Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13
1. Then scribes and Pharisees, who had come from Jerusalem, approach to Jesus, saying, 2. Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. 3. But he answering said to them, Why do you also transgress the commandment of God on account of 390 your tradition? 4. For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother; and, He that curseth father or mother, dying let him die. 5. But you say, Whosoever shall say to his father or mother, Whatever is a gift from me shall profit thee; and shall not honor his father or his mother. 6. Therefore you have annulled the commandment of God on account of your tradition. 7. Hypocrites, Isaiah hath justly prophesied concerning you, saying, 8. This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and honor me with the lips; but their heart is far distant from me. 9. But in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines, commandments of men.
1. And the Pharisees, and some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, assemble to him. 2. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with common, that is to say, with unwashen hands, they found fault. 3. For the Pharisees. and all the Jews, do not take food without frequently washing their hands, holding the traditions of the elders; 4. And returning from market, they eat not till they have washed; and many other things are there which they have undertaken to keep, namely, the washings of cups, and pots, and brazen vessels, and beds. 5. Then the Pharisees and scribes ask him, saying, Why do not thy disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? 6. And he answering said to them, Well hath Isaiah prophesied concerning you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honor me with the lips, but their heart is far from me. 7. But in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines, commandments of men. 8. For, laying aside the commandments of God, you keep a tradition of men, the washings of pots and cups, and many other things similar to these you do. 9. And he said to them, Well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition. 10. For Moses said, Honor thy father and mother; and, He that curseth father or mother, dying let him die. 11. But you say, If a man shall say to his father and mother, Every Corban (that is, gift) that cometh from me shall profit thee. 12. And you do not permit him to do any thing more to his father or his mother. 13. Annulling the word of God by your tradition, which you have delivered; and many things similar to this you do.
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.
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, (Joh 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, (Lev. 11:25, 28;) and this extended to cups, and pots, and raiment, and other articles of household furniture, (Le 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, (Col 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.
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, (Ex 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.
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.
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 (Isa 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.
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, (Col 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 Sam. 15:22, 23,) 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.
“Propter;” — “par vostre ordonnance;” — “by your statute.”
“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.”
See Harmony, vol. 1, p. 281.
“Elles avoyent este forgees en leur boutique;” — “they had been manufactured in their workshop.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Le Baptesme, qui suffit une fois receu;” — “Baptism, which is enough when once received.”
“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.”
“Comprend tous devoirs d’obeissance, secours, et soulagement;” — “includes every duty of obedience, assistance, and relief.”
“De faire aucune assistance au pere et a la mere;” — “to grant any relief to their father or mother.”
“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.