I am quite sure that one could write a book of reflections on these two chapters in Matthew’s Gospel.
Since you probably don’t have time to read a book (and I probably don’t have time to write one!), I want to reflect on something I’ve never noticed in Matthew 15 until now, a remarkable progression that tells the gospel story.
15:1-9 – Law. The Pharisees are upset that Jesus’ disciples don’t follow the “traditions of the elders”; these were rules set up over time by the religious leaders to help people follow the Ten Commandments and other provisions of God’s laws. Evidently in practice the Pharisees held these traditions up to the people to be as important as the Law of God.
However, in one easy stroke, Jesus reveals their hypocrisy, essentially stating, “If the Law is your standard, then it doesn’t take long to see how you yourselves have broken it!” Jesus’ conclusion is that, based on the standard of God’s perfect Law, the Pharisees’ relationship with God is broken. He quotes Isaiah 29:13 as a devastating diagnosis. The problem is not that they don’t worship, but that they worship in vain; the problem is not that they aren’t saying the right things, but that their hearts don’t mean it.
15:10-20 – Human Condition. Matthew then answers the question of why the Law may not be attained, by even the most religious among us, by relaying Jesus’ declaration that the root of the problem is the condition of the heart: “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” Busted. Every one of us.
15:21-28 – Grace Through Faith. Matthew then follows this diagnosis of the human condition with the account of a discourse between Jesus and the very opposite of a Pharisee: a Canaanite woman. She was not a Jew and not a man, and therefore, by all standards of the religious institution, she was an outsider and of no status.
Jesus’ metaphor comparing her and people like her to dogs is perhaps alarming to us. Yet because we see the context of the previous two sections of this chapter, we see that we are all dogs before God; by the standard of the Law, we are all outsiders and of no status because of the condition of our hearts. The Canaanite woman humbly acknowledged her inherent unworthiness and pled for mercy, not on the basis of her own status, but on the basis of the character and power of the one to whom she made her plea.
In the first section, Jesus recognized that the Pharisees did and said all the right things outwardly, but they received Jesus’ condemnation because they came before God on the basis of their own merit, thinking themselves to be righteous. In contrast, the Canaanite woman acknowledged her unworthiness, approached Jesus with faith in his merit, and received the healing for her daughter that she sought.
This is our story. If we insist on the standard of the Law, seeking to create our own righteousness, then we will be judged by the Law and found to be severely inadequate. This is because the prophet Jeremiah was right when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”—the human condition. However, if we come to Jesus in faith—not in our own law-keeping, but in his; not in our own merit, but in his—we find the divine acceptance for which our hearts were made.