In Matthew 15 the story of Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman is followed by an account of His feeding of four thousand people near the Sea of Galilee, much as He had fed a somewhat larger group earlier. What are we to make of this story?
We begin by noticing its similarity to the story of the feeding of the five thousand found in chapter 14. These accounts have been favorite texts for liberal scholars who do not have a high regard for Scripture and find support for their low views here. They regard them as examples of what they call a non-historical “doubling” pattern in Matthew’s Gospel. They point to the two times Jesus is said to have calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee. They also point out that Matthew mentions two demon-possessed men from among the Gadarenes, rather than just one, as in Mark and Luke’s accounts; that he speaks of two blind men in, rather than of blind Bartimaeus alone, and so on.
It is not a very significant list of examples, and they can be explained in other ways than by a theory of doubling. But whatever may be the case in these other incidents, it is clear that no mere doubling of the stories takes place in Matthew’s accounts. Matthew has a purpose in what he is doing, and what is more, both feeding stories are also told in Mark, and no one has accused him of mere doubling.
Leon Morris points out that Matthew “clearly regards the two incidents as distinct: the numbers of people are different in the two incidents, as are the quantities of food and the amounts left over; the words for “basket” are different; the people in this incident had been with Jesus for three days whereas in the earlier incident they had just gone around the lake to head him off.… The times appear to be different, the earlier feeding being when the grass was green, that is, in spring, while here there is no mention of grass and the ground appears to be hard; in other words, it is late summer.”
The important thing is this: Matthew includes the story of the feeding of the four thousand because all or most of these people were Gentiles, which makes it a sequel to the story of the Canaanite woman. It is true that Matthew does not say explicitly to which side of the Sea of Galilee Jesus returned after having been in the region of Tyre and Sidon, but Mark says that it was to the Decapolis, a name referring to an area to the east of Galilee known for its ten Greek cities, and Matthew fits in with this when he says that the people praised the “God of Israel.” That was a natural thing for Gentiles but not Jews to have said. That these were Gentiles rather than Jews has been a view in the Church since St. Augustine.
Gentile “dogs”! Yes. But in spite of their being Gentiles: (1) these people were healed just as the Jews had been, (2) they were fed just as the Jews had been, and (3) the disciples were used to serve them just as they had been used to serve the Jewish gathering. What better way to teach that Gentiles are as important to God as Jews and that Christianity is a worldwide religion.
Faith may be found in unlikely places. “It is grace, not place, which makes people believers,” wrote John Ryle. That is true. One would have expected to find strong faith among the people of Israel, who had the Old Testament and all the other benefits that went with being Jews. The last place one would have expected faith was in an utterly Gentile territory. But it is the Canaanite woman who believed, and strongly, and it was the people of Galilee who did not.
Do not say, “That person will never come to faith” or “That one is too far gone to believe.” You do not know that, and it is often the most unlikely persons who come. Who would have expected Saul, that first great persecutor of the Christians, to be converted? Yet he became the great missionary to the Gentiles.
Be encouraged to come to Jesus. You may think you are too sinful to come to Jesus or that Jesus could never care for you. But that is completely wrong. If Gentile “dogs” can come, you can come. If you have never turned from sin to trust Jesus as your Savior or have never thrown all your cares on Him, do it now. Jesus Himself said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He taught, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
Come to Jesus especially if you are in trouble or hurting. Jesus cares for people whatever their problems might be. The multitudes were hungry. Many were sick. The Canaanite woman had an afflicted daughter. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and cured the girl’s demon possession. Will He do less for you?
Needy people will often find more compassion in Jesus than in Jesus’ people. The disciples were not much help either with the woman or with the crowds, either one-on-one or with the masses. But that was only to be expected. They were just poor sinful people themselves. They were not the answer to these problems. It is the same today. Today’s disciples are not always more helpful than these first followers. But what of that? If you have been disappointed by Christ’s people, I am sorry, very sorry – please don’t despair. They are probably trying; it is just that they are still sinners. Come to Jesus. It is what they would tell you to do anyway.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org