Nothing troubled the religious leaders of Israel more than becoming ceremonially unclean, and nothing made them more unclean than contact with “unclean” Gentiles. Yet in this next section of Matthew, Jesus leaves Israel to enter Gentile territory, where he helps a Gentile woman.
Was this woman “unclean”? The Pharisees would have said so. But when they had complained that Jesus’ disciples ate with “unclean” hands, Jesus had taught that it is not “unclean” hands or “unclean” food going into a person’s mouth that makes a person unclean, but what comes out of it. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean’” (Mt.15.19–20). By this standard the Pharisees were unclean, not the Gentile woman. The Pharisees hated Jesus and were plotting to have Him killed, while the woman demonstrated her “clean” status by her humility and her faith in Jesus as the “Lord,” the “Son of David,” and her Savior.
We have mentioned already in these studies that in spite of being the most Jewish of the four Gospels, Matthew is also the most open to Gentiles. In chapter two Gentile Magi came to worship the infant Christ, and in the last chapter Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt.28.19). Halfway through the Gospel, we find Jesus leaving the Jewish area of Galilee to go to Tyre and Sidon (in modern day Lebanon). The area is not specified in detail, but Tyre was about twenty-five miles north of Galilee, and Sidon was about twenty-five miles beyond that, so the journey there and back could have taken a considerable amount of time, perhaps months. This is the only time in His ministry that Jesus traveled out of Jewish territory into Gentile lands.
This was important for Matthew. Not only does he mention Tyre and Sidon, he introduces the woman involved in this story as a “Canaanite,” which was the name of the ancient tribal enemies of Israel. The Canaanites were the people the Israelites were to destroy when they conquered the Promised Land under Joshua, and this is the only place in the New Testament where we find the word. This is not without meaning, and William Barclay is correct when he says, “The supreme significance of this passage is that it foreshadows the going out of the Gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all barriers.”
We are going to see that the same emphasis dominates the story of the feeding of the four thousand that follows, for the unique element in that feeding, and why it is included, is that it was done in a Gentile region and that the majority of the people there were Gentiles.
Yet there is a serious problem here. If we are correct that these stories mark the beginning of the “going out of the Gospel to the whole world” and “the end of all barriers,” why did Jesus refuse to speak to the Canaanite woman initially? This seems contrary to the main point of the story. It is also unusual behavior for Jesus, but Matthew does not explain Jesus’ silence.
There are several reasons why Jesus may have refused to speak to her.
First, Jesus was not sent to Gentiles, so He wanted no dealings with the Gentile woman. We see something similar in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. He told her, “Salvation is from the Jews.” Alexander Maclaren approaches the account of the Canaanite woman this way, arguing that Jesus’ refusal “was a real refusal, founded on the divine decree, which He was bound to obey.” The problem with this answer is that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, and in the story Matthew tells, it would mean Jesus changed His mind since He not only spoke to the woman but also healed her daughter.
It is possible Jesus wanted to test the woman’s faith. This is David Dickson’s answer. He writes of “four means used for the trial of her faith: … Christ keeping silent when she prays, … the small assistance she has of the disciples’ prayers, … our Lord’s telling her that His commission reached only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, … [and] by seeming to exclude her (as a heathen, or unclean dog outside the covenant) from all the benefits of the Messiah.” This is a good explanation, because the story emphasizes how strong and perceptive her faith was. It ends with Jesus telling her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Jesus did not speak that way to many people.
It is also possible that Jesus wanted to strengthen her faith. This view appeals to William Hendriksen: “He aimed to strengthen it by means of the very answer He had given her; for she would now begin to realize, far better than if He had immediately healed her daughter, what an extraordinary blessing she was receiving.” The woman addressed Jesus as “Son of David,” and his answer drew out the full meaning of those words. If He was the Jewish Messiah, as she said, His ministry was to Israel. Did she really understand that?
However, what appeals to me as most likely, Jesus wanted to highlight what He was about to do, namely, answer the prayer of a Gentile. What Jesus is chiefly doing in this middle section of Matthew is training His disciples. The opening to the Gentile woman leads to the story of the feeding of the four thousand Gentiles in verses 29–39 and to the confession of Peter in chapter 16, all of which were part of the disciples’ training. The incidents were important enough that Matthew remembered them and included them in his Gospel.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org