Matthew 15:1–9: The Anatomy of Legalism

by Aug 27, 2023Premium, The Gospel of Matthew

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As Jesus’ profile continues to rise, religious leaders come to him in Galilee from Jerusalem. They do not come to learn from this rabbi, but to confront him. Of course, these leaders cannot charge Jesus with any fault concerning the law of God recorded in the Scriptures. Instead, they must condemn him according to the traditions of the elders. How, though, does their tradition (in this case, about hand-washing) relate to the law of God? As Jesus explains, their concerns reveal that their hearts are steeped in legalism. Here, Jesus shows how legalism looks for loopholes and creates counterfeit commandments.

Discussion Questions

1. Where did the Pharisees and scribes come from (v. 1)? How far did they travel to get to Jesus? Why did they come to Jesus? Why were they so concerned about hand-washing before eating? What kinds of modern equivalents might we think through to relate to their concern? What did the Old Testament law say about this ritual of hand-washing? What role were they assigning to the traditions of the elders?

2. How does Jesus respond with his own counter-charge (v. 3)? What role does Jesus assign to God’s commandment (v. 3, 4)? What role does Jesus assign to the tradition of the elders (v. 5)? What is Jesus saying should be the relationship between God’s commandments and human tradition? How does this passage compare to Jesus teaching in Matthew 5? Why does legalism look for loopholes in God’s law?

3. What is a hypocrite? Why does Jesus call the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites”? What is the root of legalism (v. 8b)? What is the fruit of legalism (v. 9b)? How does a heart far from God eventually lead to tyrannical, man-made commandments? Why does legalistic worship necessarily render our worship into vanity? How does Jesus’ teaching here fill out the way that we sometimes talk about legalism in Christianity today?

4. Where do you recognize legalism in your life? Where does your heart stray from loving God toward seeking after something else? How have you sought to get out from under the infinitely-high-as-heaven righteousness demanded by God? What loopholes in God’s holy commandments have you created for yourself? How have these loopholes led to a system of commandments of your own creation? What is the solution?