MERCY EXTENDED TO THE GENTILES DESPITE JESUS FOCUSING ON THE PRIORITY OF HIS MISSION TO THE JEWS
Stanley Saunders: From the woman’s perspective, this is a story about walls, obstacles, persistence, ingenuity, and faith. The Gospels consistently associate strong demonstrations of faith with boundary crossings. In this story the woman scales the walls of race and gender, but she also must overcome Jesus’ own tenacious adherence to his mission. Three times Jesus seeks to turn her away, but she never quits. And while Matthew preserves the sense that Jesus remains undeterred from his calling, the story also suggests that she converts him. Faith not only brings healing, it transforms relationships. The woman’s faith stands in sharp contrast to the dogged defense of the status quo, with all its walls and hierarchies, of the Pharisees and scribes (cf. 15:1–20).
David Turner: The woman’s final plea is amazing in both humility and insight, asking Jesus to permit her a scrap from the children’s bread. His response commends her great faith and grants her request (15:27–28). The drama of repeated requests and responses heightens the reader’s anticipation as Jesus places obstacle after obstacle in front of the woman. The inclusion of Ruth and Tamar in Jesus’s genealogy (1:3, 5) prepares the attentive reader for this episode.
Warren Wiersbe: Jesus was trying to remain hidden (Mark 7:24), but somehow this Canaanite woman heard where He was and came to Him with her need. Keep in mind that our Lord responded to this woman as He did, not to destroy her faith, but to develop it. Her own replies showed that she was growing in faith and unwilling to let Him go without getting an answer.
Leon Morris: From a story of unremitting hostility Matthew turns to one of outstanding and unexpected trust. This is one of very few stories of healings of people outside the Israelite nation, and it presents Christians with a problem in that Jesus seems to take up a harsh attitude toward the suppliant woman. Mark has this story too, though with differences. But in both it is clear that the woman had exceptional faith and that her persistence received its due reward.
Richard Gardner: Having challenged traditional ways of viewing clean and unclean (15:1-20), Jesus proceeds to take a journey to an unclean land. He heads for the district of Tyre and Sidon (15:21), the Gentile area of southern Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon). After an episode with an inhabitant of this region, Jesus returns to the area around the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee (15:29). Here too, however, there are hints that the events described are taking place on the boundary of the Jewish world. Unlike the typical audiences up to now, the crowds here respond to Jesus’ ministry with fervent praise. And the very name Galilee, as understood by Matthew, denotes a place of hope for other nations as well as Israel (cf. 4:15-16; 28:16-20).
What we have then in 15:21-39 are several episodes which look ahead to the salvation of the Gentiles, even though Jesus’ mission is itself confined to Israel. Each of the episodes attests Jesus’ miraculous power, so that formally the unit is a collection of miracle stories. In the first episode (vv. 21-28), a conversation on how far Jesus’ mercy may extend leads at last to the healing of a woman’s possessed child. The second story consists of a Matthean summary (vv. 29-31), describing the healing of numbers of people with a variety of diseases and disabilities. And in the third and final account (vv. 32-39), we find a gift miracle which reads like a reprise on the story in 14:15-21.
(:21) GEOGRAPHICAL TRANSITION – SURPRISING GENTILE DESTINATION
“And Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon.”
Stanley Saunders: Here, as in most instances, flight is followed by healings (cf. 4:23–25; 9:24–25; 12:15; 14:13–14). Tyre and Sidon are known in the prophetic writings (Ezek. 27–28; Isa. 23) for their economic disparities and arrogance. Yet Jesus has already said that these two cities will find more favor on the judgment day than the cities of Galilee, where he has ministered (11:22).
David Turner: This is Jesus’s fourth strategic withdrawal from conflict (cf. 2:12–14, 22; 4:12; 12:15; 14:13). He leaves Galilee for the region of Tyre and Sidon (cf. 11:22; Isa. 23:1–4; Jer. 25:22), a journey less than fifty miles to the north (cf. Mark 7:24–30). Jesus’s previous statements about true purity (Matt. 15:10–20) are immediately put into practice in ministry to unclean Gentiles.
R. T. France: This was not a mission to the pagan cities (like Jonah’s to Nineveh), but a retreat to a place where Jesus and his disciples could be away from Jewish opposition and Jewish crowds. There is no indication that he sought contact with the local people; it is the woman in v. 22 and the crowd in v. 30 who initiate the contact, and Jesus here shows no enthusiasm for the encounter.
Broadus: The jealousy of Herod (Mt 14:1 f.), the hostility of the Pharisees (Mt 12:14; 15:1, 12; also Mt 4:12; John 4:1–3), and the fanatical notions of the masses (John 6:15), still required that Jesus should withdraw from Galilee, as heretofore in Mt 14:13.
