23. A Lesson in Hermeneutics (Matthew 15:21-39)Related Media
September 26, 20041
21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
29 When he left there, Jesus went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up a mountain, where he sat down. 30 Then large crowds came to him bringing with them the lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 31 As a result, the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they praised the God of Israel.
32 Then Jesus called the disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have already been here with me three days and they have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry since they may faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where can we get enough bread in this desolate place to satisfy so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They replied, “Seven—and a few small fish.” 35 After instructing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and after giving thanks, he broke them and began giving them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowds. 37 They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Not counting children and women, there were four thousand men who ate. 39 After sending away the crowd, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.2
No doubt I need to begin with a definition, to explain the title of this message. It’s hard enough to spell hermeneutics, let alone define it. Essentially, hermeneutics refers to one’s method of interpreting the Scriptures. The best and the worst interpretations of our text were both that of a woman. The first – and the worst – is found in a book entitled, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible:
“The Canaanite is an aggressive single parent who here defies cultural taboos and acts to free Jesus from his sexism and racism by catching him in a bad mood or with his compassion down, besting him in an argument and herself becoming the vehicle of his liberation and the deliverance of her daughter.”3
This feminist interpretation makes the Canaanite woman the “savior,” who rescues Jesus from His narrowness.
In my opinion, the best interpretation of our Lord’s words in our text is that of the Canaanite woman. She, more than any other (the Pharisees, the crowds, even the disciples), seems to understand what Jesus is talking about. The scribes and Pharisees may have been scholars of sorts, but they certainly didn’t understand Jesus. The woman did, and she alone is commended for her faith. What can we learn from this woman about hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) that will help us become better students of the Scriptures? Let us look closely at our text, and listen to the Spirit of God, to see what meaning this text has for us.
Notice that the setting of the first paragraph of our text (Matthew 15:21-28) is Tyre and Sidon. Mark refers to it as the “region of Tyre” (Mark 7:24). Tyre was located on the Mediterranean coast, approximately 35 miles North of Mount Carmel. It was an ancient city, one of the most well-known cities of Phoenicia. Another 20 miles or so north of Tyre was the city of Sidon. These were definitely Gentile cities. In the Old Testament, Tyre and Sidon were not spoken of favorably:
1 Here is a message about Tyre:
Wail, you large ships,
for the house is too devastated to enter!
From the land of Cyprus this news is announced to them.
2 Lament, you residents of the coast,
you merchants of Sidon who travel over the sea,
whose agents sail over 3 the deep waters!
Grain from the Shihor region,
crops grown near the Nile she receives;
she is the trade center of the nations.
4 Be ashamed, O Sidon,
for the sea says this, O fortress of the sea:
“I have not gone into labor or given birth;
I have not raised young men
or brought up young women.”
5 When the news reaches Egypt,
they will be shaken by what has happened to Tyre.
6 Travel to Tarshish!
Wail, you residents of the coast!
7 Is this really your boisterous city
whose origins are in the distant past,
and whose feet led her to a distant land to reside?
8 Who planned this for royal Tyre,
whose merchants are princes,
whose traders are the dignitaries of the earth?
9 The Lord who leads armies planned it—
to dishonor the pride that comes from all her beauty,
to humiliate all the dignitaries of the earth.
10 Daughter Tarshish, travel back to your land, as one crosses the Nile;
there is no longer any market place in Tyre.
11 The Lord stretched out his hand over the sea,
he shook kingdoms;
he gave the order
to destroy Canaan’s fortresses.
12 He said,
“You will no longer celebrate,
oppressed virgin daughter Sidon!
Get up, travel to Cyprus,
but you will find no relief there” (Isaiah 23:1-12).
In Ezekiel 28, the ruler of Tyre is addressed, but behind him lurks a more powerful, and even more sinister creature:
11 The word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Son of man, lament for the king of Tyre, and say to him,
‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘You were the signet ring of perfection,
full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God.
Every precious stone was your covering,
the ruby, topaz, and diamond,
the beryl, onyx, and jasper,
the sapphire, turquoise, and emerald;
your settings and engravings were made of gold.
