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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.

Jesus’ initial reluctance to answer the woman’s call may surprise us, but it likely would not have been to Jesus’ disciples or Matthew’s original readers. We’re left to wonder why Jesus fails to respond. After all, is this not the same Jesus who admonishes us to care for the “least of these?” Surely, a despised and unclean woman whose daughter suffers can be considered one of the “least of these?”

The woman is persistent in the way only a mother can be, as she keeps calling out to Jesus. By this time, the disciples have noticed that Jesus is not going to respond to this woman’s call, so they encourage Jesus to send the woman away. We’re not told what Jesus is doing at that moment. Perhaps he’s teaching or otherwise engaged in a ministry of healing. Either way, the disciples see the woman’s cries as a distraction and possibly an embarrassment.

Sent Only to the Lost Sheep of Israel

At the urging of his disciples, Jesus finally responds, though his response isn’t what the woman wanted. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Bruner points out that Matthew isn’t specific regarding who Jesus is addressing. Of course, he might be speaking directly to the woman. Or, he might be addressing his disciples as an explanation for his refusal to help. A further possibility is that Jesus’ response is directed toward the Father! Maybe we’re being let in on a dialogue between Jesus and the Father regarding the direction of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps Jesus’ human side, influenced as it was by the Jewish culture in which he was raised, wants to continue his focused attention on Israel, but his conference with the Father reminds him that the salvation Jesus will eventually bring through his death and resurrection, was always to include those outside Israel (Bruner, 98). Ultimately, who Jesus is addressing doesn’t matter. What matters is that the woman hears his response but is not deterred

Not willing to give up, the woman runs to his feet and begs for help, her physical posture communicating her lowly status and her willing submission to Jesus. This time Jesus responds immediately, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. In essence, Jesus calls this desperate woman a dog!

Curiously, the word Jesus uses for “dog” specifically describes a house dog. She may be a dog, but she’s ultimately a resident of the house and not a homeless stray. With this statement, Jesus concedes that while the woman may not be a part of Israel’s family, at least she is part of the household. As this passage continues, the degrees of separation between the woman and Jesus slowly diminish and ultimately fade away.

The woman is quick-witted and unafraid in her response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The woman’s response is as brilliant as it is hopeful. She turns the tables on Jesus! She’s not asking for much, just the scraps of what might be left over after a meal. Her confidence and expectation that even the littlest bit of help from Jesus would be more than enough display her great faith.

Jesus recognizes the woman’s great faith in her witty reply, so he immediately heals the woman’s daughter.

So What?

Matthew gives us this story to contrast the behavior and belief of the Jewish religious leaders with that of a Gentile woman. Where the religious leaders were unable or unwilling to hear and understand, the Gentile woman heard, understood, and responded with great faith.

Ultimately, what’s this story about, then? First, it’s a warning to those who believe they’ve got it all figured out but are just as lost as the rest of us, only in a different direction. Second, it gives hope to those who think themselves far off (though, I probably wouldn’t try to evangelize anyone with this passage, as they’ll end up questioning Jesus’ behavior). Finally, it displays the abundance of love, compassion, and forgiveness God has to spread over the Earth.

While I’m sure the first and second options are totally legitimate, I think the third option speaks in the same voice as most of the last few chapters in Matthew and to our present time and place. Recently, we’ve talked about the economy of the kingdom of heaven. We’ve learned that God’s economy operates on a different level: unsurpassed abundance and generosity. In God’s kingdom, there is always more than enough to go around. In the parable of the sower, God generously sows the seeds of the kingdom, knowing that not all will produce fruit. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, there were enough nutrients and moisture in the soil and more than enough sunshine to sustain the weeds without damaging the wheat. We see God’s abundant generosity in the feeding of the five thousand. What we believe is small or insignificant, and in the case of this passage, unclean, is filled with potential and value in God’s economy. God can take the smallest things (mustard seeds and yeast!) and empower them to live lives of faith and righteousness.

What, then, should we do? First, we work towards not judging things and people based on our cultural assumptions. Instead, we prayerfully seek to discern God’s will in the matter. If we’re open to it, God will open our eyes so that we might see things for what they really are. Second, we prayerfully and corporately seek to live in the abundance of God’s economy. As I wrote that last sentence, it began to sound like the prosperity gospel where faith will bring you riches. It’s not that, however. God’s economy is marked by generosity. We might be tempted to believe that God will bless us with the same abundance if we just believe. God calls us to respond with generosity in all matters of life because we have already been recipients of God’s great abundance.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. How does Jesus' use of parables connect familiar imagery with the kingdom of heaven?

  2. How does the Canaanite woman's recognition of Jesus' Messianic title contrast with the behavior of Israel's religious leaders?

  3. In what ways does the Canaanite woman's persistence challenge cultural norms and expectations?

  4. How does the woman's response, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," reflect her faith and humility?

  5. Why does Jesus initially seem reluctant to help the Canaanite woman, considering his teachings about caring for the marginalized?

  6. What significance does Jesus' response, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," carry in the context of this interaction?

  7. How does the Canaanite woman's quick-witted and unafraid response challenge Jesus' statement about the dogs and the children's food?

  8. What lessons can be drawn from the contrasts between the behavior and belief of the Jewish religious leaders and the Gentile woman?

  9. In what ways does the theme of abundance and generosity resonate throughout the passage and connect to larger biblical teachings?

  10. How does the story of the Canaanite woman challenge us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions and respond with generosity in our interactions with others?

Works Cited

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005.