David Thompson: Two of the most despicable cities in the entire Bible were the cities of Tyre and Sidon. They were godless, arrogant, satanic places that are judged by God. It is a tragedy when Jesus finds greater refuge in godless environments rather than in His own hometown or environments that are supposed to be godly.
Tyre was 35 miles from Galilee and Sidon was about 60. The region was a Gentile area located along the northwestern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Christ had referred to these two cities earlier in His ministry when He said that if He had done His miracles in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented (Matt. 11:21). But the truth is Jesus didn’t do His miracles in this area. He came to offer Himself as King to Israel, not to evangelize the judged cities of Tyre and Sidon, or try to win Canaanite people who should have been destroyed (Deut. 20:16-17).
I. (:22-23a) MEGA FAITH REACHES OUT TO THE SAVIOR
A. (:22) Surprising Mega Faith Reflected in Plea for Mercy
- Surprising Mega Faith Coming from a Gentile woman
“And behold, a Canaanite woman came out from that region,”
D. A. Carson: The introductory idou (lit., “behold,” untranslated in NIV) probably points to the extraordinary nature of the story. Mark (7:26) calls the woman “a Greek [i.e., a non-Jewess], born in Syrian Phoenicia.” Matthew’s use of the old term “Canaanite” shows that he cannot forget her ancestry: now a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies comes to the Jewish Messiah for blessing. Exelthousa (lit., “coming out”) does not mean that she came out of that pagan region to meet Jesus but either that her ancestry was there or that she had left her home (Bonnard, Lohmeyer). Her calling Jesus “Son of David” shows some recognition of Jesus as the Messiah who would heal the people.
- Surprising Mega Faith Focusing on the Identity of Jesus as Messiah to the Jews
“and began to cry out, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David;’”
- Surprising Mega Faith Showing Confidence in the Power of Jesus over Demonic Forces
“my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.’”
Charles Swindoll: Everything about the situation had the makings of an awkward, puzzling, and even scandalous clash of cultures.
- First, in that context it was socially improper for a woman to be addressing a man in this way.
- Second, though the woman was a Gentile, she acknowledged Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David” – a startling confession of faith in Jesus’ messianic identity, especially in light of the fact that the Jewish religious leaders had rejected it.
- And third, to this point Jesus’ preaching and ministry had been focused almost exclusively on Jews, on calling the house of Israel to repentance.
B. (:23a) Surprising Silence of Jesus to Her Initial Plea
“But He did not answer her a word.”
Craig Blomberg: Surprisingly, Jesus breaks his pattern of immediately responding to requests for healing. His silence therefore seems deliberate and dramatic. The closest parallel to date has been the seemingly unintentional delay before Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter (9:18-26), a delay that ultimately magnified both the miracle and God’s glory.
J. Ligon Duncan: At first, He says nothing. And it is very important for you to understand that this is not insensitivity. Not only does your doctrine of Christ tell you that that could not be what this is, but Matthew himself is going to let you know in no uncertain terms in this text that Jesus’ initial silence and His initial hard words to this woman are deliberate. They are part of a plan. Jesus is saying what He is saying for a reason. And the reason is going to be a blessing for this woman. And so Jesus is not simply being rude. He is not being insensitive. Jesus is doing this for a reason and it for her benefit. In fact, the exchange between Christ and this woman is not only for her benefit but it is actually for the benefit of the disciples. And some of the words that Jesus will speak, are designed to prick the hard hearts of His own disciples so that they might see their lack of compassion. . .
Now, I want you to understand that Jesus, by speaking to her in verse 24, is explicitly refusing the request of the disciples. You see, you’d think in verse 23 that by not responding to her that Jesus is showing some form of cruelty. But in verse 24, by speaking to her when His disciples have asked Him to send her away, Jesus is showing that He has something cooking. Jesus has something going on in the response He wants to give to this woman. And He’s explicitly rejecting what His disciples have requested. They want her out. They want her away. They want her gone. But the Lord Jesus engages her in conversation, and even though His words are hard they are not only difficult to comprehend, but they may seem to be insensitive in verse 24, recognize that those words represent the fact that Jesus has absolutely no intention of doing what His disciples want Him to do, and that is to ignore this woman in her hour of need.
II. (:23b-24) MISSION OF JESUS RESTATED – PRIORITY MUST FOCUS ON THE JEWS
A. (:23b) Disciples Are Dismissive
“And His disciples came to Him and kept asking Him, saying,
‘Send her away, for she is shouting out after us.’”
