Dogs No More: An Exegesis of Matthew 15: 21-28

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Matthew 15: 21-28

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)

 

Introduction

The account of the Canaanite woman on her knees begging for intervention from Jesus gives the reader a picture of a troubling reality in Jewish culture during the ministry of Jesus. In this pericope, a glimpse is given into a hostile division among human beings regarding who Jesus is the Savior of which leads to an outstanding persistence of faith that changes the mind of Jesus Himself and opens the flood gates for Gentiles to pour into the community Jesus had formed.

Historical Context

This particular pericope relies on a division along ethnic and cultural lines between the Jewish people and the Canaanites. The miracle takes place near Tyre and Sidon and Matthew uses the term “Canaanite” to describe her which alludes to the pagan inhabitants of Israel in the Old Testament.[1] During this time, there were many things that the Jewish people thought would taint them and one of those things would have been an encounter with someone who is foreign, especially a woman.[2] The reaction of the disciples to this woman as well as the initial responses of Jesus mirror these historical realities of the time.

Literary Context

The pericope occurs as a part of the broader book of Matthew. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah they have been waiting for.[3] The particular section of Matthew that this pericope finds itself in is part of a greater story of Israel engaging and responding to Jesus from Matthew 11:1-16:20.[4] The story of the Canaanite woman is told following stories of negative response to Jesus from the Jewish people. These realities take shape as the people of Israel have hardened hearts (13:15), are unmoved by what Jesus does (11:20-24), fail to understand His teachings (13:13-14), take offense by His presence and ministry (13:53-58), and the various altercations with the religious leaders of the day who oppose Him.[5] The Canaanite woman becomes part of a larger group of people who knows who Jesus truly is (11:25-27), understands His mission (13:11), and serves as the underpinning of the community Jesus is ushering in that receives keys of the Kingdom (16:18-19).[6]

Matthew 15 begins with Jesus describing what is clean and unclean as well as defilement both challenging and infuriating the Pharisees who question Him.[7] It is in verses 10-20 that he rebukes the idea that the religious leaders and those in Israel who thought themselves to be the pure and true Israel were mistaken, blind, and defiling by the hatred they harbor in their hearts.[8] This sets the stage for the interaction between the Canaanite woman and Jesus as well as the miracle He performs for what was considered unclean in His day.

What follows this pericope is Matthew explaining that Jesus had healed many others on a mountain and generally describes their conditions in verses 29-31 in a parallel of Matthew 4:23-5:1.[9] Matthew 15:29-31 also parallels Mark 7:31-37 where Jesus heals a deaf mute by the Sea of Galilee with Matthew 15:31 mentioning the mute being healed.[10] Since Matthew used Mark as his source, it is important to consider that Mark 7:31 has Jesus in Decapolis and thus, still in Gentile territory[11] while Matthew is vaguer but still “along the sea of Galilee”[12]. Therefore, Jesus attracted Gentiles along the way who became part of the crowd and they became part of those healed in this section.[13]

Matthew 15 concludes with Jesus performing a miracle to feed the crowd of four thousand which had been present for the miracles in verses 29-31 and thus consists of Gentiles.[14] Therefore, this conclusion to the chapter brilliantly paints the picture of a feast with the Lord which includes a diverse range of ethnicities and cultures in opposition to the thought of cultural elitism taught by the religious leaders of the day.

 Form, Structure, Movement

Matthew itself is a Gospel and this particular pericope is both a narrative and a miracle text. As stated in the prior section, this pericope follows a discourse on what is clean and unclean and who is in or out of the Kingdom. This pericope is the first of three consecutive instances where Jesus encounters, consoles, and heals Gentiles whom the Jews (including the Disciples) regarded as being filthy or akin to dogs (v. 26). The three stories of ministry to the Gentiles flow into one another like a creek where the Canaanite woman is the focus (vv. 21-28) flowing into a river where many are healed (vv. 29-31) and ultimately into an ocean where Jesus feeds four thousand Gentiles (vv. 32-39).

