where they hear him speaking, they firmly believe that he will be gracious to them; and yet he does not immediately reply to their wishes and prayers, but, on the contrary, seems as if he did not hear. We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor. But if a small seed of doctrine in a woman of Canaan yielded such abundant fruit, it ill becomes us to be dejected, if at any time he delays and does not immediately grant a favorable answer.

Send her away. The disciples present no request in favor of the woman, but as they are annoyed by her importunity, they desire that, in some way or other, she may be dismissed. It is a childish contrivance, which the Papists have endeavored to support by means of this passage, that departed saints are allowed to plead for us; for, granting that this woman solicited the disciples to give her some favor or assistance — which, however, cannot be proved from the passage — still there is a wide difference between the dead and living. It must be also observed, that, if they really intended to aid her by their advocacy, they obtain nothing.

(417)Toutesfois ceste doctrine ne laisse pas tousiours de retentir en son coeur;” — “yet that doctrine does not fail to resound continually in her heart.”

Verse 24

24.I am not sent. He informs the Apostles that his reason for refusing the woman of Canaan arises out of his desire to devote himself entirely to the Jews to whom alone he was appointed to be a minister of the grace of God. He argues from the call and the command of the Father, that he must not yield any assistance to strangers; not that the power of Christ was always confined within so narrow limits, but because present circumstances rendered it necessary that he should begin with the Jews, and at that time devote himself to them in a peculiar manner. For as I have said in expounding Matthew 10:5 , the middle wall of partition (Ephesians 2:14) was not thrown down till after Christ’s resurrection that he might proclaim peace to the nations which were aliens from the kingdom of God: and therefore he prohibited the Apostles, at that time, from scattering anywhere but in Judea the first seed of doctrine. Justly therefore, does he affirm that, on this occasion, he was sent to the Jews only, till the Gentiles also followed in the proper order.

To the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He bestows the designation of sheep of the house of Israel not on the elect only, but on all who were descended from the holy fathers; for the Lord had included all in the covenant, and was promised indiscriminately to all as a Redeemer, as he also revealed and offered himself to all without exception. It is worthy of observation, that he declares himself to have been sent to LOST sheep, as he assures us in another passage that he came to save that which was lost, (Matthew 18:11.) Now as we enjoy this favor, at the present day, in common with the Jews, we learn what our condition is till he appear as our Savior.

Verse 25

25.And she came and worshipped him. We might be apt to think that this woman contends with some measure of obstinacy, as if she would extort something from Christ in spite of him; but there is no reason to doubt that she was animated by the conviction which she entertained as to the kindness of the Messiah. When Christ expressly declared that it did not belong to his office, she was not intimidated by that refusal, and did not desist from her purpose. The reason was, that she adhered firmly to that previous sentiment of faith which I have mentioned, and admitted nothing that was opposed to her hope. And this is the sure test of faith, that we do not suffer that general commencement of our salvation, which is founded on the word of God, to be in any way torn from us.

Verse 26

26.It is not seemly. Christ’s reply is harsher than ever, and one would think that he intended by it to cut off all hope; for not only does he declare that all the grace which he has received from the Father belongs to the Jews, and must be bestowed on them, otherwise they will be defrauded of their just rights; but he disdainfully compares the woman herself to a dog, thus implying that she is unworthy of being a partaker of his grace. To make the meaning plain to us, it must be understood that the appellation of the children’s bread is here given, not to the gifts of God of whatever description, but only to those which were bestowed in a peculiar manner on Abraham and his posterity. For since the beginning of the world, the goodness of God was everywhere diffused—nay, filled heaven and earth—so that all mortal men felt that God was their Father. But as the children of Abraham had been more highly honored than the rest of mankind,the children’s bread is a name given to everything that, relates peculiarly to the adoption by which the Jews alone were elected to be children The light of the sun, the breath of life, and the productions of the soil, were enjoyed by the Gentiles equally with the Jews; but the blessing which was to be expected in Christ dwelt exclusively in the family of Abraham. To lay open without distinction that which God had conferred as a peculiar privilege on a single nation, was nothing short of setting aside the covenant of God; for in this way the Jews, who ought to have the preference, were placed on a level with the Gentiles.

And to throw it to the dogs. By using the word throw, Christ intimates that what is taken from the Church of God and given to heathens is not well bestowed. But this must be restricted to that time when it was in Judea only that men called on God; for, since the Gentiles were admitted to partake of the same salvations—which took place when Christ diffused everywhere the light of his Gospel—the distinction was removed, and those who were formerly dogs are now reckoned among the children. The pride of the flesh must fall down, when we learn that by nature we are dogs At first, no doubt, human nature, in which the image of God brightly shone, occupied so high a station that this opprobrious epithet did not apply to all nations, and even to kings, on whom God confers the honor of bearing his name. (418) But the treachery and revolt of Adam made it proper that the Lord should send to the stable, along with dogs, those who through the guilt of our first parent became bastards; more especially when a comparison is made between the Jews, who were exempted from the common lot, and the Gentiles, who were banished from the kingdom of God.

Christ’s meaning is more fully unfolded by Mark, who gives these words, Allow the children first to be satisfied He tells the woman of Canaan that she acts presumptuously in proceeding — as it were, in the midst of the supper — to seize on what was on the table. (419) His chief design was, to make trial of the woman’s faith; but he also pointed out the dreadful vengeance that would overtake the Jews, who rejected an inestimable benefit which was freely offered to them, and which they refused to those who sought it with warmth and earnestness.

(418) This is probably an allusion to Psalms 82:6, I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are CHILDREN OF THE MOST HIGH. — Ed.

(419)De vouloir ainsi mettre la main sur la table des enfans, au milieu de souper;” — “in wishing thus to put her hand to the children’s table in the midst of the supper.”

