Jan. 16, 2023 – Matthew 15

Of all the stories in the Bible about Jesus’ life, one of the most difficult is found in our reading, Matthew 15. It is shocking—even offensive. The story in question is verses 21-28 and misunderstanding it has led many to doubt Jesus or to believe things about him that simply aren’t true. I have even heard one teacher come away from this story believing that Jesus was a racist.

In this story, a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help, and it seems that Jesus calls her a dog as he dismisses her concern because she is not of Jewish descent. It seems that Jesus only relents because she has a snappy retort to his comment. Really? If this doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, you probably aren’t paying attention! So, let’s look at what Scripture actually says, and discover what good news God has for us.

Anytime you read a passage of the Bible, and the meaning you find contradicts plain sense, logic, or the theology you have held for your whole life, that is a good time to pause and pray. The next step is to read around the verse or verses that are tripping you up. Then, it also helps to learn what you can about the cultural and historical context, as well as the kind of literature you are reading – 99% of the time this helps to clear things up. It is also good and important to read the Bible in community with people who have level heads, love God, and love you. All of this is what we are going to do with this story.

First what we will do is read back from the story looking for clues. In verse 21, we see that Jesus leaves Galilee to go into the region of Tyre and Sidon. These are enlightening details. If we look even farther back, we see Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees and he quotes Isaiah 29:13 to call them out. After this, he does some teaching about what makes you unclean. If we jump back to the previous chapter, we see the feeding of the 5,000, and he walked on the water. These are interesting but maybe not helpful… we will see. Immediately after our story Jesus returns to Galilee, then he does more healing, and finally, he feeds 4,000 people. Hmmm, there are some interesting details here!

When Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people before our story, there are 12 baskets left over. When he feeds the 4,000 people there are seven baskets left over. Both seven and 12 are very important numbers in the Bible, and both point to completion. There were 12 tribes of Israel, and so 12 is often associated with the people of God. Seven is important because all of creation was made in seven days, and seven represents wholeness. There were also seven Canaanite nations in the Old Testament. Now that is really fascinating since the woman in our story was a Canaanite. Some scholars think that the feeding of the 5,000 represented God taking care of the people of Israel and the feeding of the 4,000 represented God taking care of all the nations of the earth.

This is important because this is the point of contention in our story. Did Jesus refuse to help her because of her race? That makes no sense, especially considering that some of the people (Rahab and Ruth) in Jesus’ own genealogy were Canaanite. More directly, Jesus went between 35 to 50 miles (one way) to get to the region of Tyre and Sidon and the Bible doesn’t tell us why.

The only thing (recorded) that he did there was heal this woman and as soon as he did, he came back. If Jesus was truly against healing a Canaanite’s daughter, he went way out of his way to say no to her face. Instead, I think he went all that way just for her. I also think that his words and actions fit together into a beautiful sermon illustration.

When he says, “I was only sent to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel” we know that he doesn’t believe this to be true because it contradicts his earlier words and actions. Instead, we see that Jesus is playing into the expectations of his disciples, the woman, and anyone else who would hear about this.

When Jesus says, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs,” he isn’t calling her a dog, he is calling her a child of God even though the people that call themselves the children of God are calling her a dog. He is saying that she and her daughter are worth going out of the way for and that they are God’s kids too.

From the beginning of the book of Matthew, there is a great reversal; the people who are expected to be chosen aren’t, and the least in the kingdom of the world are lifted up in the Kingdom of Jesus. That is exactly what is happening here, so don’t let anyone ever tell you that Jesus is racist.

Loving God who created all people,
Thank you for making us so colorful. Thank you for making us so different and thank you that those differences aren’t reasons for division, but celebration and wonder. Teach us to all cherish each other as bearers of your image, and to recognize the love you have for those we disdain. Cleanse us from any hatred, and open our hearts to see your handiwork in each other. Make me willing—just like you are—to go way out of my way to bless someone who is different from me. Amen

Questions for reflection:

  1. Read Matthew 8:11. What is the context of this verse? What does this tell us about Jesus’ willingness to minister to Gentiles?
  2. Read Isaiah 29:13, and Isaiah 49:6. What is God reversing here? How is the Canaanite woman different from the Pharisees in Matthew 15?
  3. Read Luke 4:24-30. This passage is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. What parallels do you see with today’s story?