When I think about reading the Bible I often liken it to walking through a forest, full of varying trees and leaves. As you stroll through the wood you can enjoy both the particularities and as well as the wider views. Matthew 15:21-39 can best be enjoyed from a wide-eyed view because these three scenes (the Canaanite Woman, the Healings in the Decapolis, and the Feeding of the Four Thousand) tell one story. What is that story? The Kingdom of God has not come to conquer the gentiles but to include them.
Jesus had just finished debating the Pharisees fallacious understanding of their traditions and Jesus grew weary. So as all people do when exhausted, Jesus sought out rest. He retreated to the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus had hoped that He might find rest in this foreign land. Instead all that He found was a world crying out for a savior. Matthew presents to us first this Canaanite woman. Now this is an odd title that Matthew gives to us. This woman was spoken of in Mark’s gospel as the “Syrophoenician” woman in Mark 7:26. Why would Matthew make this unique term, Canaanite, her designation?
We must remember that the primary audience of Matthew’s Gospel were Jewish-Christians. For them, the word Canaanite would carry as much negative baggage as our modern day “Nazi” or “ISIS member”. (cf. Exodus 23:32-33; Judges 1:28). But notice that this woman does not allow her status as a Canaanite to stop her from coming to Christ. She comes to Christ and says the last thing anyone expected, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David…” (Matt. 15:22 ESV) Her first words reveal a heart of humility. She is not exclaiming to Christ all the reasons He ought to hear her or grant her the request she brings. She presents no claims of self-righteousness, but a cry from the depths of her soul. Christ had heard this very same cry before from two blind men whom He had healed earlier (cf. Matt. 9:27). She also calls Him “Son of David”, which is most interesting. Here we have Christ fleeing from a Jewish region because of the Pharisees inability to acknowledge His words and identity, and now in the land of gentiles, Christ finds someone of the wrong background declaring the right things. The Canaanite woman appealed to His identity for her hope. She hoped that He would succeed where everyone else had failed.
But here Jesus does the unexpected. He doesn’t even say a word to her. In fact when He does respond, He speaks to the disciples alone. Jesus reminds them of the focus of His mission in this sentence, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24 ESV) As modern Christians we sometimes forget the tremendous privilege we have in being invited into the family of God, and united to Christ by faith as illustrated in baptism. When Christ is speaking to this woman He is doing so within a particular point in the history of redemption. Jesus had not yet been crucified, or resurrected. The glory of Pentecost in the Spirit inaugurating the world-wide mission of Christ had not yet begun. Here Christ was at work focusing primarily in Israel. So for those reasons, this woman was not in His immediate focus. And yet she cries out appealing to Christ’s compassion, “Lord, help me!” (Matt. 15:25 ESV) Again Jesus says the unexpected, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:26 ESV)
Now she had a choice. Would she respond in bitterness? Would she respond with a false or superficial faith? Would these obstacles temper her heart strengthening and hardening her faith so that she would still gaze at Christ? She submitted to Him. She recognized His identity and her own before Him, and trusted in Him. Such trust is at the essence of faith. Are you trusting in Christ today? Are you appealing to His mercy trusting in whatever He gives or is bitterness taking root in your heart? We can only hope to benefit from the work of Christ when we admit our spiritual bankruptcy before the Lord, our inability and unworthiness. I encourage you to draw near to Christ with your broken hearts, with your lifeless situation and call out to our King. He is gentle and lowly of heart and will never turn you away.
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