On the day you were created they were prepared.
14 I placed you there with an anointed guardian cherub;
you were on the holy mountain of God;
you walked in the midst the stones of fire.
15 You were blameless in your behavior from the day you were created,
until sin was discovered in you.
16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence,
and you sinned;
so I defiled you and banished you from the mountain of God,
the guardian cherub expelled you from the midst of the stones of fire.
17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you perverted your wisdom on account of your splendor.
I threw you down to the ground;
I placed you before kings, that they might see you” (Ezekiel 28:11-17).
Our Lord’s journey to the territory of Tyre and Sidon is amazing in the light of His instructions to His disciples as He sent them out to heal and to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was near:
5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:5-8).
Jesus is doing what He instructed His disciples not to do – go on the way that leads to Gentile cities. I believe that we see the reason for this very soon in Matthew:
21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you! 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (Matthew 11:21-24)
Jesus is condemning the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their unbelief, unbelief in spite of the manifestations of our Lord’s presence and power through His preaching and miracles. He contrasts these Jewish cities with the pagan Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon (verse 22) and Sodom (verse 24). If these Gentile cities had witnessed all that Jesus had done in the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, they would have repented. The Jewish cities did not repent, however, and thus we find our Lord’s strong words of condemnation.
Thus, too, we see our Lord venturing into Gentile territory. In part, our Lord may well have been withdrawing from Jewish opposition, but He had to know where this journey would lead – to healings, miracles, and even the feeding of 4,000 men.
Our text is preceded by Matthew’s account of the opposition of the Pharisees, who objected because our Lord’s disciples ate bread with unwashed hands:
1 Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat [bread]”4 (Matthew 15:1-2).
The Pharisees seemed to believe that spirituality could be measured either by one’s bankbook5 or by a yardstick. Piety to them was attained by keeping one’s distance from anything or anyone unclean. How they must have cringed to see all the sick people reaching out to touch Jesus for healing (Matthew 14:34-36)! They were certainly distressed to see our Lord’s disciples6 eating bread without observing their tradition of hand washing.
Jesus made quick work of their complaint. First, He unmasked their hypocrisy by showing how they used their traditions to circumvent the commandments of God – the law – in verses 3-9. The disciples let Jesus know that the Pharisees were greatly upset by what He had said.7 Then, He pressed the matter further by showing that they were wrong about what defiles a person (verses 10-20). Food doesn’t defile, for sin is a matter of the heart, not a matter of unwashed hands or unclean foods. Sin does not come from the outside in, but from the inside out. Mark’s Gospel informs us of the sweeping implications of Jesus’ words here:
17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) (Mark 7:17-19, emphasis mine)
The implications of our Lord’s words will become more apparent in Acts 10 and 11, when Peter is sent to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles. The important thing for us to see is that our Lord’s correction of the Pharisees and scribes in the first part of chapter 15 paves the way for our Lord’s ministry to the Gentiles in the last half of the chapter.
21 After going out from there, Jesus went8 to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Mark’s gospel adds some information that is helpful to our understanding of Matthew’s account:
24 After Jesus left there, he went to the region of Tyre. When he went into a house, he did not want anyone to know, but he was not able to escape notice. 25 Instead, a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him and came and fell at his feet (Mark 7:24-25).
Jesus was not seeking to attract a crowd. Indeed, Jesus was actually inside a house. When this woman heard about Jesus, she immediately came to Him, in spite of their efforts to keep a low profile. The fact is that this woman had to overcome obstacles to gain access to Jesus, and the resistance did not stop there, as we shall soon see. We are told that this woman heard about Jesus. What did she hear? I think we are given a clue in Luke’s Gospel:
17 Then he came down with them and stood on a level place. And a large number of his disciples had gathered along with a vast multitude from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. They came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, 18 and those who suffered from unclean spirits were cured. 19 The whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all (Luke 6:17-19).
