Matthew 15:21-28, A mother’s determined faith

When Jesus departs from a place, he takes his miracle-working power with him. For some, opportunities end, and for others they begin. Keep an eye on winners and losers during this change.
Some people show more faith in ten minutes than the disciples showed all day! Like many of us, the original disciples were very slow to go where Jesus was taking them.

Matthew 15:21-28

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly. 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us. 24 He answered, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. 25 The woman came and knelt before him. Lord, help me! she said. 26 He replied, It is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs. 27 Yes it is, Lord, she said. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table. 28 Then Jesus said to her, Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted. And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Commentary

For the fourth time in Matthews Gospel, Jesus decides to withdraw from danger.[1] In this case the cause was the severe reaction of the Pharisees to his rejection of their ideas about defilement (see Matthew 15:12). Remember that Jesus is not withdrawing out of fear; he has a lot to accomplish before intentionally putting his life on the line in Jerusalem.

Jesus makes his remarks about defilement — externals cannot defile — even more vivid by leaving Galilee for Tyre and Sidon, the long-time enemies of Israel, often condemned by the prophets (verse 21). The Pharisees would certainly break off harassing him there because going there would defile them!

When a desperate mother emerges from nearby to cry out to Jesus for help, Matthew makes certain to call her a Canaanite (verse 22). Further, the verbal form makes it obvious that she kept on crying out, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! When she describes her situation, she makes it clear that her daughter is continually and cruelly tormented by a demon. This is torture for mother and daughter alike.

While it is impossible to discern the exact situation, Jesus and his disciples seem to have been walking down a road with this desperate mother trailing along behind — as indicated by the Greek adverb opisthen meaning from behind — and screaming for Jesus attention. Since Jesus was not saying a word (verse 23), his disciples grew irritated and kept asking him to send her away.

Jesus answered his disciples, though probably in a way the woman could hear, by saying, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (verse 24).[2] In light of what Jesus will soon do for the woman, the question is: why does he say this to his disciples? The answer is that he is testing them. Do they have any clue that dealing with this woman presents a defilement issue that relates to what Jesus has recently revealed? The answer seems to be yes and no yes because she is a woman and a Canaanite (traditional sources of defilement), and no in that they are oblivious to the fact that these issues are external, not matters of the heart. According to what Jesus has recently revealed, externals do not defile anyone (Matthew 15:12).

Who understands what Jesus has taught?

So, the disciples fail their exam, but the woman does not! Ignoring the disciples, she places herself directly before Jesus, kneels and says, Lord, help me! Jesus answers her in metaphorical terms: It is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs (verse 26). In the metaphor, the children are the Jews, the descendants of Abraham, and the dogs are the Gentiles, including the Canaanites.

We have reached a key point in the story. Jesus has said that it is not right to help her, but she answers, Yes, it is Lord, meaning that she is contradicting him.[3] He says no but she says yes! She takes hold of his metaphor and extends it to give her argument: Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table (verse 27). She concedes that he must rightly see to the needs of the Jews first, but his well-known mercy can easily meet her request as well.[4]

Throughout these events Jesus has maintained the appearance of helping only the Jews and not the Gentiles. I have suggested that his intention was to test his disciples, though his initial silence toward the Canaanite woman tested her too. How will Jesus react to being contradicted by a Canaanite woman?

The answer is unfortunately not easy for the readers of an English version to see. The Greek text reveals that verse 28 is a climactic moment. Jesus has withheld and concealed his overflowing mercy until this moment. When he releases that mercy, he shows great emotion toward the Canaanite woman who has shown such extraordinary faith. Nowhere else in the Matthews Gospel is anyone told that they have great faith.

Jesus grants the womans repeated request; he daughter is healed by her mothers faith in Jesus (verse 28).

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Matthew 4:12, 12:15, 14:13 and 15:21. His parents also withdrew from danger with him in Matthew 2:13 and 2:22.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 593.

[3] Stephen Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010) 156.

[4] France, Matthew, 595. See also page 589, footnote 6.

A matter of the heart, Matthew 15:15-20

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the old children’s rhyme that tries to convince children to ignore taunts. Whatever good the rhyme may accomplish is countered by selling it with some big lies. First, every adult knows how much words can hurt. Second, God uses our words as a measure of our hearts. Oh my!

