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.
Often what is missed when studying the Gospels are the connections that the author intends to make in order to illustrate some truth to us. This is one of these places where the reader shouldn’t miss the connection with what follows. Matthew provides a strong juxtaposition of this account with that of the Canaanite woman to illustrate the necessity of having our hearts cleansed.
Jesus moved purposely to the region of Tyre and Sidon. As He traveled, a Canaanite woman approached him and cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David, my daughter is severely demon possessed” (Matt. 15:22).
We are meant to feel perplexed by the actions of Jesus. She continually cried out for his help, “but he answered her not a word.” As they were walking, she fell at Jesus’ feet, begging Him for help. Nothing! The disciples began to complain, asking Jesus to get rid of her because she was making herself obnoxious to them.
After a period of silence and disregard, He finally replied, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Did Jesus just refuse her help because she was unclean? As she continued to beg, Jesus appeared to offer an insulting response. Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26).
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.
The irony shouldn’t be missed that this is exactly the position of the Pharisees and the disciples. She was unclean and should therefore be refused. There is just one glaring problem if we read these two accounts carefully. Jesus just said that it is what comes out of the heart that makes someone unclean. According to Him, true uncleanness has nothing to do with her being a gentile. Why, then, was He treating her so roughly?
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. 15:27). What a response!
Her comment can be summarized this way: “Lord, I know what I am; I agree with you that I am a dog. I know salvation is of the Jews. I have no claim or privilege which makes me worthy of this. I have no ethnic heritage that puts me in line to deserve this. I am like a little dog who when a master has a feast, and all his best guests have joined him at the table with the best clothes at the best places, I am like that little scavenger that comes and licks the crumbs off the master’s floor. I have no way of cleansing myself. Yet Lord, even these little dogs have to eat. Doesn’t a master feed his dogs? What I’m saying to you is: I need your help for my daughter and I come to worship you as the only way of deliverance.”
Jesus seized the moment as a great cry of compassion came from His mouth: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it be done for you as you desire” (Matt. 15:28). This was a spotlight on what He was after. This Canaanite woman was the one who was truly cleansed in the heart. By faith, she became a true Jew whose circumcision was not outward but inward, through a washed heart (Rom. 2:28–29).
True dogs are those whose offense of Jesus keeps them from coming to Him for salvation because of their sin. True children come this way, falling at Jesus’ feet in worship, recognizing Him as the only way of saving help, and thankful for even the crumbs that fall from the Lord’s table.
When it comes to entering the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ words challenge all of us: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6). Those not offended by Him are those who will receive His saving help.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 2, 2020.