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 different banquet, Matthew 14:13-21

Matthew seems to contrast two feasts that occur in remote places. Herod Antipas invited his powerful friends to a drunken banquet marked by seduction and the death of a prophet in the wilderness fortress of Machaerus. Jesus and his disciples withdrew to a desolate place where they fed a hungry crowd after healing their many sick. The worldly rule of Herod and the merciful rule of God could hardly be more different.

Matthew 14:13-21

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, This is a remote place, and its already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.

16 Jesus replied, They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.

17 We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish, they answered.

18 Bring them here to me, he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Commentary

What may not be apparent to you is that Johns death represented a threat to Jesus, especially when Herod believed Jesus to be John resurrected from the dead (Matthew 13:2). We have to go back to Matthew 4:12 to see that, upon hearing that John had been imprisoned, Jesus withdrew from Perea to Galilee. The very same action, described by the very same Greek verb, occurs when Jesus gets the sad news about Johns death. Herod Antipas will indeed eventually get his hands on Jesus, but Jesus will remain silent, and Herod will eventually return him to the custody of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (Luke 23:6-12), for final disposition.

France suggests that Jesus may have retreated by boat just a few miles to the east of Capernaum, just past the inflowing Jordan River, to the empty shore in the tetrarchy of Phillip.[1] In any event, Jesus plan for isolation was thwarted when a crowd met him at the scene (verses 13-14). Moved by compassion, he healed their sick, a frequent theme in Matthew.

When evening neared, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the people away to deal with their hunger, but Jesus told his disciples to feed the people (verses 15-16)! No doubt that came as a shock, since the available food was totally inadequate (verse 17). In spite of the limited food, Jesus had it brought to him while he had the people sit down. Then he blessed the food and had the disciples distribute it (verse 19). And distribute it, and distribute it.

Verse 20 makes the shocking statement that all ate their fill, and considerable food was left over. The miracle is never described, but the completeness of it is obvious.[2] Matthew states that about 5,000 men ate, as well the women and children with them, a Jewish way of framing the number (verse 21). Matthew never calls this event a miracle, continuing the routine of simply telling what happened.

An Old Testament pattern fulfilled

Along with Osborne, I see in this miracle a distinct echo of the feeding miracle performed by Elisha the prophet in 2 Kings 4:42-44.[3] However, I think Osborne does not go far enough in light of Matthews proven tendency to use midrash in his writing. Recall that midrash was a Jewish technique that compared one Scripture with another. The situation in the Old Testament was one in which one prophet (Elisha) took over for another (Elijah), when Elijah was taken into heaven. Events demonstrated that Elisha worked even greater miracles than Elijah had done.

Matthew has presented both John the Baptist and Jesus as prophets, though in Jesus case that was only one of his roles. Jesus has named John as the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:14). John has, like Elijah, been taken from the scene, but Jesus, like Elisha, remains to do even greater things than John.

In 2 Kings 4, Elisha feeds a hundred men with twenty loaves of bread, and he had had some left over just as God had promised (2 Kings 4:44). Matthew presents an occasion when Jesus did a far greater work than Elisha the prophet, including the food left over. Not only does this demonstrate the complete supremacy of Jesus, but it also shows that Gods work in the world moves forward no matter what setbacks, such as the death of John, may occur. Matthews midrash helps reveal the hidden depth of Scripture.

How does an account such as this encourage you to entrust your needs to the compassion of Jesus?

 

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 560.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 567.

[3] Osborne, Matthew, 566.

Preview of coming events, Matthew 14:1-12

It is all too common to be haunted by the things we have done. Even we who trust in Jesus and enjoy his limitless grace can regret past acts. And we do. How much more can those who never knew him at all!

Matthew 14:1-12

14:1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.

3 Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 for John had been saying to him: It is not lawful for you to have her. 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

6 On Herods birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist. 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

Commentary

It is easy to get confused in this brief account. Matthew gives us events out of chronological order by using a flashback in verses 3-11. These events were already in the past, on Herod’s timeline, when Herod experienced the fears expressed in verses 1-2.

Herod Antipas (b. 21 B.C. – d. after A.D. 39), the tetrarch of Galilee (verse 1) was a son of Herod the Great, who tried to kill Jesus not long after he was born. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and Caesar Augustus divided his kingdom, delegating rule of Galilee and Perea to Herod Antipas. See the map in the Introduction. Like his father, Herod Antipas would not make a good ethical model, but his rule kept Galilee relatively stable and prosperous during Jesus life and ministry there.

After he had already ordered John the Baptist to be executed, as described in verses 3-12, Herod heard the reports about Jesus (verse 1), and verse 2 makes clear that the reports correctly included miraculous acts by Jesus. It was typical for reports to be made to rulers about important events in their territories, and Herod was at the fortress of Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea, 85 miles (by air) from the area where Jesus was working miracles. The rough terrain made the messenger’s actual travel much longer.

Osborne probably has the right idea that Herod’s guilty conscience had used Hellenistic ideas about spirits seeking revenge to come up with the idea that the miracle-working Jesus was actually John resurrected (verse 2).[1] Starting in verse 3, Matthew gives the twisted background behind John’s execution. Herod had arrested John to shut him up, because John had repeatedly said in public that it was not lawful for Herod to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (verses 3-4). As we will see, this was not the last time that Herod’s lust would land him in trouble. Herod wanted to kill John to stop the ongoing attack on his honor, but he knew that could cause real trouble with the people (verse 5), and that risked the anger of his Roman overlords.

Herod already had a wife, a Nabatean princess, whose royal father was furious and later waged a war that cost Herod dearly.[2] Herodias, who was Herod’s niece and the wife of Philip the tetrarch, soon proved that she could skillfully execute plots to get her way (verses 6-8). She relied on Herod’s lust and the alcohol that flowed freely in such quasi-royal birthday celebrations. It is amazing after so long a time that even non-biblical sources tell about Herod’s extravagant parties.[3]

When you consider the number of parties that occur where questionable or evil things occur, what should a Christian do about invitations to them?

Verses 610 need no explanation in this context. Herodias eliminated her greatest enemy; Herod gained a lifetime of bad dreams; John’s disciples, at great risk, requested John’s body and buried it. While we are here, it is illustrative to see that Herod got word by a messenger from Galilee, and Jesus received the bad news through John’s disciples after a long journey from the southern wastes. News traveled slowly.

John spoke the truth and, through scheming, was put to death. In that, he again served as a forerunner for Jesus. Matthew probably decided to use John’s story here to hint at what will follow for Jesus.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 557.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 554.

[3] France, Matthew, 555, footnote 17.