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.”
We concluded yesterday’s lesson with a problem: Why did Jesus refuse to speak to the Canaanite woman initially? This is unusual behavior for Jesus. There are several reasons why Jesus may have refused to speak to her.
1. Jesus was not sent to Gentiles, so he wanted no dealings with the Gentile woman. We have something similar in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. He told her, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), Alexander Maclaren approaches the account of the Canaanite woman this way, arguing that Jesus’ refusal “was a real refusal, founded on the divine decree, which he was bound to obey.”1 The problem with this answer is that Jesus did speak to the Samaritan woman, and in the story Matthew tells Jesus would have had to have changed his mind since he not only spoke to the woman but also healed her daughter.
2. Jesus wanted to test the woman’s faith. This is David Dickson’s answer. He writes
of four means used for the trial of her faith: . . . Christ keeping silent when she prays,. . .the small assistance she has of the disciples’ prayers, …our Lord’s telling her that his commission reached only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,. . . [and] by seeming to exclude her (as a heathen, or unclean dog outside the covenant) from all the benefits of the Messiah.2
This is a good explanation, because the story emphasizes how strong and perceptive her faith was. It ends with Jesus telling her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (v. 28). Jesus did not speak that way too many people.
3. To strengthen her faith. This view appeals to William Hendricksen: “He aimed to strengthen it by means of the very answer he had given her in verses 24 and 26; for she would now begin to realize, far better than if he had immediately healed her daughter, what an extraordinary blessing she was receiving.”3 The woman addressed Jesus as “Son of David,” and his answer drew out the full meaning of those words. If he was the Jewish Messiah, as she said, his ministry was to Israel. Did she really understand that?
4. To highlight what he was about to do, namely, answer the prayer of a Gentile. This is the explanation that appeals most to me, since what Jesus is chiefly doing in this middle section of Matthew is training his disciples. We have something like this in John 12:21, which tells how the Greeks came to Philip with the request, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” It was an indication that the passion was about to begin. In Matthew the opening to the Gentile woman leads to the story of the feeding of the four thousand Gentiles in verses 29-39 and to the confession of Peter in chapter 16, all of which were part of the disciples’ training. The incidents were important enough for Matthew to have remembered them and to have included them in his gospel.
It is not only Jesus’ silence that seems to be a problem, however. It is also the words he used when he spoke to the woman. His first words were: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (v. 24), and he followed that “politically incorrect” statement with the explanation: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (v. 26).
1 Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Chapter 9 to 17 (London, New York, Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905), p.318.
2David Dickson, A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew (Edinburgh and Carlisle, Pa.:Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), pp.214-215. Original Edition 1647.
3William Hendricksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 624.
What four reasons may explain Jesus’ refusal to speak to the Canaanite woman?
Which reason does Dr. Boice prefer? Why?
What else, in addition to Jesus’ silence, is problematic in this chapter?
Do you value people of other ethnic groups?
Note how the theme of the section of Scripture being studied helps explain a puzzling passage.