The Book of Matthew

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, Day 3

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.
Everyone Must Come to Jesus

In the latter part of the discussion about clean and unclean things from Matthew 15, Jesus went on to say that these Pharisees think that the way you get defiled is by touching things or by eating things. It’s not what you eat or what you touch that makes you dirty. What makes you dirty is your heart, because the thing that defiles a man or a woman is what comes out and not what goes in.

Now with that in mind, let’s remember that the thing which above all else defiled a Jewish person according to the tradition of the rabbis was contact not with dirt but with a Gentile. That’s just the worst thing you could do. And that is why, you see, at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, even though they were doing everything in their power to have him condemned, these same people would not go inside the courts of Pilate because to do that would make them unclean, and they would be unable to take part in the Passover. The religious leaders considered Gentiles unclean, and here is Jesus in Matthew 15 talking with a Canaanite woman.

But there’s even more to it than that. You see sometimes when we try to correct one error we swing to the opposite extreme. You and I would have done the same thing. We would say, “Oh, yes, we get the point. Jesus is saying of these Pharisees that they are actually the ones that are unclean. What hypocrites they are! Therefore, if they’re the ones that are unclean, why, this woman, this Canaanite, this Gentile, must be clean.” That’s what we tend to do.  That’s how we often draw our conclusions.  If the one side is wrong, the other side must be right. If the rich are corrupt, then the pure must be the poor. If the educated are ignorant of God, well then the people who must know God are the uneducated.

We do that all the time, except that it isn’t always that way. When Jesus said the Pharisees are unclean and then went to the Gentile territory and associated with a Gentile woman, he did not say, “And therefore by contrast, she is clean.” Rather, the first thing he had to demonstrate was that she was unclean, too. Why are both Jews and Gentiles both unclean? Because it’s not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out, and what comes out manifests the state of the heart. And what is the state of the heart, whether Jew or Gentile? As Jeremiah says, “The heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it?” So the very first thing he does is demonstrate that this woman is unclean also.

But there is a difference, you see, and that’s in the story as well. That woman is unclean, of course. She’s unclean like we’re all unclean. But what is different in her case is that she came to Jesus. The Pharisees weren’t doing that. The Pharisees were using their sense of their own self-righteousness as an excuse for not coming to him. They said he teaches unclean things, and he teaches his disciples unclean things. We’re the clean people, and so they wouldn’t come. But this woman said, in effect, yes, I’m unclean. You call me a dog. All right I’m a dog. But I have a real need, and in my need I want to come to the one who can help me and cleanse my soul.

When I begin to analyze this woman’s faith I find some very remarkable things. First of all, she focused on Jesus. Notice how she begins in the very first utterance: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me” (v. 22)! “Son of David” is a messianic title. If she had said, “Son of Abraham,” that would not have been so unusual. She would just have been making a general statement about her status as a Gentile and Jesus’ status as a Jew, which would not have meant a great deal. But she didn’t call him the Son of Abraham; she called him the Son of David, and that is a messianic title. You can go back to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, to the first verse, and see that Jesus is called the Son of David to establish his messianic authority.

But if this woman is asserting the messianic identity of Jesus, how did she get that faith? How did she know to call out after him in those terms? I don’t have the answer to that. I don’t know where she heard it, but she had. Somehow she had heard that this prophet who had appeared in Israel, this Jesus of Nazareth, who was going about doing miraculous things and who she hoped could help her daughter, this Jesus was put forth as the Jewish Messiah. And so she comes to him in those terms, as the Anointed One of God, the one on whom God’s favor rests, who’s to bring salvation to his people and to the world.

I do notice an interesting contrast there between that woman calling out after him and something the disciples say in their protests to Jesus that he should send her away. Notice what they say: “Send her away for she keeps crying out after us” (v. 23). She wasn’t crying out after them. She was crying out after Jesus, the one she knew to be the Son of David. They didn’t see this, but Jesus did.

I want to urge the faith of this woman upon you. If you’re going to learn from her, that’s the first thing you need to learn—that she focused her faith in its entirety upon Jesus Christ. When we study the different ways in which Abraham manifested faith, we see that what made Abraham’s faith strong in all those circumstances was that he fixed his faith upon God. His faith wasn’t strong. The circumstances didn’t encourage it. But God was strong, and so Abraham fixed his faith on him. That’s what this woman did as well.

Study Questions
  1. Explain how this story fits into the context of the earlier parts of Matthew 15.
  2. What is the first thing the woman does in the story?  What is significant about how she addresses Jesus?

Application: In what ways is God working in your life by calling you to exercise greater faith in him?

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