Matthew 15:15-20

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a persons mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Commentary

Peter reminds me of certain Christian adults living in 2015 in that he heard what Jesus said (in verse 11) but made little to no effort to understand it on his own (verse 15).[1] Nor did Jesus let the matter go by unremarked!

Verse 16 is a hammer stroke against spiritual timidity and laziness. The first word out of Jesus mouth is the rare Greek adverb akmen meaning “even yet.” The following “you” is plural, showing that Peter is not alone, but the crusher is the adjective meaning uncomprehending. Even after being with Jesus for an extended period, they still lack a keen spiritual sense! How did Jesus find this out? By the words that came out of Peter’s mouth. That fact is ironic in light of what Jesus teaches them next.

The question Jesus asks in verse 17 expects a “yes” answer. Yes, all the disciples know that food simply passes through the body and then leaves it. The same is true of wine, water and other things taken in through the mouth. They have no bearing on the persons defilement status because they tell us nothing about the person.

Jesus next reveals the actual source of personal defilement: the heart as revealed by the things that come out of a persons mouth (verse 18). While NIV has Jesus saying that the heart is the source of evil thoughts (verse 19), the Greek word can include reasoning, intentions and plans as well. Further, Jesus qualifies these thoughts by calling them wicked or vicious. This description plainly fits when we learn that these thoughts include murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. For example, the religious leaders are already planning to murder Jesus and have slandered him by claiming that his miraculous acts are empowered by Satan rather than the Holy Spirit.

At last, Jesus returns to the original accusation against his disciples (verse 20). They are innocent of defilement because eating with unwashed hands can only affect what goes into the mouth and later emerges. Compared to the religious leaders, their hearts are pure even if their hands are not!

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] To clarify, I am certainly not talking about fellow members of the Life Group I belong to, who continually show that they are seeking to know God better! They inspire all who visit our group.

A major break — part 2, Matthew 15:10-14

One interesting thing about a Dallas Cowboys football game is that if you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. The ticket qualifies you to enter the stadium and sit in a particular seat. In a similar way, avoiding ritual defilement was necessary in the time of Jesus to enter the temple and worship God. Those who were defiled, according to the law, were not qualified to enter and worship.

Because the temple was central to the worship of God, a great deal of rabbinic teaching existed to define defilement and to spell out how to eliminate it. You would think that defilement would be the one thing that all Jewish religious leaders understood. But Jesus refuted that belief.

Matthew 15:10-14

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someones mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?
13 He replied, Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.

Commentary

When Jesus summons the crowd to listen and understand (verse 10), that sets the stage for an escalation of the conflict between him and the Jewish religious leaders. What Jesus says in verse 11 seems simple enough to us, but it directly contradicted the teaching of the Jewish religious leaders about defilement. They claimed that defilement came from external sources, but Jesus said that what emerges from the mouth, from the inside of a person, is what defiles that person.

When we get to verse 18, Jesus will identify the exact inner source of what defiles a person.
Presumably some time passed after Jesus spoke to the crowd (verse 11), and during that time the Pharisees were seething and deeply offended over what Jesus had said about defilement. The disciples quickly learned of this development and went to Jesus to warn him of it (verse 12). The disciples show the respect many must have felt toward a high-level delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem.

Jesus answers the news with a surprising metaphor: Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots (verse 13). Since the traditions of the Pharisees contradict the commandment of God, they are the ones who can expect to be pulled up by the roots! This language may well look back to the Parable of the Weeds, where Jesus taught about the separation that will take place at the final judgment.[1] Jesus disciples are the plants established by God, not the Pharisees and their allies.

As to how they might relate to the offended Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples, Leave them (verse 14a), with the idea of abandoning them and going on to something else. This Greek verb is also used for divorce. In offering his reasons for this action, Jesus returns to metaphors: They are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (verse 14b). In the arid climate of Palestine, cisterns were dug underground and lined with stone. The surface entry was often a terrible hazard for those unable to see.

Ritual purity, and therefore defilement, held extreme importance to the Pharisees. Jesus has already crossed the boundary of propriety by touching women, lepers and even the dead in order to heal them. Now he moves from deed to word in teaching that defilement comes from within, not from externals. R. T. France explains the significance by saying, After this dialogue the breach between Jesus and the scribal establishment is irreparable.[2]

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Passages such as Isaiah 5:1-7 contain similar ideas.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 575.