24 October 2016

Matthew 15:1-20

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (v. 11)

Psalm: Psalm 35:9-18


Yesterday I hinted at a couple of important points to remember when we read the Gospels in the New Testament. The first is that we can focus at three different levels: the 'original Jesus' story; the intentions of the Gospel writer for their own readers; how we might read the passage today. The second is that each Gospel has its own distinct emphasis. Whereas Luke saw the (non-Jewish) Christian church as representing a break with Judaism, Matthew, writing for Jewish Christians, argues for the Church as the 'new Judaism', with Jesus as the 'new Moses', bringing in a new, radical, interpretation of traditional Jewish teaching (Torah). And it is precisely this kind of debate that we find here in today's passage.

Some Jews (here described as "Pharisees and scribes" (v.1)) regarded the interpretation of scripture ("the tradition of the elders" (v. 2)) as having equal authority to scripture itself (for them, "Torah" was both Scripture and interpretation). Each generation of Jewish scholars added further interpretation to the Scriptures, such as elaborate rules about ritual cleanliness. Jesus, who was very much at home in this kind of debate, challenged the "Pharisees and scribes" about their interpretation of Scripture, insisting that his own interpretation had greater authority than their human precepts. So, for Jesus, the Commandments (and there are 613 of them in the Hebrew Scriptures, not just the familiar 10!) were more to do with 'right behaviour' than 'right ritual'. And those who follow Jesus, says Matthew, should accept his interpretation of Scripture as having greater authority. A new Torah for the new Jewish Christian church.

So we have a very Jewish Jesus, engaged in a very Jewish debate about the interpretation of Scripture for a very Jewish church. What might we make of this today? If nothing else, we should perhaps be wary of making too much of our own interpretation of Scripture - how many of our cherished doctrines are, in fact, human precepts? How do we decide whether our tradition is right?

To Ponder

  • If Matthew's Gospel was written for a first-century Jewish church, how might we usefully read it today?
  • As a modern reader, who do you identify with in the story? Why?
  • How important to you are the Christian doctrines you believe? How do you know they are 'right'?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.