Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28
Epistle: Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32
Lesson: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm: Psalm 67
CLB Commentary – Dr. Rich Erickson
Matthew treats us to a very strange episode in 15:21-28. Many readers find this passage puzzling at best and offensive at worst. How could the loving Jesus we know speak to this “Canaanite” woman so brutally as to call her a dog? Sure, he insists that his primary mission is to Israel, and therefore not to pagan peoples such as he here encounters, away up north in the region of Tyre. (Mark, from whom Matthew probably got this story, calls this woman a “Syrophoenician.”) But what is the point of insulting her with this rude slur? And if his mission is only to the “house of Israel,” then what’s he doing way up here in non-Jewish territory? Looking for displaced Jews, perhaps? The suggestion that Jesus was merely joking with the woman is a desperate attempt to save him from being what we don’t want him to be!
To be fair to the Scriptures as we apply them to the communities we ourselves have responsibility for, we need to make as thoughtful a “guess” as possible at what the authors originally had in mind. Once we understand something of that original meaning, we can make a more responsible application in our new situations.
So, what was Matthew trying to say in this passage? We need to step back a moment and view the pericope in its larger context, which allows us to make two “big-picture” observations.
First, we see that Matthew has “book-ended” his Gospel by emphasizing God’s presence with his people in the person of Jesus (1:23; 28:20). If the first readers were post-war Jewish Christians threatened by arrogant and hostile Gentiles as well as by patriotic and equally hostile Jewish non-believers—up north in Antioch of Syria perhaps—and if they would soon hear read to them the “Great Commission” sending them to disciple “all nations,” this message of God’s presence would be enormously important.
Second, Matthew divides his story into three main parts. Matched texts at 4:17 and 16:21 suggest this division. Thus Matt 1:1–4:16 describes the preparation and lead-up to Jesus’ public ministry. Then 4:17– 16:20 presents what Jesus “began to proclaim”: repentance in view of the arrival of the kingdom of God. It recounts selected events from his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry in Galilee and elsewhere, all of which demonstrate the kingdom’s “presence.” Finally, 16:21–28:20 describe the other side of the Messianic coin: rejection, execution, and resurrection—and Commission!
Only the first of these two aspects of the Messianic mission—blessing and suffering—were acknowledged by the Jewish world of Matthew’s day, as Peter’s severe reaction shows us (Matt 16:22-23). To be reassured that both aspects were part of God’s plan for his returned “presence” among them would have been equally important for wavering Jewish believers. So would the resurrection, which according to Ezekiel 36 marked the return of the Glory of God to dwell among his people. So would the Great Commission, which like God’s charge to Joshua, would send God’s people out among the nations.
The city of Tyre was an ancient foe of Israel, and in Matthew’s day (late first century) its citizenry had collaborated with the Roman legions in bringing about Jerusalem’s destruction. “Dogs” was a way Jews had of referring to those powers, especially wealthy powers, who held Judea under oppression. Rather than understanding this text to depict Jesus as unaccountably insulting the woman of Tyre, we should perhaps see him as using standard Jewish terminology for political and economic oppressors, not unlike the way Norwegians might have referred to Nazi occupation forces during the early 1940s. There are indications from what she says that this woman herself is wealthy and that she is neither offended nor cowed by Jesus’ way of speaking to her; she is his social superior (at least in her view) and can actually spar with him.
We can observe at least two important messages in this text: (1) Jesus is actually living out what he himself had earlier taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). (2) Jesus is actually living out what he will soon commission his own (still mostly Jewish) followers to do: to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and not just of their own people.
This coheres exactly with what God’s people have always been called to do: to be a path of blessing for all the nations, all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). Jesus’ claim to have been sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” reflects his mission to regenerate that Abrahamic family of God, to form a new Israel from out of Judaism’s ancient ashes. But the purpose of that regeneration is not just the rescue of those Jewish lost sheep, but to revitalize God’s family for resuming their primary calling, their task, their election. Jesus epitomizes that calling by what he does in Tyre.
The question for us today is how this challenging message meets us where we live. No matter how it does, it is framed by 1:23 and 28:20: Jesus, Emmanuel, is “with us” in all of it. We can do this.