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.