Luke is introducing our Lord’s ministry at what is sometimes called the “Sermon on the Plain.” What is important for us to note is that some of those who were drawn to Jesus here were folks from Tyre and Sidon (verse 17). These folks no doubt returned to their homes with many incredible stories about what Jesus taught and about the miracles Jesus performed. I am assuming that reports from some who saw and heard Jesus in Galilee must have been what this woman heard, prompting her to seek out Jesus when she learned He was nearby.
Let’s begin by focusing on this woman. She was a Canaanite, Matthew tells us. Think of what the Old Testament Law meant for her!
16 “As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. 17 Instead you must utterly annihilate them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they cannot teach you all the abhorrent ways they worship their gods, causing you to sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
It was one thing to be a Gentile, and quite another to be a Canaanite. In Jewish eyes, this was about as low as one could go.
This woman was desperate because her daughter was demon possessed. She had no other hope than Jesus. And so when she saw Him, she persisted in crying out,9 “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed” (verse 22). This woman is not deterred from her mission by the scowling disapproval of the disciples, nor their pressing Jesus to be rid of her.
Once again the disciples do not come out looking good in our text. They find this woman’s persistence irritating and distracting. They revert to their shop-worn solution, “Send her away!” (verse 23), which reminds us of their insistence that Jesus send the hungry crowds away in Matthew 14:15. Compassion is not their strong point. I dare not fault them; I’ve been there myself.
I do have to wonder what factors contributed to the disciples’ indifference, even disdain toward this woman. Was it partly due to the fact that this woman was a Canaanite? We know that the disciples were not exactly filled with the milk of human kindness toward Samaritans:
51 Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers on ahead of him. As they went along, they entered a Samaritan village to make things ready in advance for him, 53 but the villagers refused to welcome him, because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54 Now when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them, … (Luke 9:51-55).
Or was it that this Canaanite was a woman?
Now at that very moment his disciples came back. They were shocked because he was speaking with a woman. However, no one said, “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her?” (John 4:27)
Whatever the reasons, the disciples pressed Jesus to be rid of her. His silence, followed by His later words, make it plain that the disciples were wrong.
Some people seem to think that Jesus was wrong here. That is clearly the sense of the feminist view of this text, referred to earlier in this lesson. But was Jesus wrong? Surely not! Let me begin by saying that we dare not judge our Lord by the process, but rather by the product of the process. Let’s look at the outcome of this encounter between Jesus, the disciples, and this Canaanite woman:
Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15:28).
Just what is it that troubles us about our Lord’s words and actions? Are we troubled by His silence? How often in the Psalms does the psalmist ask God how long He will remain silent?10 Our Lord’s silence did several things. It conveys to the reader that He is not obligated to respond. She has no basis on which to appeal to Jesus, except to cling to His mercy. Our Lord’s silence was an encouragement to this woman. Remember, the disciples are pressing Jesus to get rid of her. When Jesus kept silent, He was refusing to grant the disciples’ request. To this woman, our Lord’s silence was golden, at least in part. A command from Him to leave would have ended her hope for mercy.
Now, what about Jesus’ seemingly harsh words to this Canaanite woman regarding Jews, Gentiles, and dogs? It has been helpful for me to consider this situation in the light of our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan “woman at the well” in John 4. (Remember that she, too, ends up trusting in Jesus.)
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (the one called Christ); “whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he” (John 4:19-26).
In order for this Samaritan woman to come to faith, she needed to understand that her religion would not save her. The short version was, “salvation is from the Jews” (verse 22). Just as the scribes and Pharisees had to renounce their distorted version of the Jewish religion, the Samaritans had to reject their “faith” and trust only in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. The same holds for the Canaanite woman. It had to be clear to her that Jesus came to Israel first, then to the Gentiles. Our Lord’s words to the Canaanite woman were the truth, truth necessary for salvation. They were no more harsh than the words of John the Baptist to the Jews, when he spoke of the coming judgment of God on (Jewish) sinners. Did Jesus humiliate this woman by speaking to her about “dogs”? I will deal with the term “dog” in a moment, but I would contend that we must be humbled if we are to come to God for mercy. We must see ourselves as unworthy sinners, undeserving of God’s blessings, and thus we are cast upon His grace, not our merits. What Jesus says to this woman is what the gospel says to every sinner: “You are not worthy to be in God’s presence. Confess that you are a sinner, worthy only of His eternal wrath, and call upon Him for mercy and grace.” The gospel is not meant to flatter us, but to save us from our sins and the penalty of eternal wrath. The things our Lord said (and didn’t say) to this woman resulted in one of the greatest declarations of faith in the New Testament. Why, then, do we seek to second guess our Lord in His dealings with this Canaanite woman?
