Key text: “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession” (Matthew 15:22).
Main point: Jesus’ ministry to Israel was only the beginning of a worldwide endeavor to take the gospel to all nations, to all peoples and to every culture.
The Canaanite woman beseeches Jesus
Illustration by Geronimo Nadal
Earlier in his ministry, when Jesus sent out his 12 disciples, he told them not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans but only to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, was sent on a specific mission, and that was to save them from their sins (1:21). The prophets long ago had predicted both his birth and mission (2:4-6). Israel as a nation had found themselves continually in bondage because they had not been faithful to God. Gentiles had ruled over them for centuries, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and finally the Romans. Israel was promised a deliverer, savior, messiah, one who ultimately came in the person and work of Jesus.
The passage before us (15:21-28) involves a foreigner and seems out of place in this phase of Jesus’ mission. The structure of the passage follows the pattern of an encounter and subsequent dialog. Jesus and his disciples travel to the pagan northern regions outside of Israel’s borders, perhaps to rest before returning to Israel and resuming their ministry afresh.
Behold! Jesus is met by a Canaanite woman boldly seeking mercy on account of her demon-possessed daughter. Unlike the Israelites, this foreigner recognizes Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and will not give up, even when she is rebuffed three times! Jesus acknowledges her faith and takes care of her need, all to the disciples’ surprise—they are left pondering, as if with their mouths wide open.
Jesus is always full of surprises – he often says and does the opposite of what we would say or do. As far as salvation is concerned, no one can put Jesus in a box or limit his mission. How many times have we thought it was impossible for a certain person or persons to ever be saved because they do not fit our standards? We are often struck dumbfounded when we see the Lord shatter our shortsighted ideals and convert those very people.
The Gospel of Matthew has several indications along the way of underlining the universal scope of Jesus’ redemptive mission beyond Israel’s cultural borders. The Magi from the east who came to visit Jesus as “king of the Jews” were Gentile worshippers (2:1-2). The centurion whose servant Jesus healed with only a word was a Gentile Roman officer. Jesus said that many such Gentiles would come from the east and west and take their place in the kingdom of heaven, while the subjects (Jews) of the kingdom would be cast out (8:5-13). The parable of the tenants expounds the same theme of Israel forfeiting the kingdom and it being given to the Gentiles (21:33-45). At the conclusion and climax of the Gospel of Matthew, we have Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (28:18-20).
Questions for Bible study
Read the following verses and respond to the questions:
1. Matthew 15:21-28
a. What region do Jesus and his disciples travel to? Verse 21. What cities are mentioned, where is this region, and what kind of people lived there? Consult a Bible dictionary.
b. What ancient pagan people is this woman associated with? Verse 22a. See Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 20:16-18.
c. With what two titles does the Canaanite woman address Jesus? Verse 22b-d. What is the significance of these titles? What do you think is the minimum she knows about Jesus?
d. What petition does this woman bring to Jesus? Verse 22e. Why? Verse 22f. In what manner is her plea: casual or desperate? How do you think her daughter became afflicted?
e. What is Jesus’ response to the first pleas of the woman? Verse 23a. What is the disciples’ response to her continual pleas for mercy? Verse 23b. Do you think the disciples are more concerned with the woman’s need or her continual nagging?
f. What is Jesus’ second response to the woman? Verse 24. See 10:5-6. Don’t you think that the woman should have left and gone away at this point?
g. What action does the woman take next? Verse 25a. Why? Verse 25b. Where else do you think that the woman can find help?
h. What is Jesus’ third response to her? Verse 26. It appears that Jesus has just added insult to injury! Most people would have given up at this point and gone away in frustration. What would you have done if someone implied that you were a dog? Note: The Jews of that time considered a Gentile no more than an unclean wild dog, not the domesticated pet that we think of today!
i. How does the woman respond to Jesus’ formulation of a witty Jewish put-down? Verse 27. Note: The woman responds with wit of her own, matching wit for wit in this exchange. She recognizes her station in life within this particular phase of the Jewish Messiah, but at the same time she understands the Messiah’s ultimate concern is for all peoples, including her!
j. What is Jesus’ response to her? Verse 28. Why does Jesus attribute to the woman “great faith”? Why do you think Jesus finally granted her request after rebuffing her three times? What would the woman have shown if she had given up earlier?
2. Matthew 8:5-13
a. Who meets Jesus and what does he want? Verse 5. What is a centurion and where is Capernaum? Consult a Bible dictionary and map.
b. How does the centurion address Jesus? Verse 6a-b. What is his request to Jesus? Verse 6c. Where is the servant and in what condition?
c. What is Jesus willing to do for him? Verse 7.
d. What objection does this foreigner raise? Verse 8a-c. Why do you think that he does not want Jesus to come to his home? (see Acts 10:28). What is the centurion’s amazing suggestion to this dilemma? Verse 8d-e. Why does the centurion believe this will work? Verse 9.
e. What is Jesus’ response to the Jews at the centurion’s remarks? Verses 10-12.
f. What is Jesus’ reply and action toward this foreign believer? Verse 13.
Read Matthew 28:18-20
1. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, what does Jesus’ redemptive mission accomplish? Verse 18 and see Matthew 27:51. Did Jesus die for only one particular race of people, or did Jesus die for the sins of the world?
2. As we go out in obedience to the Great Commission (“Therefore go…”), what are we commanded to do as disciples of Christ? Matthew 28:19a. To what peoples and cultures is our mission limited? What about races other than our own? Can you explain what racism is? Have you ever joked about the color of someone’s skin? Or have you made fun of cultures different than your own?
3. Aside from going out, how else are disciples made? Verse 19b. In what Trinitarian formula? What does it mean to be baptized?
4. What third activity is involved in making disciples? Verse 20. Whose commands are we to teach? Explain in new covenant terms.
Jesus’ encounter with a foreign woman reveals God’s universal outreach to all peoples regardless of who they are or what needs they have. As disciples of Christ, we have been called to share the good news of salvation to all peoples everywhere!