Chapter 13: That Which Defiles a Man

The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, (1979), 94–99

Map Chp. 13

The Galilean Ministry






Healing in Gennesaret




Capernaum, Galilee

The Discourses on Cleanliness




Goes into Northern Galilee





Region of Tyre and Sidon, Phoenicia

Gentile’s Daughter Healed




He Returns to Sea of Galilee





Deaf Man Healed




Four Thousand Fed




Jesus Goes to Magdala




Interpretive Commentary

(13-1) Matthew 14:34–36. Those Whose Hearts Are Pure Can Draw Down the Powers of Heaven

The Savior and his disciples came into the land of Gennesaret, where “all that were diseased” were brought to the Lord “that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.”

“Perhaps they had knowledge of the woman who, plagued for twelve years with an issue of blood, had been healed by touching the hem of his garment (Mark 5:25–34); perhaps they considered the garment fringe as holy because of the divine command that garments be bordered in blue so that all Israel might ‘look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them’ (Num. 15:37–41); or perhaps, overpowered in the divine presence, they sought even the slightest and least physical contact with him. But in any event, so great was their faith that all partook of his infinite goodness and were healed.” (McConkie, DNTC, 1:350–51.)

(13-2) Matthew 15:1–20. Those Whose Hearts Are Impure Are Offended by Spiritual Truth

The scribes and Pharisees, in their attempt to discredit the disciples of Jesus, asked him why his disciples transgressed the “tradition of the elders” by failing to wash their hands before they ate. Jesus in turn rebuked the Pharisees and scribes with the words, “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:7, 8), because they abolished and made void the law of Moses by their traditions. In this rebuke, Jesus cut down an entrenched system of commentary and custom. Into oblivion were consigned the many legends and rules, the rabbinic wisdom, legalistic regulations, and what was at best an external religion. After shattering the basis of their external religion, he discredited the authority of the Pharisees and scribes with the people by calling the multitude to him and by speaking these powerful words: “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” (Matthew 15:11.)

For his denunciation of their tradition, the Pharisees were offended. Especially were they offended by this one saying, for herein the Lord destroyed the allegiance of the masses for that which is merely ceremonial and without eternal spiritual significance. (See Farrar, The Life of Christ, pp. 337–41.)

(13-3) Mark 7:1. Who Were the Scribes?

A foremost actor in a New Testament list of characters is the scribe. He is found in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee and is not new to Jewish life and culture. Present in Babylon and also throughout the dispersion, he is spokesman of the people; he is the sage; he is the man of wisdom, the rabbi who received his ordination by the laying on of hands. His ability to cross-examine and to question is renowned. Dignified and important, he is an aristocrat among the common people who have no knowledge of the law. Regarding faith and religious practice, he is the authority and the last word; and as a teacher of the law, as a judge in ecclesiastical courts, is the learned one who must be respected, whose judgment is infallible. He travels in the company of the Pharisees, yet he is not necessarily a member of this religious party. He holds office and has status. His worth is beyond that of all the common folk and they must honor him, for he is to be praised by God and by angels in heaven. In fact, so revered are his words regarding law and practice that he must be believed though his statements contradict all common sense, or though he pronounce that the sun does not shine at noon day when in fact it is visible to the naked eye. (See Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:93–94.)

(13-4) Matthew 15:2. What Were the Numerous Washings Required by Jewish Custom?

“The numerous washings required by Jewish custom in the time of Christ were admittedly incident to rabbinism and ‘the tradition of the elders’ and not in compliance with the Mosaic law. Under certain conditions, successive washings were prescribed, in connection with which we find mention of ‘first,’ ‘second’ and ‘other’ waters, the ‘second water’ being necessary to wash away the ‘first water,’ which had become defiled by contact with the ‘common’ hands; and so further with the later waters. Sometimes the hands had to be dipped or immersed; at other times they were to be cleansed by pouring, it being necessary that the water be allowed to run to the wrist or the elbow according to the degree of supposed defilement; then again, as the disciples of Rabbi Shammai held, only the finger tips, or the fingers up to the knuckles, needed to be wetted under particular circumstances. Rules for the cleansing of vessels and furniture were detailed and exacting; distinct methods applied respectively to vessels of clay, wood, and metal. Fear of unwittingly defiling the hands led to many extreme precautions. It being known that the Roll of the Law, the Roll of the Prophets, and other scriptures, when laid away were sometimes touched, scratched, or even gnawed by mice, there was issued a rabbinical decree, that the Holy Scriptures, or any part thereof comprising as many as eighty-five letters (the shortest section in the law having just that number), defiled the hands by mere contact. Thus the hands had to be ceremonially cleansed after touching a copy of the scriptures, or even a written passage therefrom.

