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Matthew 15:21-28

Lesson Focus

God calls us to respond with generosity in all matters of life because we have already been recipients of God’s great abundance.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand the need to reassess our cultural assumptions so that we may become more open to sharing God’s abundance.

  2. Analyze the contrasting responses to Jesus' identity and teachings between religious leaders and the Gentile woman, highlighting the importance of humility, openness, and genuine faith.

  3. Explore the theme of abundance and generosity in God's economy, discerning how small and seemingly insignificant aspects can hold great value and potential, and apply this perspective to personal attitudes and actions towards others.

Catching up on the Story

In the chapters leading up to Matthew 15, Jesus taught the crowd through parables. Parables are a form of storytelling that uses familiar imagery to describe an unfamiliar idea or concept. Knowing his context well, Jesus largely uses stories with an agrarian setting. More often than not, Jesus compares a situation from everyday first-century Jewish life to the kingdom of heaven. He desires to see his followers, which includes but is not limited to the disciples, understand the nature of God’s kingdom so that they might receive it with joy and then participate in the work that needs doing.

On top of the fact that his disciples are a little slow to understand the nature of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus visits his hometown only to be ridiculed and ultimately rejected. After Jesus’ rejection in his hometown, Matthew inserts a short interlude regarding John the Baptist’s execution as a gift to King Herod’s daughter (stepdaughter?). Apparently, Jesus needs some time to process the death of his friend and forerunner, as he goes off in a boat to be alone. Presumably, Jesus spends some time in prayer, though Matthew doesn’t explicitly mention prayer.

Jesus’ solitude is short-lived as the crowds discover where he is and flocks to him when he finally comes ashore. Due to the place’s remoteness and the late hour, Jesus is concerned that the crowd has enough to eat. A few fish and some bread are found, and Jesus blesses and breaks it and feeds the crowd. After the feast was over, Jesus sent his disciples in a boat to the other side of the lake. A storm pops up, making it difficult for the disciples to progress. Jesus has no boat with which he might catch up to his disciples, so he sets out across the water on foot. Soon, Jesus walks on the water right past his disciples, who think he’s a ghost. After Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water, both Peter and Jesus return to the boat.

Upon reaching the other side, Jesus is once again recognized, and the sick are brought to him for healing. Unlike his hometown, Jesus is able to do many miracles. While Jesus’ ministry on this side of the lake seems to be going well, a conflict arises between the local religious leaders and Jesus because he and his disciples don’t observe some of the purity rituals proscribed by the law. In a precursor to the early church’s struggle with their expanding mission to the Gentiles, Jesus proclaims that it isn’t what one eats that makes a person unclean but what comes out of their mouth by way of the heart. This bit of foreshadowing prepares the reader for Jesus’s confrontation with a Canaanite woman.

Have Mercy on Me!

Jesus and his disciples left the area beside the lake, traveling to the area surrounding the cities of Tyre and Sidon. This territory is not part of the nation of Israel, and so its inhabitants are largely Gentiles. It’s in verse 22 that we meet the Canaanite woman. At first glance, labeling this woman as a Canaanite seems a bit out of place. Indeed, it is anachronistic, as the label Canaanite is meant to evoke images from Israel’s history of the inhabitants who originally populated what is now considered Israel. For the Jews, Canaanites were objects of scorn and true enemies of Israel. Talking and associating with a Gentile of such pedigree would have been scandalous (Nolland, 631).

What’s even more surprising is the woman’s cry, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” The woman addresses Jesus with two titles, the generic “Lord” and Jesus’ Messianic title, “Son of David.” “Lord” was a common way of addressing those of higher social and economic status. “Son of David” evokes all of Israel’s hopes, past and present, for the coming of an anointed one who will bring about salvation and liberation for God’s people. Notably, the woman’s confessional address to Jesus, recognizing him as Israel’s Messiah, is contrasted with the conflict story directly preceding this episode. An ignorant and unclean woman understands Jesus’ identity better than Israel’s religious leaders do. Matthew presents this woman as a model of faith. The woman’s initial address is followed by a plea for healing and restoration on behalf of her daughter, who is tormented by a demon.