D. A. Carson: Jesus’ silence does not quiet the woman; so his disciples beg him to stop her persistent cries (v.23). If they mean “send her away without helping her,” either they suppose she is annoying him or they themselves are being annoyed. But their words could also be taken to mean “send her away with her request granted” (so Meyer, Benoit). Indeed only this interpretation makes sense, because v.24 gives a reason for Jesus’ not helping her rather than for not sending her away.
David Turner: It is possible that Matt. 15:23–24 should be understood a bit differently, with the disciples asking Jesus to heal the woman in 15:23 and with Jesus answering them, not her, in 15:24 (Légasse 1972b: 28). But it is unlikely that ἀπόλυσον (apolyson) means “set free” (by healing her daughter) rather than “dismiss” (cf. BDAG 117–18).
B. (:24) Deeds of Mercy Must Be Directed
“But He answered and said,
‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’”
D. A. Carson: It appears, then, that Jesus wanted his disciples and the Canaanite woman to recognize “that his activities were circumscribed not only by the inevitable limitations of his manhood, but by the specific part that he had been called to play during his brief earthly life” (Tasker, 150). True, Jesus was “Son of David,” as the woman said, but that did not give her the right to enjoy the benefits covenanted to the Jews. The kingdom must first be offered to them. The thought is like John 4:22: “Salvation is from the Jews.” The Samaritan woman, like this Canaanite woman, had to recognize this—even if a time was coming when true worship would transcend such categories (Jn 4:23–26).
Jeffrey Crabtree: Interpreters debate whom Jesus was speaking to in verse 24 since He did not specifically address His comments to either the woman or His disciples. Gundry (312-313; also Walvoord 118) says Jesus was talking to His disciples and the woman overheard him. He says that Jesus’ restricted calling and His disciples’ antagonism were obstacles that highlighted this Gentile’s faith. Bruner (2:99) suggests He may have been talking to Himself.
Whether speaking directly to her or not, He was clearly talking about her and intended that she hear. She seized the opportunity to beg and came closer.
S. Lewis Johnson: There are a lot of people, unfortunately, that seem to be disturbed by the doctrine of election, and allow this great doctrine in which we should rejoice—the Lord Jesus said remember, rejoice that your names are written in heaven. This is something to be happy about. She doesn’t allow the doctrine of election in which on the surface it appears that she’s not included to disturb her. This doctrine of the divine choice of a people from before the foundation of the world acts with a very depressing effect on some people—the non-elect—and acts with a very depressing effect on the elect, often, until they have been wrought upon by the Holy Spirit, then they begin to rejoice in the thing that used depress them. Strange people these Christians.
“We’ve known poor seekers mournfully to say,” Mr. Spurgeon used to say, “perhaps there’s no mercy for me. I may be among those for whom no purpose of mercy has been formed.” It always puzzles me when we read in the word of God that the gospel is for sinners – that’s a pretty broad term, sinners. As a matter of fact, it includes everyone in this room, and in the room over there too, and those sitting out in the hall as well. Maybe especially you out in the hall [laughter]. Sinners, that’s comprehensive enough to include every son of Adam and Adam too. Why this should be disturbing to some I don’t know. But nevertheless, this woman is not disturbed by doctrines of distinguishing grace.
III. (:25-28) MEGA FAITH REFLECTS A GENUINE HEART
A. (:25-26) Genuine Heart of Worshipful Expectation Despite Multiple Obstacles
- (:25) Her Plea for Help from Posture of Worship
“But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying,
“Lord, help me!’”
Stanley Saunders: The doctor is not taking new clients at this time. She fits neither his mission objective, restoring Israel, nor the demographic profile of his constituency. She ignores this rationale, falls before him, and pleads: “Lord, help me.” He explains again the exclusive nature of his mission.
Stu Weber: The woman came close to Jesus and knelt before him. The verb knelt is the common word that means “to worship” (e.g., 15:9). In this vivid account, there is probably an emphasis on the literal meaning of the word, “to bow down,” but there is also a deliberate contrast between this woman’s genuine, heart-felt response to Jesus and Israel’s false, superficial “worship” in 15:9. This woman knew she needed a Savior, but Israel thought they were doing fine on their own.
This is true worship in its most basic form—to cast ourselves on God in helplessness, acknowledging the Lord’s power, love, and wisdom as our only source of help.