The text itself is an example of Jesus both as the Savior for both Israel and Gentiles. The pericope ultimately contrasts the faith of Israel to the faith of the Canaanite woman where Israel has rejected Jesus at every turn, this woman knew who Jesus was and fell at His feet demonstrating a faith that shames Israel (cf. 11:21).[15] This serves as a sort of theme for Matthew 15 because in the stories and miracles that follow, the Gentiles seem to come out in large numbers to be healed, fed, and spiritually enriched through Jesus in the face of an Israeli populace that had seemingly pushed Jesus aside prior.

Detailed Analysis

Matthew’s accounts parallels Mark 7: 24-30 (Mark came first), but the variations in the text has led to debate over whether Matthew had access to a different version of the story.[16] Matthew 15: 21-28 begins with Jesus entering Gentile territory after being confronted by and responding to the Pharisees in the verses prior (v.21). Tyre and Sidon were Gentile areas that the prophets prior to Jesus railed against.[17] Verse 22 finds the Canaanite woman approaching Jesus and begging for His intervention regarding her daughter. This account parallels Mark 7:26, except in Mark’s Gospel, the woman is described as being Syrophoenician (a normal Gentile).[18] Matthew chooses to refer to her as a Canaanite because Canaanites were thought to be the Gentiles who drove the Israelites from the Promised Land and took control of it and therefore, the greatest degree of animosity held towards any Gentile was reserved for the Canaanites.[19] The fact that she is a woman is no small element to look over. Women were not to be noticed in Palestinian society unless they were prostitutes and this woman breaks those imposed boundaries as she shouts at Jesus for His intervention begging for a portion of blessing from God (becoming the first woman to speak in Matthew) and directly challenging social norms and religious teachings of the time regarding both Canaanites and women.[20] As can be seen, the first two verses in this pericope go through a great deal of description to paint the woman as, essentially, “the worst of the worst”.

Jesus does not initially answer the begging Canaanite and the Disciples try to encourage Him to leave the woman to herself (v. 23). Craig Evans suggests that the Disciples urging of Jesus to leave follows from His instructions regarding mission in Matthew 10: 5-6 where Jesus instructs the Disciples to avoid Gentile lands and to focus on Israelites only.[21] So when Jesus responds by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[22], He is affirming His prior teaching in Matthew 10 as well as telling the woman to leave.[23] In short, the woman’s request has been denied at this point. The Israeli centric focus of Jesus’s statements on mission served as foreshadows to this initial rejection that sets up the rest of this pericope for the dialogue that follows and a changing of how ministry is done.

She falls to her knees (v. 25) and begs Jesus again to which Jesus replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[24] In this statement, Israel is the “children” while the Canaanites are the “dogs”.[25] This particular exchange seems to demonstrate the dual nature of Jesus where His full humanity is on display because He responds to the Canaanite woman by calling her a dog which is a continuation of the racial slur of “Gentile dogs” that was common during that time period.[26] Anna Case-Winters asks the following question worth pondering over this: “Could it be that Jesus was actually still learning about the fullness of the divine embrace and the scope of his own calling?”[27] She seems spot on in her assessment here when one takes into account the text in Matthew 10:5-6 regarding mission as well as Jesus repeating it in 15:24.

One would think the woman would leave after being slandered, but she does not. Instead, she begs once more by using Jesus’ words in her context, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”[28] Matthew adds the words “fall” and “master” while Mark’s account does not have them and for Matthew, “fall” serves to explain how the dogs who are under the table are able to get crumbs while “masters” leaves no doubt the Canaanite woman is aware of her place in this encounter and does not consider herself on equal footing with those who are in Israel.[29] Craig Evans makes note that the Canaanite woman’s “conviction that God’s grace is so great that there is more than enough to go around, even while it is being extended to Israel first.”[30] The crumbs become the remnants of the bread and the overflow of grace which Jesus provides in the response of the Canaanite woman.

