The Book of Matthew

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, Day 2

Matthew 15:21-28 In this week’s lessons we come to a story where Jesus at first behaves in ways that are not his usual approach with people, but which is intentional to show the expansiveness of the grace of God, and the need for saving faith.
Theme: Clean and Unclean

Yesterday we mentioned one way Jesus’ reaction to the woman has been understood.  Today we consider two other approaches.

Other people have suggested, and I think with a great deal more weight, that Jesus was testing the woman or trying to strengthen her faith. There’s something to that. You have this progressive reaction to the woman. First he says nothing at all, then, he tells her that he was sent to Israel first of all, and then finally he adds the reference to dogs—drawing her on, you see, seeing how strong her faith is. Any Gentile was well aware of what the Jews thought of him or her. They knew that they were dogs in the eyes of the Jews. But if Jesus uses a diminutive it’s almost as if he’s playing with the situation just a little bit, and apparently the woman takes it that way. She uses it as a little bit of an opening, you see, and she perseveres with him on that level. It may well be that he’s doing that.

The only problem with that explanation is that those who know the Greek well and, even more than that, are familiar with the Aramaic in which Jesus spoke, says that as far as they know, in ancient literature there is no example of actually using the word for “little dog” in that way. It appears to be importing a modern way of looking at the situation back into Jesus’ time. There’s no word in Aramaic, you see, that would take the word for dog and make it a diminutive as if you’re talking about a little household pet. I say it may be true. There may be something to that, but it is rather hard to find the full explanation of it in that answer.

Now the third answer, which I think is perhaps not entirely right but certainly has a lot going for it, picks up on what Jesus himself suggests in that verse when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” When we go back to Matthew 10, where Jesus sends out his twelve apostles, he instructs them not to go into the way of the Gentiles, or even of the Samaritans, but go to the lost sheep of Israel. That is basically what Jesus himself did, except for this time when he actually set foot outside of Jewish territory. In addition to this, if you go to the parallel account that we have in Mark’s Gospel in chapter seven, you find Mark saying something interesting, a slight variation of what we have in Matthew. Mark says that his words to her were these: “First let the children eat, because it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The significant thing is the word “first”: “First let the children eat.”

It really would seem that what Jesus demonstrated in his ministry, taught to his disciples, and articulated on this occasion is that he had a ministry first of all to Israel. And that, of course, is entirely appropriate, because, as he said on another occasion to the woman of Samaria, “Salvation is of the Jews.” The covenant was with the Jews. The Scriptures were given to the Jews, and the Messiah was of the Jews. It was therefore appropriate that he come first to Israel and only after that would the gospel extend, as we know it did extend, to the entire world. The emphasis on that statement made by Jesus is a good explanation.

And yet as I look at this in its context, I think what Jesus is teaching is something else and something which is far more significant to where we are today. If you look back to the first part of Matthew 15 you’ll find that there’s a long section, verses 1-20, on the subject of what is clean and unclean. The Pharisees and the scribes were very concerned with ritual cleansing, and they came to Jesus and his disciples with this accusation. They pointed out that his disciples didn’t follow the traditions of their fathers so far as ritual cleansing of the hands was concerned. In the Old Testament there are certain prescriptions for washing in order to maintain ceremonial cleanliness according to the Law of Moses.

But the traditions of the elders had gone far, far beyond that. It wasn’t a matter just of having clean hands so you didn’t get the food dirty and eat things that were unclean. It wasn’t a matter of hygiene, really, at all. It was sort of ritual purification. The same sort of thing that went on in the temple had to go on in the Jewish home before any meal was eaten. Jesus had not taught his disciples to follow those traditions that were beyond biblical teaching, and so the religious leaders came and they said, “Look, why are your disciples eating with unclean hands? Obviously if they’re doing that they are unclean people.”

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was to say, “No, actually you are the ones who are unclean, because you have corrupted the law of God by your traditions.” And then he gave an example. It had to do with the way they would use the word corban, which meant a gift, to avoid taking care of their parents. That was a duty under Jewish law, but the scribes and the Pharisees said that if you would dedicate your resources to the service of God, you were not obligated to take care of your parents.  But taking care of one’s parents was commanded by God in the law, because it was the right thing to do in terms of helping others, especially one’s parents. Jesus said that the tradition of setting aside your money as corban in this way violated the law of God. So actually the religious leaders are the ones who are unclean.

Study Questions
  1. What two other explanations have been offered, and what strengths and weaknesses do they have?
  2. What is the general theme of the approach which Dr. Boice prefers?

Reflection: Are there ways in which we as Christians establish extra-biblical traditions or expectations by which we make judgments about other believers?

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