- (:26) The Lord’s Response from Priority of Mission
“And He answered and said,
‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’”
David Turner: The point here is the redemptive-historical priority of Israel (Calvin 1972:2.169–70; Carson 1984: 355–56). Jews come first in Jesus’s ministry, yet he can also be compassionate to Gentiles once the “children” have been fed. Ancient negative stereotypes resulted in frequent epithets like this being hurled by Gentiles at Jews and by Jews at Gentiles, but Jesus’s speech is motivated by pastoral concerns. His blunt language reflects his culture, yet his commendation of the woman’s faith and his upcoming gentile mission transcend that culture.
Charles Swindoll: Everything He said was true, but His statement was intended to provoke the woman to demonstrate her persistence, not to crush her spirit.
Warren Wiersbe: The Greek word means “a little pet dog” and not the filthy curs that ran the streets and ate the garbage.
R. T. France: We can only speculate on why Jesus felt it appropriate in this case to raise the stakes so high in reminding the woman of the primarily Israelite focus of the Messiah’s mission before eventually acceding to her feisty response. Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in the cheek, and it may be that Jesus’ demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not to be his last word on the subject. Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view — even if the phrase “devil’s advocate” may not be quite appropriate to this context!
B. (:27-28) Genuine Heart of Humble Self-Awareness in Her Persistent Plea
- (:27) Her Plea from Posture of Humble Submission — Crumbs for a Canaanite
“But she said, ‘Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs
which fall from their masters’ table.’”
D. A. Carson: As does Paul in Romans 9–11, the woman preserves Israel’s historical privilege over against all radical idealization or spiritualization of Christ’s work, yet perceives that grace is freely given to the Gentiles.
Jeffrey Crabtree: The woman’s self-identification with dogs shows that she understood what Jesus meant and accepted her place as one outside the covenant community. She had no right to ask this favor. She understood that Jesus was speaking of “order of priority” (Newman and Stine 512-513). He was the Jews’ Messiah first. She believed, though, that her needs could be met immediately.
R. T. France: The “debate” reaches its climax in an unexpectedly feisty response from this Gentile woman. Far from being the meek acquiescence which most versions imply, it is a robust refusal to accept the apparent implication of Jesus’ words. She turns Jesus’ own parable against him. If Gentiles are to be “dogs,” then at least let the dogs have their due. The dogs do have a right to be fed, even if all they get is the left-overs. Jesus, as the Messiah of Israel (“Son of David,” v. 22), must indeed first go to his own people, but that does not mean that his mission must stop there. Her reply, whether she knows it or not, thus encapsulates the important biblical theology of the election of Israel not for their own benefit alone but to be a means of blessing to all nations, a light to the Gentiles (Gen 12:3; Isa 49:6). “Yes, it is right, Lord!”
J. Ligon Duncan: This woman reminds us that no one deserves the grace of God. No one has a claim on God. No one can say, “You must give me this, God!” She teaches that we all stand as beggars before God, deserving only wrath and condemnation. And yet she willingly holds out her hands, and she says, ‘You are my only hope, give me the crumbs.’ What she’s teaching us there is that we’re all dogs. We all stand precisely in the same position.
You see, this is not about where Gentiles stand in juxtaposition to those of Israel in Jesus’ day. Ultimately, this is about where every human being stands before God. We do not stand before God in a position where we may demand of Him His grace. We stand before Him deserving condemnation and begging grace. For the woman, Christ gave her an opportunity for her faith to be strengthened. For the disciples, He is laying the groundwork for their eventual mission to the Gentiles. You remember in the previous passage, He’s already declared all foods clean. Now He is implying that that Old Covenant divide between Jew and Gentile is going to be brought down into rubble in His kingdom. And that the Gentiles, the Canaanites, will worship the God of Israel by the grace of the Messiah of Israel. We learn here that faith never looks at the salvation of God, at the grace of God, at the blessing of God as an entitlement. We are entitled to nothing but hell. Grace is grace.
- (:28) The Lord’s Response from Recognition of Her Mega Faith
“Then Jesus answered and said to her, ‘O woman, your faith is great;
be it done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed at once.”
Craig Blomberg: Jesus apparently wants to demonstrate and stretch this woman’s faith. The “children” must then refer to Israel and the “bread” to the blessings of God on the Jews, particularly through Jesus’ healing ministry. The woman disputes none of Jesus’ terms but argues that, even granting his viewpoint, he should still help her (v. 27). The Gentiles should receive at least residual blessings from God’s favor on the Jews. In fact, the Old Testament from Gen 12:1-3 onwards promised far more than residue. The woman reveals a tenacious faith even as a Gentile (v. 28). Jesus explicitly commends this faith, closely paralleling the narrative of 8:5-13 (as does also his instantaneous healing from a distance). Matthew’s distinctives underline her faith by the addition both of her words in v. 22 and of Jesus’ praise here. “Your request is granted” more literally reads let it be done for you as you wish.
