Matthew 15:21-38, The Master of the Feast

[August 19, 2012] After the series of parables that Jesus told in Matthew 13, Jesus went home to Nazareth where He was poorly received and got word of the death of John the Baptist. When He sought to withdraw, thousands of people followed Him and He healed their sick and miraculously fed them. Then when evening came He withdrew to a mountain and prayed while His disciples were battered by the waves in a tempest as they attempted to cross the “sea” of Galilee. Yet surprisingly He was with them on the sea, walking on the waves, and even called Peter to step out and do the same. When they came to shore Jesus continued to heal the sick, in fact, anyone who touched the tassels at the fringe of His garment were healed. Then the Pharisees and Temple scribes from Jerusalem came, not the local Pharisees but the top brass from Jerusalem, and they criticized His disciples for not following all the traditions of the elders, the artificial “fences” that hemmed in the Halakah of the Torah. Jesus blasted them for hypocrisy, for using their own rules to evade the command of God.

 The argument centered round cleanliness. What kind of cleanliness mattered to God? Of course for the Jews there are rules about ritual cleanliness, but does ritual uncleanness really affect our relationship to God? God is concerned about the heart; and what defiles the heart are the things that come out of the heart, namely what violates the dual command of love.

Last week we sought to understand the train of thought here. How is Matthew leading us as he strings these stories together? Stepping back and taking a bird’s-eye view of the text, we see that Matthew is leading us to the revelation of who Jesus is, the revelation of His qahal or convoked gathering (i.e., the church), and the revelation of the cross. The revelation of who-Jesus-is gathers His church, and as we will see, the way of the church is inseparable from His own way in the world, namely, the way of the cross. What we see in the narrative that precedes this are two incidents of Jesus miraculously healing and feeding a great multitude of people who gathered to Him, the feeding miracle highlighted again in 16:5-12. It seems to me that these miracles are pictures of the Messiah’s qahal.

Preceding the first miracle is a repetition in Nazareth of Jesus’ frustration with the crowds in chapters 11—13. The word (His self-presentation) falls on deaf ears. But when He leaves them after hearing of the death of the Baptist, which foreshadows His own death, He offers a banquet in the wilderness to the crowd that comes to Him in stark contrast to the banquet of the world. The world feasts on the poor and oppressed and the persecution of the holy ones of God; the Messiah offers us Himself as the feast. The first feeding then is a pictured of the church (typified by the poor) gathered to Jesus and finding their fill and satisfaction in Him.

Matthew inserts between the first and the second feeding stories (1) the tempest at sea (and Jesus praying on high and, as master of the waves, coming to and being with the frightened disciples), (2) Jesus’ controversy with the Jerusalem Pharisees over cleanliness, and (3) Jesus receiving an “unclean” gentile woman. Much of the Acts of the Apostles (and Paul’s entire letter to the Galatians) is occupied with this: the storm at sea is the controversy over the inclusion of gentiles in the Messiah’s qahal—without their first having to become Jews. It is a controversy about the uncleanness of the gentiles, and therefore their unfitness for inclusion in God’s people.

Of course, all of these stories are just incidents, and we should read them literally. But we should not suppose that Matthew is listing these incidents chronologically or has just thrown them together randomly. The thematic thread that I am outlining here contextualizes these stories within the structure of the gospel itself and within Matthew’s own historical context (probably in Antioch and probably a mere twenty-two years after the resurrection).

So the second feeding miracle repeats the first but with a difference. It emphasizes the inclusion of the gentiles. The banquet becomes universal, symbolized by the number four. Also the number seven symbolizes completeness. This interpretation is confirmed by the reminder of the “sign of Jonah” in 16:4—being the repentance of the gentiles that so offended the prophet Jonah—and the fact that the Gospel according to Mark locates the feeding in the Decapolis, on the eastern—gentile—shore of the Lake of Galilee (7:31).

A Gentile Mother Seeks Jesus (Matthew 15:21-28)

Admittedly the story about the Canaanite woman is puzzling. Jesus at first refuses her request yet He also refuses to send her away. Commentators who accuse Jesus of racial and gender bias from which the woman rescues Him are obviously wide of the mark. If we have followed Matthew’s gospel to this point, we know that Jesus is very interested in the gentiles, and in chapter 8 He heals a Roman centurion’s servant, saying to him, “With no one in Israel have I found such great faith.” Moreover, Jesus’ openness to women was conspicuously remarkable at the time. If, however, we understand this story in the light of the previous one, which was about what constitutes cleanliness and about the condition of the heart, we may have a hint as to what is afoot. With Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, it was all about cleanliness (see Acts 10:9-16, 28). Peter’s statement in Acts 15:9 sums up his experience: “God, the Knower of hearts … made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”

 Tyre and Sidon in modern day Lebanon were once Phoenician port cities, and in New Testament times notoriously pagan. This is the furthest afield Jesus will travel in His ministry. Jesus apparently followed the road from Tyre to Sidon, staying out of the cities themselves, keeping to their environs or neighborhoods. Both Tyre and Sidon (Isaiah 23; Joel 3:4) are under God’s judgment and the Canaanites (Genesis 9:25-26) are cursed. They are therefore pretty representative of the gentile world. So that is what we are dealing with here.