“Emancipation from these and ‘many such like things’ must have been relief indeed.” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 366; see also Mark 7:1–23.)

(13-5) Mark 7:11. What Was “Corban”?

The word Corban means a gift, or sacrifice, to God. Its use permitted a man to take a vow to avoid or accept any obligation. Thus, a man would say, “I take a vow to God, or rather, Corban to me is, to abstain from wine for a certain length of time.” He might say, “Corban to me is this or that man’s hospitality.” He could decline to assist his parents by saying, “Corban to me for a time is to not assist my parents.” (See Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, p. 678; see also Matthew 15:3–6.) In this way the intent of such laws as “honor thy father and thy mother” was frustrated. The Savior recognized this and chastised the Pharisees and scribes for avoiding legitimate obligations in this manner.

(13-6) Matthew 15:13. Who Are the “Plants” That “Shall Be Rooted Up”?

False ministers who are offended by the truth “are corrupt and apostate, and in due course shall be rooted out” by the truths which the Lord and his prophets declare. (See McConkie, DNTC, 1:368.)

(13-7) Matthew 15:22. What Is Meant by “a Woman of Canaan”?

Read Mark 7:26.

“A woman, hearing of His presence within her own land, came asking a boon. Mark tells us she was a Greek, or more literally a Gentile who spoke Greek, and by nationality a Syro-Phoenician; Matthew says she was ‘a woman of Canaan’; these statements are in harmony, since the Phoenicians were of Canaanite descent. The Gospel historians make clear the fact that this woman was of pagan or heathen birth; and we know that among the peoples so classed the Canaanites were held in particular disrepute by the Jews.” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 354.)

(13-8) Matthew 15:24. Who Were the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel?

In this instance, Jesus is referring to the Jews. The gospel “was to be offered to the Jews before it went to the Gentiles. Jesus’ mortal ministry was with Israel, not with other nations. His healing of this or any Gentile person came by special dispensation because of great faith.” (See McConkie, DNTC, 1:371.)

(13-9) What Are the “Dogs” Spoken of in Matthew 15:26?

The Greek word which is translated as “dogs” here is kunariois which is the diminutive of the word and is better translated as “little dogs.” One commentator notes the significance of this.

“The rabbis often spoke of the Gentiles as dogs. …

“… [Jesus] says not ‘dogs,’ but ‘little dogs,’ i.e. household, favourite dogs, and the woman cleverly catches at the expression, arguing that if the Gentiles are household dogs, then it is only right that they should be fed with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Dummelow, Commentary, pp. 678–79.)

Points to Ponder

The Pure in Heart Have Faith to Draw on the Powers of Heaven

Thus far in your study of the life and teachings of Jesus, you have read a number of incidents where Jesus performed miracles. You have also read of incidents where he refused to perform miracles, such as when he returned to his boyhood town of Nazareth. The Savior willingly, almost anxiously, blessed those who followed him. Yet there were those who never saw a miracle, never felt the Holy Spirit, and never received a testimony even though Christ was in their midst. Upon what principles are the powers of heaven manifest in the lives of people? How can they be manifest in your life?

Carefully read the following verses from section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Though they specifically refer to those who bear the priesthood, they can be applied to all who would receive the blessings and powers of heaven.

Verses 34 and 35. Why are few chosen to receive the powers of heaven?

Verse 36. How are the powers of heaven controlled?

You have previously read about the lady who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and was healed and the Canaanite woman whose daughter was cleansed of an evil spirit. How does D&C 121:36 relate to those people? Do you think that their exceptional faith was because of their own personal righteousness? How do faith, righteousness, and heavenly powers relate to each other?

