The scene is perplexing. Before His disciples, Jesus wouldn’t stop for this woman, ignored her for a time, and ended up calling her a dog. Can we imagine the internet dust-up in such a case as this? We are left scratching our heads in our attempts to understand Jesus here… Jesus’ intention was that we would study her by way of contrast. Jesus had just offended the Pharisees by exposing their hearts. Notice, however, that Jesus could press her, ignore her and, according to Jewish tradition, insult her, yet none of this could drive her away through offense. The gasping moment is found in her response to Jesus’ rejection. After worshiping Him (see Matt. 15:25) she said , “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:26). What a response!
We live in a day of offense and outrage. People are cautious knowing that the slightest misuse of a word could trigger an unwelcome internet controversy. This creates a big challenge for public discourse, much of which is driven by fear that we will be misunderstood.
In this life, offenses will always occur. There is a far different offense, however, that all of us should be willing to accept. It is the offense we experience when Jesus exposes the darkness of our hearts. Jesus is always determined to expose the human heart so that people will understand their need for Him. Jesus is after childlike faith and humility from those who will receive His saving help.
The scenes in Matthew 15 help us understand the intention of Jesus in the way that He spoke to others during His incarnation. The scribes and the Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem. Their goal was to charge His disciples for breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands properly when eating bread.
The religious leaders were fastidious to keep a massive body of written and oral traditions when it came to ceremonial cleanliness. This tradition became the authority in Israel and was intended to prevent defilement through contact with gentiles. In this way, they were setting aside the law of God and establishing a system of their own righteousness before God.
When reading accounts like this, we have to appreciate that much of what Jesus did in response to these abuses had the purpose of training His disciples for their future ministries. The Pharisees were wrestling with what defilement is before God, and Jesus had a big object lesson planned for them.
At this point, Jesus went after the Pharisees—aggressively. Jesus answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3). As Jesus confronted their hypocrisy, He called the multitudes to Himself and gave this response: “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:10–11).
This assessment caused a firestorm. In fact, the disciples were so concerned about His words to the Pharisees that they privately pulled Jesus aside to express how deeply He had offended them by saying what He did.
Upon hearing this, Jesus stepped up the offense further and gave one of the most sweeping indictments in all of Scripture: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matt. 15:19–20).
It is not unwashed hands but unwashed hearts that defile us before God. The Pharisees were clean ceremonially, but their behavior was accompanied with all kinds of violations against the actual law of God. These defilements, Jesus said, could not be dealt with by ceremonial washing because they were flowing from their impure hearts. This was a crushing assessment.