Leon Morris: It is interesting that Jesus does not commend the woman’s persistence or her humility; it is her faith that is basic. She believed in Jesus, and in the end she obtained her petition. Jesus says that it will be “as you wish”; the woman’s deep desire was granted. Matthew tells us that the girl was healed immediately. He never gives an indication of the nature of the illness; for him two things were important: the faith of the Canaanite woman and the immediacy of the cure of her daughter.
Stu Weber: There was no longer any reason to test the woman’s faith, so Jesus assured her that her deepest desire had been granted. Just as with the centurion’s servant (8:13), Jesus performed a long-distance healing. Matthew records that the woman’s daughter was healed that very hour.
Warren Wiersbe: It is worth noting that both of the persons in the gospel of Matthew who had “great faith” were Gentiles: this Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13). In both cases, Jesus healed the one in need from a distance. Spiritually speaking, the Gentiles were “afar off” until Calvary, when Jesus Christ died for both Jews and Gentiles and made reconciliation possible (Eph. 2:11ff.).
(:29-31) GEOGRAPHICAL TRANSITION – HEALINGS ON THE HILL –
SUMMARY OF HEALING MINISTRY OF JESUS
A. (:29) Jesus Still Seeking Seclusion
“And departing from there, Jesus went along by the Sea of Galilee,
and having gone up to the mountain, He was sitting there.”
Stanley Saunders: Matthew again uses a summary of Jesus’ healing ministry as a narrative transition (cf. 4:23–25; 9:35–38). Jesus, who has been temporarily sidetracked from his mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24), now passes from the region of Tyre and Sidon (15:21) back along the Sea of Galilee to an unnamed mountain (15:29), where he sits down, as if to teach (cf. 5:1–2). It is not students who come to him, however, but “great crowds” bringing Israel’s lame, maimed, blind, and mute for healing. Each of these conditions represents not only physical disorders that afflict individuals, but Israel’s own maladies. These are the symptoms of oppression, exploitation, and rebellion against God. Whereas the Pharisees and scribes have challenged Jesus’ authority and its source (12:1–14, 22–37; 15:1–9), the crowds rightly “see” the power of “the God of Israel” at work (15:31).
Jeffrey Crabtree: The travel from Galilee to Tyre, on to Sidon, and then back down into the Decapolis, would have taken a few weeks, perhaps as much as six months (Barclay 2:147). The feeding of the five thousand was in the spring (Jn. 6:4) and by the fall Jesus was back in Galilee with His family (Jn. 7:2-3)—and six months from the cross! The Decapolis ministry and miracles, then, took place in mid to late summer of the final year of Jesus’ ministry and was in an area populated mainly by Gentiles.
Homer Kent: Mark shows that Jesus proceeded northward in Phoenicia through Sidon, then eastward across the Jordan, and finally southward through Decapolis till he reached the Sea of Galilee. This route suggests that he deliberately avoided the domain of Herod Antipas.
B. (:30-31) Jesus Still Responding to Desperate Needs
- (:30) Multitude of Healings
“And great multitudes came to Him, bringing with them those who were lame, crippled, blind, dumb, and many others, and they laid them down at His feet;
and He healed them,”
R. T. France: The summary of Jesus’ healings in this Gentile area is as comprehensive as among the Jews in 14:34–36, but this time it is expressed in terms of specific complaints rather than in purely general terms, though with a generalizing “many others” at the end of the list. The complaints mentioned recall Isa 35:5–6, the blessings promised as part of God’s redemption of his people, a passage which was also echoed in Jesus’ depiction of the “deeds of the Messiah” in 11:5; but now those messianic blessings are being experienced also outside the covenant people.
William Hendriksen: The very simplicity of the account makes it all the more touching. As far as the record goes no questions were asked as to whether a person happened to be Gentile – this was Gentile territory – or Jew. There is nothing at all to indicate whether the handicapped individual had already accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior (which seems improbable) or whether perhaps he or his sponsor “believed” in him only as a worker of miracles. All that mattered was that this man or woman or child needed help, and that Jesus was able and ws eager to provide this help, this healing. . .
- (:31) Marveling Response
a. Response of Wonder
“so that the multitude marveled as they saw the dumb speaking,
the crippled restored, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing;”
b. Response of Worship
“and they glorified the God of Israel.”
R. V. G. Tasker: that Jesus was now in predominantly non-Jewish territory is implicit in the statement that the praise offered by those who experienced Jesus’ healing power was ascribed to “the God of Israel.”