Having said this, I want to focus on this woman’s hermeneutics – her method of interpreting Jesus’ words and actions – leading to the appropriate response of faith. Unlike the feminists of our day, this woman was not offended by Jesus. She was not seeking to correct any flaws in Jesus’ thinking. She saw herself for what she was – a woman in desperate need, who could not rid her daughter of the demon that tormented her. She saw Jesus for what He was – a gracious and compassionate Savior, who was able (and hopefully willing) to extend mercy to her, and to her daughter.
I believe she (alone) rightly interpreted our Lord’s silence. In spite of the disciples’ persistent prodding to have Jesus send this woman away, Jesus did not tell the woman to leave. His silence in this regard was golden for the Canaanite woman. And what Jesus said was also encouraging to her. He said He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. That was His mission. She was not seeking to dissuade Him from fulfilling His calling. And so she persisted to plead with Him to have mercy on her.
What seemed to be our Lord’s most inflammatory words did not put her off:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said (Matthew 15:26).
It has been commonly observed that our Lord’s choice of words for “dogs” is significant. He did not employ the term used for dogs that run wild in the streets (see Matthew 7:6; Luke 16:21), or which is used negatively of men (see Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15). Instead, Jesus used a term which might be rendered “lap dog,” because it was a household pet.
The Canaanite woman listened well to Jesus, even to His choice of words. Did Jesus refer to her as a “lap dog” that was a “household pet”? Good! She seized on this word, and made this the basis for her appeal. It was as though she said this:
“Did you say it would be wrong to take bread away from the children and feed it to the dogs? You said these dogs were household pets. They don’t run wild in the street; they sit at the feet of their master. And if their master is at the dinner table, they are under the table, at his feet. It is to be expected that crumbs of bread will fall to the floor, and that the household dog will eat them. It might even be that the master of the house would throw the dog a scrap of bread. If I’m a “lap dog,” then simply grant me a scrap of bread. That’s all I’m asking of you.”
Far from being offended by Jesus, she was inspired by Him to ask for what she desired. She was, in truth, a dog, and thus she asked for what such a dog might reasonably expect from its master.
How she must have delighted in our Lord’s response to her request. Jesus commended her faith in a way that no Jew was ever commended. Only the Gentile centurion was commended in a similar way (Matthew 8:10-12). She, like this centurion, trusted Jesus to heal the afflicted “long distance.” She took Jesus at His word and returned home to find that her daughter had been delivered from her tormentor (Matthew 15:28; Mark 7:30).
Setting the Stage for Another Miraculous Feeding
29 When he left there, Jesus went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up a mountain, where he sat down. 30 Then large crowds came to him bringing with them the lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 31 As a result, the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they praised the God of Israel (Matthew 15:29-31).
In his parallel account, Mark chooses to focus on a specific healing, rather than to generalize as Matthew has done:
31 Then Jesus went out again from the region of Tyre and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had difficulty speaking, and they asked him to place his hands on him. 33 After Jesus took him aside privately, away from the crowd, he put his fingers in the man’s ears, and after spitting, he touched his tongue. 34 Then he looked up to heaven and said with a sigh, “Ephphatha” (that is, “Be opened”). 35 And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue loosened, and he spoke plainly. 36 Jesus ordered them not to tell anything. But as much as he ordered them not to do this, they proclaimed it all the more. 37 People were completely astounded and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:31-37).
Matthew’s choice to stay more general serves a specific purpose, I believe. As I read verses 29-31 of Matthew 15, I am reminded of two similar texts in Matthew:
23 Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. 24 So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, those who had seizures, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. 25 And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River (Matthew 4:23-25).
