Proper 15 • Matthew 15:21–28 • August 14, 2011
by Michael J. Redeker
Liturgical Context: This week’s readings answer a question, “Do Gentiles have a part in God’s plan of salvation?” For example, Psalm 67 never tires of announcing YHWH’s blessings upon his people. But this Psalm also proclaims that all nations should recognize him as their judge, provider, and their way of governance as YHWH leads them.
The community of God also learns to break away from all narrow thinking when it comes to the reception of salvation. God’s plan is not exclusive for one ethnic group, but rather his plan includes all the peoples of the earth. YHWH makes just such an announcement in the Old Testament reading for the day as well. He says that foreigners will join themselves to the LORD, and the Lord GOD will gather the outcasts of Israel besides those that he has gathered already (Is 56:1, 6–8).
We will see whether or not Psalm 67 and Isaiah 56 are true as we go through today’s assigned Gospel reading. Will God hold to an exclusive, ethnic view regarding his plan for salvation? If God truly includes “foreigners,” then, when it comes right down to it, will he be gracious enough to include an Old Testament enemy of his and his people—a Canaanite—in his plan of grace?
Biblical context: Matthew 13 contains parables of our Lord, including the parable of the sower and the seed. Through this parable, Jesus teaches that there is nothing wrong with the seed—the word of God—at all. The seed is good seed. It is the soil that will determine the seed’s growth. The sower simply sows the word. We can ask how the Canaanite woman came to faith. After all, she lived in Gentile territory. How would a Canaanite woman hear about Israel’s Messiah and come to believe in him? Well, God revealed it to her. The word was carried there, she received it, and the seed took root in her life.
The other contextual event to consider when working through this text is the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 14. Jesus will also feed the 4,000 in chapter 15. These miracles bracket today’s Gospel reading. The bread of life from heaven feeds the multitudes of God’s people in these miracle events. The question in the woman’s heart is, “Can there be any bread of life for me as an outsider?”
Verses 21–22: Jesus heads toward Gentile territory. Whether he actually enters it or not is not entirely clear from the text. What is known, however, is that a resident from the area came out to meet Jesus. “It’s difficult to overstate the drama here. . . . This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is situated in every way ‘on the border’—on the boundary between the old and the new, between male and female, between Jew and Gentile, between friend and enemy, between the holy and the demonic.”1
The Canaanite woman has a major problem in that her daughter is oppressed by a demon. She cries out and continues to cry out over and over again to Jesus for mercy. The language she uses is that of a believing Israelite. She seems to be using the right “faith talk,” but is it simply all talk in order to manipulate Jesus into giving her what she seeks, or is it that she truly believes? The text does not tell us how she heard about Jesus at all. All we know is that in some way the word was sown in Gentile territory, and it grew in her life. We also know that her daughter is severely oppressed by a demon, and she has nowhere else to turn. At this point, we know that she has heard about Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, which is why she went to him for help.
Verses 23–24: We’re not told why Jesus didn’t say anything to the woman at this point. Was he teasing her, or was he testing her faith? Was Jesus acting cruelly in not answering her, or was he giving her the impression that he might actually give her a hearing? We don’t know because the text doesn’t tell us anything about the silence. Therefore, as preachers, we shouldn’t try to psychologize Jesus.
The disciples, in contrast to Jesus, were not at a loss for words. They certainly didn’t remain silent. They wanted this Canaanite woman to go away and leave them alone. Their way of getting rid of her was for Jesus to simply grant her request as soon as possible, or heal the daughter. Were they in the position to tell the Messiah to whom he should or should not grant blessings? They may have thought so, but he puts them in their place with his response that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yes, he was sent for the lost sheep, but would the Messiah exclude a lost sheep crying out for help simply because of her ethnicity?
Verse 25: The woman—the mother—is at the end of her rope. She needs help. Her daughter needs help, and she believes and trusts that Israel’s Messiah can give her aid.
Verse 26: The “bread of the children” points to the messianic fulfillment that is promised to Israel. Jesus said that it is not kalon (good), or “according to God’s plan” to take what belongs to the children and throw it to unclean dogs. (“Dogs” cannot be understood in a modern American sense—that they’re on the same par as a family member. Certainly, most people love their pets, and many will include them on the same level as they would a child.) In the biblical context, Jesus was calling this woman unclean. Jews insulted Gentiles by calling them “dogs.” Her position was not that of one of the children who would be privileged to sit at the table. Rather, hers was an inferior one compared to the children. In other words, it is not good to take God’s promises and eschatological blessings and throw them all to the unclean people.
Verse 27: The Canaanite woman recognized the priority of the children. She knew that they were the ones to receive and be fed the bread. However, the woman also knew of God’s abundance. After all, Jesus previously fed 5,000 men, plus the women and children who were present. He would do the same thing again soon with another 4,000. In both events, there were plenty of leftovers. The woman wasn’t ask- ing for the main course. She simply wanted to be included somewhere near, or under, the table of blessing. She trusted that the falling crumbs of abundance would be plenty enough for a person of her position.
Congregational context: There will probably be hearers in the pew who may wonder why they or someone they love is in a particular circumstance even though they trust in Jesus. After hearing this reading, they may wonder all the more why the woman’s daughter was granted healing, but they or their loved one hasn’t been granted the same answer to their pleas. It is important to remind Christians that God always hears their prayers, and he answers them with “yes,” “no,” or “wait.”
The focus of this reading is not on the healing, but rather on the faith of the woman. She trusted that his abundance could extend far enough to include a repentant enemy of God. His crumbs would be enough for her. The preacher could emphasize a couple of things through this reading. For instance, one of the applications can address any malady where people of the congregation might get a little territorial or inward-focused about “their church.” Jesus’s response to the disciples in verse 24 reminded them that they were not in a position to tell him what he should or should not do or to whom he should do it. This is a good reminder that Christianity is not “our” religion either. The congregations where we worship don’t really “belong” to us, but rather they belong to Christ. Thus, we are not free to tell the Messiah whom he should or should not let in. Jesus is the compassionate Messiah for all people regardless of their circumstances.
Another application can address any person who may believe that Jesus is for all people, but when it comes to applying God’s love to them individually, they have doubts because of their past or current circumstances. The Canaanite woman knew her position (sinful and unclean—very Lutheran!), but she also trusted in his abundance; your faith makes you part of the household of God.
1 Thomas Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 175.