Jesus responds with exclamation that the faith of the Canaanite woman is great and that her daughter has been healed as a result (v. 28). Where Mark’s Gospel has the woman’s “word” being what changed Jesus’s mind (Mark 7:29), in Matthew it is her faith in a foreshadowing of the faith the Gentiles will have that leads to having the Gospel of healing brought to them.[31] Here, her full faith in Christ stands in contrast to the “little” faith Peter demonstrated in Matthew 14:31 and by the conclusion of this pericope, she has become an example of faith for the Jewish people, but greater also, the Disciples themselves.[32] Here the question is asked, “Is it so hard to imagine that Jesus might have actually learned something in the encounter with the Canaanite woman?”[33] Indeed, Jesus did learn from the Canaanite woman and the dynamics of the community He was creating changed. There is no doubt by the end of this pericope that Jesus has come for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Synthesis

This pericope ends with a humiliating reality for the Disciples, the Pharisees, and the Jewish people: these Canaanites they thought to be animals understood more about Jesus than they did. It comes after Jesus rebukes the Pharisees involving what defilement is as well as what is unclean and serves as a vessel into the stories that follow in which Gentiles come out in great numbers to be healed and taught by Jesus. This pericope is a time when Matthew writes of Gentiles being brought into the community in fulfilment of Isaiah 2:1-4 where it is prophesized that all nations would come to know who God is.[34] The pericope reminds the reader that the boundaries present in society at that time were serious, scandalous, and meant to be erased. The woman’s daughter was indeed healed, but so too, are the divisions between Jews and Gentiles and the beginnings take shape for what an ecumenical Kingdom looks like. There is a place at the table for all by the end of this pericope.

Reflection

Matthew indeed wrote for the Jewish people, but in our context, perhaps we can see it as Matthew writing to us. In the context of this scripture, the division is Jews and Gentiles, but in our context today it is American Christians and the others. We live in a society that decries immigration but gladly employs undocumented workers to work for wages below legal minimums and live in conditions fit only for animals. They, too, come from foreign lands and find themselves described as inferior in narratives that our culture writes. The only way to combat these stereotypes is to follow the example of Jesus and visit with those of other cultures either here or in their countries and meet them in the humanity they have. There is little doubt we will say something offensive based on the context we understand, even Jesus did it, but these human beings may have plenty to teach us about faith and Christ and what an ecumenical Kingdom with diversity truly looks like. If one woman can change the mind of Jesus regarding Gentiles, imagine what a relationship with “the others” can do. Jesus is not only the Savior for America like He was not only the Savior for the Jewish people, He is the Savior for the entire world so we should invite all to join in the Kingdom and smash the ethnic boundaries which divide us.

Further still is the inequality of genders in our society to this day. Women are paid considerably less than men, still viewed as inferior in society, and are told that kitchens are their offices. This text is a reminder that women play a very important and prominent role in the Kingdom and if a woman can change the ministry focus of Christ for the better, they certainly are of very high value in their humanity and their personhood. We would do well to take note of the woman who brought Canaanites to equal footing with the Israelites and do what we can to bring women to equal footing with men in our country and abroad.

 

[1] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2015): p. 239.

[2] Frederick Borsch, “Matthew 15:21-28: Exegetical Perspective”, In Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2 Chapters 14-28, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013): p. 35.

[3] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): p. 7.

[4] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2015): p. 23.

[5] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew: p. 182.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. pp. 234-235.

[8] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2015): p. 236.

[9] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew: p. 240.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Frederick Borsch, “Matthew 15:21-28: Exegetical Perspective”, In Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2 Chapters 14-28, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013): p. 39.

[12] Matthew 15:29 NRSV.

[13] This is my best understanding of this portion of Scripture at this time.

[14] There is no transition that suggests otherwise.

[15] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2015): p. 240.

[16] Craig A. Evans, Matthew, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012): p. 302.

[17] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): p. 200.

[18] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: p. 200

[19] Ibid. p. 200.

[20] Ibid. p. 201.

[21] Craig A. Evans, Matthew, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012): pp. 303-304.

[22] Matthew 15:24 NRSV.

[23] Craig A. Evans, Matthew: p. 304.

[24] Matthew 15:26 NRSV.

[25] Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2015): p. 239.

[26] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): pp. 201-202.

[27] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: p. 202.

[28] Matthew 15:27 NRSV.

[29] Craig A. Evans, Matthew, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012): p. 304.

[30] Craig A. Evans, Matthew, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012): p. 304.

[31] Frederick Borsch, “Matthew 15:21-28: Exegetical Perspective”, In Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2 Chapters 14-28, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013): p. 37.

[32] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): p. 202.

[33] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: p. 202.

[34] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): p. 7.

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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