Verse 37. How does this verse describe the root problem of the scribes and Pharisees? When did the Pharisees consider a man defiled? Do you see that the Pharisees were concerned with outward cleanliness and Jesus was concerned with inward purity? “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” (Matthew 15:11.) Review Matthew 15:17–20. To appreciate this saying of Jesus, and to see how this principle may apply to your life, consider the following quote by Elder Bruce R. McConkie:

To Be Clean Physically Is Not Enough

“There is an eternal law, ordained by God himself before the foundations of the world, that every man shall reap as he sows. If we think evil thoughts, our tongues will utter unclean sayings. If we speak words of wickedness, we shall end up doing the works of wickedness. If our minds are centered on the carnality and evil of the world, then worldliness and unrighteousness will seem to us to be the normal way of life. If we ponder things related to sex immorality in our minds, we will soon think everybody is immoral and unclean and it will break down the barrier between us and the world. And so with every other unwholesome, unclean, impure, and ungodly course. And so it is that the Lord says he hates and esteems as an abomination, ‘an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations. …’ (Prov. 6:18.)

“On the other hand, if we are pondering in our hearts the things of righteousness, we shall become righteous. If virtue garnishes our thoughts unceasingly, our confidence shall wax strong in the presence of God and he in turn will rain down righteousness upon us. Truly as Jacob said, ‘… to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.’ (2 Ne. 9:39.) And as Paul said, ‘Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.’ (Gal. 6:7–8.)

“And yet again from Paul:

“‘… whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’ (Phil. 4:8.)

“To enable us to keep our minds centered on righteousness, we should consciously elect to ponder the truths of salvation in our hearts. Brother Packer yesterday pleaded with eloquence that we sing the songs of Zion in order to center our thoughts on wholesome things. I would like to add that we can also—after we have had the opening song—call on ourselves to preach a sermon. I have preached many sermons walking along congested city streets, or tramping desert trails, or in lonely places, thus centering my mind on the Lord’s affairs and the things of righteousness; and I might say they have been better sermons than I have ever preached to congregations.

“If we are going to work out our salvation, we must rejoice in the Lord. We must ponder his truths in our hearts. We must rivet our attention and interests upon him and his goodness to us. We must forsake the world and use all our strength, energies and abilities in furthering his work.” (Bruce R. McConkie in CR, Oct. 1973, pp. 56–57.)

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” is an eternal truth. Our thoughts mirror our character and the degree of inward purity we have obtained during our brief stay on earth. Our thoughts constitute an index of our inward purity. If our thoughts are noble and rich, if they focus on that which is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy, we may be assured that our character is built of virtue, beauty, love, that which is good, and that which the Lord and righteous men esteem to be of great worth. If men’s thoughts are ignoble and impoverished, if they focus on that which is immoral, ugly, worthy of condemnation, or not admirable, we may be assured that their character is likewise affected. What might you do to redirect and improve your thoughts? Will it make a difference to you to know this great truth and begin to apply it in your life?

Listed below are positive admonitions and results which are extracted from comments of Elder McConkie:

  1. 1.

    To do:
    Ponder in your heart the things of righteousness.

    You shall become righteous. (2 Nephi 9:39; Galatians 6:7, 8)

  2. 2.

    To do:
    Let virtue garnish your thoughts unceasingly.

    Your confidence shall wax strong in the presence of God and he in turn will rain down righteousness upon you (D&C 121:45).

  3. 3.

    To do:
    Be spiritually minded.

    (Read Romans 8:6.)

  4. 4.

    To do:
    Sow to the Spirit.

    (Read Galatians 6:7, 8.)

  5. 5.

    To do:
    Think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy.

    (Read Philippians 4:8, 9.)

  6. 6.

    To do:
    Consciously elect to ponder the truths of salvation in your heart.

    You will keep your mind centered on righteousness.

  7. 7.

    To do:
    Sing the songs of Zion when you are tempted with unwholesome thoughts.

    You will center your thoughts on wholesome things.

  8. 8.

    To do:
    Call on yourself to preach a sermon when you are tempted with unrighteous thoughts.

    You will center your mind on the Lord’s affairs and the things of righteousness.

  9. 9.

    To do:
    Rejoice in the Lord; ponder his truths in your heart; rivet your attention and interests on the Lord and his goodness to you; forsake the world and use all your strength, energy, and ability to further his work.

    You will work out your salvation.

How important is it for you to improve your thoughts?

Mosiah 4:29, 30

Matthew 12:36

As you learn to control your thoughts and desires, you will experience an inward purity that will enable you to draw upon the powers of heaven. Read the following scripture:

D&C 121:45–46.