13 Now when Jesus heard this he went away from there privately in a boat to an isolated place. But when the crowd heard about it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 As he got out he saw the large crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:13-14).
Matthew 4:23-25 immediately precedes the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 14:13-14 immediately precedes the feeding of the 5,000. It appears to me that Matthew wishes us to see the similarity with verses 29-31 of chapter 15. It was our Lord’s ministry to the masses which set the stage for the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5,000, and now, the feeding of the 4,000. I don’t wish to suggest that our Lord’s teaching doesn’t attract the crowds, but Matthew has chosen to emphasize our Lord’s healing ministry as that which drew the crowds.
I find it quite easy to understand how it could be that such a large crowd would remain with Jesus for three days without food, or perhaps more accurately, with food supplies which quickly dwindled, until none was left. Many of these people must have had some malady which they hoped Jesus would heal. In Mark’s Gospel, the people conclude that Jesus “has done everything well” (Mark 7:37). By listing a broad range of maladies Jesus remedied, Matthew has informed us that Jesus healed every kind of malady. If you, or a loved one, was desperately ill, would you not wait in line for three days in order to be healed? No wonder the people were in danger of fainting on the way home (Matthew 15:32).
I am impressed by Matthew’s statement in verse 31 that the crowd “praised the God of Israel.” Some of the commentaries will point out that this expression, “they praised the God of Israel” is unusual. If these people were Jews, would they simply not praise God, as did the people who witnessed the healing of the blind man outside Jericho?
And immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they too gave praise to God (Luke 18:43).
The inference is clear, both from the context (Matthew 15:21; Mark 7:31) and from the statement, “they praised the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31) that these people are Gentiles, not Jews. Jesus is still in Gentile territory. Thus, the feeding of the 4,000 is not merely the repetition of a miracle Jesus has already performed (with the 5,000 in chapter 14), it is a miracle now performed for the benefit of a Gentile crowd, rather than a Jewish crowd. With this in mind, let us proceed to the miracle itself.
The Feeding of the 4,000
32 Then Jesus called the disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have already been here with me three days and they have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry since they may faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where can we get enough bread in this desolate place to satisfy so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They replied, “Seven—and a few small fish.” 35 After instructing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and after giving thanks, he broke them and began giving them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowds. 37 They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Not counting children and women, there were four thousand men who ate. 39 After sending away the crowd, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan (Matthew 15:32-39).
Somehow I have always assumed that the feeding of the 5,000 was virtually erased from the memory of the disciples, and that is why they come to this situation as though it presented an entirely new and unique challenge. I’ve changed my mind. First of all, how could they have failed to remember the feeding of the 5,000, and how could they not see the relationship between that situation and this one, just one chapter removed? We will be told in chapter 16 that they did not rightly understand the relationship between these miracles, but we are not told that the disciples had completely forgotten the first miracle, when faced with nearly the same situation a second time.
So what has changed? The audience is different, for one thing. Jesus is in Gentile country. Initially, Jesus had kept a low profile (Mark 7:24). Jesus “went up a mountain, where he sat down,” and where “large crowds came to Him” (Matthew 15:29-30). The crowds have refused to go home. Remember that in the case of the feeding of the 5,000 the (Jewish) crowds had not been there long before the disciples began to urge Jesus to send them home (Matthew 14:15). Here in chapter 15 the crowds have been there for three days. How come none of the disciples had spoken up, urging Jesus to send them home? I think it was because they remembered the two earlier occasions that they had urged Jesus to do the same thing (once with the 5,000, and later with the Canaanite woman) and had been shown that they were wrong to do so. They hadn’t forgotten the feeding of the 5,000 at all; it was still fresh in their minds.
There may well be another additional element involved here – this was a Gentile crowd. Jesus had forbidden them to go in the way of the Gentiles and had instructed them to preach to the Jews only (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus had delayed in granting the request of the Canaanite woman. Perhaps Jesus did not want to feed this Gentile crowd. And so they seem to have simply waited Jesus out. Let Jesus make the first move here; they had been rebuked for suggesting Jesus send people away.
