Theme: Care for All
In this week’s lesson we learn to desPair of no one.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Nothing troubled the religious leaders of Israel more than becoming ceremonially unclean, and nothing made them more unclean than contact with “unclean” Gentiles. Yet in this next section of Matthew Jesus leaves Israel to enter Gentile territory Where he helps a Gentile woman.
Was this woman unclean? The Pharisees would have said so. But when they had complained that Jesus’ disciples ate with “unclean” hands Jesus answered them by teaching that it is not unclean hands or unclean food going into a person’s mouth that makes a person unclean, but what comes out of it. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean’” (Matt. 15:20). By this standard it was the Pharisees who were unclean and not the Gentile woman. For they hated Jesus and were plotting to have him killed, while she demonstrated her “clean” status by her humility and by her faith in Jesus as the Lord, the Son of David and her Savior (v. 22).
We have already noted several times in these studies that in spite of being the most Jewish of the four gospels, Matthew is also the most open to Gentiles. It is Gentile Magi who come to worship the infant Christ as early as chapter 2, and the gospel closes with Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Here, in chapter 15, just over halfway through the gospel, we find Jesus leaving the Jewish area of Galilee to go to Tyre and Sidon. The area is not specified in detail. But Tyre was about twenty-five miles north of Galilee and Sidon was about twenty-five miles beyond that. So the journey there and back could have taken a considerable amount of time, perhaps months.1 This is the only time in his ministry that Jesus traveled out of Jewish territory into Gentile lands.
This was important for Matthew. For not only does he mention Tyre and Sidon, he introduces the woman involved in this story as a “Canaanite,” which was the name of the ancient tribal enemies of Israel. The Canaanites were the people to be destroyed when Israel conquered the promised land under Joshua, and this is the only place in the New Testament where we find the word. This is not without meaning, and William Barclay is correct when he says, “The supreme significance of this passage is that it foreshadows the going out of the gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all barriers.”
We are going to see that the same emphasis dominates the story of the feeding of the four thousand, which follows. For the unique element in that feeding, and why it is included, is that it was done in a Gentile region and that the majority of the people who were there were Gentiles.2
Yet there is a serious problem here. If we are right in seeing these stories as the beginning of the “going out of the gospel to the whole world” and “the end of all barriers,” why did Jesus refuse to speak to the Canaanite woman initially? This seems contrary to the main point of the story; it is unusual behavior for Jesus, and Matthew does not explain Jesus’ silence.
‘The contrast between the green grass of the first feeding of the multitudes in Matthew 14 (see v. 19) and only the bare ground in the story of the second feeding in Matthew 15 (see v. 35) may reflect the passage of time from spring to late summer. I will mention this point again further on.
1 The contrast between the green grass of the first feeding of the multitudes in Matthew 14 (see v. 19) and only the bare ground in the story of the second feeding in Matthew 15 (see v. 35) may reflect the passage of time from spring to late summer. I will mention this point again further on.