Verse 27

27.Certainly, Lord. The woman’s reply showed that she was not hurried along by a blind or thoughtless impulse to offer a flat contradiction (420) to what Christ had said. As God preferred the Jews to other nations, she does not dispute with them the honor of adoption, and declares, that she has no objection whatever that Christ should satisfy them according to the order which God had prescribed. She only asks that some crumbs — falling, as it were, accidentally — should come within the reach of the dogs And at no time, certainly, did God shut up his grace among the Jews in such a manner as not to bestow a small taste of them on the Gentiles. No terms could have been employed that would have described more appropriately, or more justly, that dispensation of the grace of God which was at that time in full operation.

(420)Pour se rebequer et heurter directement;” — “to give a saucy and open contradiction.”

Verse 28

28.Great is thy faith. He first applauds the woman’s faith, and next declares, that on account of her faith he grants her prayer. The greatness of her faith appeared chiefly in this respect, that by the aid of nothing more than a feeble spark of doctrine, she not only recognized the actual office of Christ, and ascribed to him heavenly power, but pursued her course steadily through formidable opposition; suffered herself to be annihilated, provided that she held by her conviction that she would not fail to obtain Christ’s assistance; and, in a word, so tempered her confidence with humility, that, while she advanced no unfounded claim, neither did she shut against her the fountain of the grace of Christ, by a sense of her own unworthiness. This commendation, bestowed on a woman who had been a heathen, (421) condemns the ingratitude of that nation which boasted that it was consecrated to God.

But how can the woman be said to believe aright, who not only receives no promise from Christ, but is driven back by his declaration to the contrary? On that point I have already spoken. Though he appears to give a harsh refusal to her prayers, yet, convinced that God would grant the salvation which he had promised through the Messiah, she ceases not to entertain favorable hopes; and therefore she concludes, that the door is shut against her, not for the purpose of excluding her altogether, but that, by a more strenuous effort of faith, she may force her way, as it were, through the chinks. Be it unto thee as thou desirest. This latter clause contains a useful doctrine, that faith will obtain anything from the Lord; for so highly does he value it, that he is always prepared to comply with our wishes, so far as it may be for our advantage.

(421)Ceste femme, profane de nation;” — “that woman, a heathen as to her nation.”

Verse 29

Matthew 15:29.And Jesus departing thence. Though it is unquestionably the same journey of Christ, on his return from the neighborhood of Sidon, that is related by Matthew and by Mark, yet in some points they do not quite agree. It is of little moment that the one says he came to the borders of Magdala, and the other, that he came to the coasts of Dalmanutha; for the cities were adjacent, being situated on the lake of Gennesareth, and we need not wonder that the district which lay between them received both names. (422)

Decapolis was so called from its containing ( δέκα πόλεις) ten cities; and as it was contiguous to Phenicia and to that part of Galilee which lay towards the sea, Christ must have passed through it, when he returned from Phenicia into Galilee of Judea. There is a greater appearance of contradiction in another part of the narrative, where Matthew says that our Lord cured many who labored under various diseases, while Mark takes no notice of any but of one deaf man. But this difficulty need not detain us; for Mark selected for description a miracle which was performed during the journey, and the report of which was no sooner circulated than it aroused the inhabitants of every part of that country to bring many persons to Christ to be cured. Now we know that the Evangelists are not anxious to relate all that Christ did, and are so far from dwelling largely on miracles, that they only glance at a few by way of example. Besides, Mark was satisfied with producing one instance, in which the power of Christ is as brightly displayed as in others of the same sort which followed shortly afterwards.

(422)Est nomme maintenant de l’une, maintenant de l’autre ville;” — “was named sometimes from the one, and sometimes from the other town.”

Verse 32

Matthew 15:32.I have compassion on the multitude. Here a miracle is related not unlike another which we have lately explained. The only difference is, that on the former occasion Christ satisfied five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, while, on the present occasion,four thousand men are fed with seven loaves and a few small fishes; and that twelve baskets were then filled with fragments, while out of a greater abundance a smaller portion is left. Let us learn from this, that the power of God is not restricted to means or outward assistance, and that it is all one with Him whether there be much or little, as Jonathan (425) said when speaking of his own moderate army and the vast multitude of enemies:

there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few,
(1 Samuel 14:6.)

As the blessing of God can make one loaf suffice as well as twenty for satisfying a great multitude, so, if that be wanting, a hundred loaves will not be a sufficient meal for ten men; for when the staff of bread is broken, (Leviticus 26:26,) though the flour should come in full weight from the mill, and the bread from the oven, it will serve no purpose to stuff the belly. The three days’ fasting, of which Christ speaks, must not be understood to mean that they had eaten nothing for three days; but that in desert places they had few conveniences, and must have wanted their ordinary food. Besides, in those warm countries, hunger is less keen than in our thick and cold atmosphere; and, therefore, we need not wonder that they should abstain longer from food.

(425) Instead of Jonathan, the French copy mentions Asa, whose words are similar, and were uttered on a similar occasion: Lord, it is nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power, (2 Chronicles 14:11.) — Ed.

Verse 33

33.Whence shall we obtain so many loaves in a solitary place? The disciples manifest excessive stupidity in not remembering, at least, that earlier proof of the power and grace of Christ, which they might have applied to the case in hand. As if they had never seen any thing of the same sort, they forget to apply to him for relief. There is not a day on which a similar indifference does not steal upon us; and we ought to be the more careful not to allow our minds to be drawn away from the contemplation of divine benefits, that the experience of the past may lead us to expect for the future the same assistance which God has already on one or more occasions bestowed upon us.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Matthew 15". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.