When Jesus does address this situation, it is after three days in the wilderness, when the situation was much more serious. To send these folks away without feeding them would be to do them bodily harm. He tells His disciples that He has compassion on the crowd, and that He won’t send them home without first feeding them. The disciples can’t urge Jesus to send the crowd home now; Jesus had taken that option away. Now, all the disciples can think to do is to point out the obvious lack of resources. It is here that one does marvel that the disciples didn’t connect this situation with the earlier one, where Jesus fed the 5,000.
The disciples don’t seem to quibble about how much money feeding this crowd would cost, as they had done before (John 6:7); they argued that there was nowhere to purchase the necessary quantity of bread, because this was a desolate place (Matthew 15:33). Jesus asked them how many loaves they had on hand, and they told Him that they had only seven loaves and a few small fish.
Now let’s pause for just a moment to do a little math. Earlier, there was a crowd of 5,000 men (not including women and children); now there is a crowd of 4,000 men (without women and children). Before, there were five loaves; now there are seven. Before there were two fish; now there are “a few” – which sounds like more than two. The point I am trying to make is that the crowd they must feed is smaller than before, and yet their resources are greater. Shouldn’t this have served to encourage the disciples that what Jesus did before He can do again (with even less difficulty)? If (to use the analogy of athletic competition) the “degree of difficulty” was a 10 in the feeding of the 5,000, then isn’t the “degree of difficulty” a 9 here? The disciples were just not able to make the connection between one miracle and another.
We should not be too quick to condemn them. The Israelites did this repeatedly during their sojourn in the wilderness. In Exodus 15:22-26, the Israelites come to Marah, where the water was bitter. God sweetened the water, providing for Israel’s needs. In chapter 16, the Israelites come to the wilderness of Sin, and they grumble against Moses (and ultimately God) because they have no food.11 They didn’t connect one situation with a very similar one just hours (or days) later. How forgetful we are of God’s abundant protection and provisions.
Once again our Lord used the disciples to meet the needs of this crowd. He blessed the bread and the fish and gave it to the disciples, who distributed it to the crowd. Once again the provision was more than sufficient. This time seven baskets of leftovers were collected.
What are we meant to learn from this text? Most importantly, we see the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ. We see His compassion and mercy, and His grace. Jesus is merciful to the Canaanite woman, while His disciples want Jesus to get rid of her. Jesus is moved with compassion at her need, and delighted with the faith she reveals. The disciples are irritated by this woman and would love to be rid of her. Jesus not only showed compassion to this Canaanite woman, but He healed countless Gentiles, and then fed them.
Our text is preparing us for the Great Commission, at the end of the Book of Matthew (28:18-20). While Jesus sent His disciples only to the Jews in Matthew 10, He will send them into “all the world” in chapter 28. We have a glimpse of this in our text. And why do we find Jesus ministering to Gentiles in our text? It is because our Lord has already indicted the Jewish cities where He has ministered most for their unbelief (Matthew 11:20-24). Our text is a preview of what we will see in Acts 10 and 11, when God sends Peter to the Gentiles to preach the gospel.
The Canaanite woman in our text is a wonderful illustration of the sovereignty of our Lord in revealing an understanding of Himself to men, as He spoke of it in chapter 11:
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him” (Matthew 11:25-27).
I marvel because it is not the disciples who have great understanding in our text, and it is certainly not the Pharisees and scribes (15:1-20). It is this Canaanite woman who is the one with the greatest understanding and faith in chapter 15.
It occurred to me as I was studying this passage that “bread” is a kind of key to understanding this chapter. Look at what “bread” meant to the people in chapter 15. Bread meant nothing to the Pharisees and scribes, other than to serve as a pretext for accusing Jesus. Their minds were so fixed on their traditions that their eyes saw nothing but the “unwashed hands” that touched the bread:
1 Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat [bread]”12 (Matthew 15:1-2).
The disciples think of “bread” as food that is, at the moment, scarce. This is obvious in the feeding of the 4,000, and it will be obvious once again in Matthew 16:1-12. The disciples could think of bread only in the most stark and literal terms. Thus, the Lord’s discourse on the “bread of life” in John 6 and His warnings concerning the “leaven or yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” went right over the heads of the disciples.
