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Matthew 15:21-28 – The Canaanite Woman’s Faith

Summary

Jesus crosses into territory beyond Israel and finds there a Canaanite woman who pleads for him to have mercy. In response to her great faith, Jesus heals her daughter who is possessed by a demon.

Analysis

Once again Matthew's Jesus "withdraws" (see 14:13; this is a favorite Matthean motif) and enters a situation in which the issue of faith is central. While taking over this healing story from Mark (Mark 7:24-30), Matthew once again has completely transformed it into a story of remarkable faith in an unexpected place. Identified as a foreigner, this Canaanite woman nevertheless has all the appropriate language of a true Israelite, pleading incessantly for God's "mercy" and addressing Jesus as "Lord" and "Son of David." Jesus, however, seems somewhat out of character. He will not even respond to her. Instead, when the disciples (who do not even appear in Mark's narrative) call repeatedly for Jesus to get rid of her, he disturbingly seems to join them in a statement about his being "sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24). When she is not to be put off and once again persists in addressing Jesus as "Lord," he seems to reject her again with a comment about not throwing to the dogs what belongs to the children. The resulting picture of Jesus and his response is so troubling that many interpreters seek to soften the clear and direct impact of its rejection and thus also the impact of the woman's faith that occasions Jesus' healing, according to Matthew's narrative.

The woman is not to be put off and persists in seeking the Lord's help, even if it is only to be the crumbs that fall from the "masters' table." Mathew's Jesus elsewhere three times chastises the "little faith" of the disciples (see 8:26; 14:31; 16:8), but here, in the only occurrence in the whole New Testament, Jesus praises the "great faith" of this woman and commands that her plea be granted. It is no sooner spoken than it is done. The woman's daughter is healed instantly (Mark's narrative delays the discovery until the woman returns home; see Mark 7:30). As if in further response to this great faith, Jesus breaks out in healings that amaze the crowds and call forth the praise of God (15:29-31). The picture thus contrasts the lack of Jesus' power to do miracles that accompanied the unbelief in Nazareth with which this section of stories began (13:58). And finally, it seems hardly accidental, when Jesus now invites his disciples to join him in compassion for the crowds in another miraculous feeding story (15:32-39) that balances the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand that began this section (14:13-21).

Matthew 15:21-28

The Canaanite Woman’s Faith

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

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10 February 2011

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