Only this woman sensed that bread was but a symbol of God’s gracious provision for those in need. Thus, she pled with the Savior to give her (a mere lapdog) a scrap of bread, knowing that what she was really asking for was a gift of grace, the deliverance of her daughter from the grip of Satan. No wonder Jesus could say that God had hidden spiritual truths from the wise and intelligent and had revealed these things to mere babes.
It wasn’t intelligence which enabled men to understand the grace of God in the person of Jesus. It wasn’t scholarly research, either. Indeed, these things tended to make men arrogant, rather than humble (see 1 Corinthians 8:1). What set this Canaanite woman apart from and above others was her knowledge of her own helplessness, and of the fact that she was undeserving of divine favor. What set this woman apart was that she had no hope other than in Jesus – and she asked for it!
This woman illustrates Paul’s words in Romans 9, which explain why Gentiles have come to salvation and many Jews have not:
30 What shall we say then?—that the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness obtained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith, 31 but Israel even though pursuing a law of righteousness did not attain it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but (as if it were possible) by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, “Look, I am laying in Zion a stone that will cause people to stumble and a rock that will make them fall, yet the one who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 9:30-33).
My friend, may you and I learn from this magnificent woman. May we see that we are no better than she, that we have no more claim on our Lord than she did. Let us not come to Jesus full of ourselves, demanding that He meet our desires. Let us come to Him in humility, recognizing that our sins separate us from God. Our sins make us less than dogs, even wild dogs. We deserve eternal hell, and nothing less. It is His sacrifice on Calvary in our place that saves. It is His righteousness, not ours; His mercy, not our goodness or merit. Let us come to Him as this woman did, clinging to His word and to His character. Let us come to Him in faith, assured that He will be gracious to all who cry out for mercy.
1 Copyright 2004 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 53 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 26, 2004.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 This quotation is from Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, Volume 2: The Churchbook—Matthew 13-28, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 102. Here, Bruner refers to Sharon Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Letty M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, 1985). To be perfectly honest, I’m not certain whether these are Bruner’s words, and thus kind of a synopsis of the feminist position, as reflected in Sharon Ringe’s chapter, or whether these are Ringe’s exact words.
4 A footnote in the NET Bible indicates that the Greek text literally reads, “when they eat bread,” but it omits the critical word “bread” in the main text. I think this is a mistake, as I will attempt to demonstrate later in this message.
5 See Luke 16:14 in context.
6 It is hard for me to believe that only our Lord’s disciples ate with “unwashed” hands. Did our Lord not do the same thing? I suspect so, but the Pharisees didn’t seem to have the courage to confront Jesus directly. Perhaps they were distressed by Jesus’ practice, but even more upset that His teaching and practice set an example for those who followed Him.
7 I think it is worthwhile to carefully observe our Lord’s response when His disciples informed Him that the Pharisees were distressed by His rebuke. Jesus responded, “Every plant that my heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted. Leave them! They are blind guides. . . .” (Matthew 15:13-14). Is this not a reference to the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30? Jesus is therefore informing His disciples that the Pharisees and scribes are “tares,” not “wheat.” This should come as no surprise to the reader of Matthew (see 5:20).
8 The NAU and the ESV render this “withdrew,” which I favor here.
9 Verbs in this paragraph are frequently in the imperfect tense, which serves to underscore this woman’s persistence, as well as the disciples, as they insisted Jesus send this woman way.
10 See, for example, Psalm 6:3; 13:1-2; 35:17, 22; 39:12; 50:3; 74:9-11; 79:5; 80:4; 83:1; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3; 109:1.
11 There is a certain irony here, because in Israel’s “Song of the Sea” the people saw that God’s deliverance of His people from Pharaoh and the Egyptian army gave them assurance that He would deliver them from the Canaanites who would oppose them as they sought to enter the Promised Land (see Exodus 15:4-18).
12 Once again, I am inserting the word “bread” here because it is in the original text, and omitted in the translation. See footnote 3.
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