A Canaanite woman came to him from one of those cities and cried out to Him in the language of the Psalms, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” One is a title of submission (lord means master), the other is a messianic title. Jesus comes into the Gospel according to Matthew as the Son of David, adopted into David’s line in chapter 1, and He will enter Jerusalem in chapter 21 as the heir to David’s throne. The Son of David depicted in the prophets will be a blessing to the gentiles after He overcomes their tyrants (the powers of the world). So this is correct.

But Jesus ignores her. The disciples see this and ask Him to send her away; she is being a pest. But He won’t. Instead He says—and it is almost just as bad—“I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Presumably we are to understand this in the same sense as 10:6, as a temporary restriction; but in His case it is functional and “economic.” Whatever we make of this theologically, the question we want to ask here is why is Jesus saying this? If He won’t send her away, His saying it is provocative if nothing else. How did He want her to respond?

“But she came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!” She takes a completely submissive attitude, but she does not go away either. Perhaps she realizes that Jesus has not shooed her away like the disciples asked.

But this is not enough for Jesus. He says to her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs,” the household pets. The children are obviously the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The household dogs are the gentiles. The household dogs were fed with the scraps that were left over after the family ate. Since this story is surrounded by the two stories in which Jesus multiplied loaves of bread to feed the hungry crowds, and collected baskets of leftovers, it is interesting that Jesus chose this metaphor of throwing away the children’s bread. It would also be interesting if the woman had heard about the first miracle.

Nevertheless, there is an insult here. The gentiles are dogs, even if the household cherishes them (though not to the extent that modern Americans do). If we heard Jesus say this, we might say, “How dare you exclude me. I am just as good as one of the children. After all, we are all the children of God. I am not unclean. I deserve a place at the table.” God taught Peter to call no one common or unclean.

Yet the gentiles by all means are spiritually unclean. As Jesus has shown in the previous episode, their uncleanness has nothing to do with ritual purity. It has to do with the defilement of their hearts. They are idolaters and blasphemers, and they do not love their neighbors. The whole world is under the power of the evil one. There is no way to look at the gentiles as “clean.” Modern people do not like to hear this. We are rightly concerned about poor self-images, insecurities and the problems of guilt and shame. But these psychological issues are beside the point. Jesus is talking about our relationship to God. And there we are, none of us, okay. We are unworthy of God’s grace.

The woman is smarter than we are. She catches on and says, “Yes, Lord, for even the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She does not pretend she is a child and that she deserves to sit at the Master’s table. She acknowledges her unworthiness. And that is the point.

Jesus responds, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you as you wish.” Like the centurion in chapter 8, her faith is great or mighty, and like the centurion’s servant, her daughter is healed from a distance (“from that hour”). In contrast, Peter’s faith was said to be “little” (14:31). Apparently, her accepting her unworthiness as a gentile was the condition that Jesus was looking for.

The Jews are covenanted with God by promise, yet even they are not “entitled.” The gentiles definitely are not entitled to God’s mercy or grace. Mercy by definition is not something to which one is entitled. As John the Baptist told the Pharisees: do not flee from the judgment of God but submit to it. When we submit to God’s judgment and acknowledge His wrath, then we discover His mercy. Otherwise, we become like a hard rock that He—a greater force—will crash against and smash into pieces. Instead, we need to yield.

The old prayer that we used to pray before Communion was appropriate:

“We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. Amen.”

Glorifying the God of Israel (15:29-31)

After that Jesus came beside the Lake of Galilee. In the Gospel according to Mark He took the road through the Bekka Valley and to the east of Hazor and down the eastern shore of the Lake of Galilee to the region of the Decapolis, a predominantly gentile region. Matthew does not tell us this. Nevertheless, the crowd glorifies the God of Israel. They could be Israelites praising the God of Israel, but it would be something worth noting if gentiles praised the God of Israel as a result of Jesus’ acts of healing. My sense is that the later is Matthew’s point. But do we gentiles in the church still praise the God of Israel?

Jesus is healing people everywhere He goes, except in Nazareth, because of their unbelief. His generosity was the same in the Decapolis as it was in Galilee, whether the crowds who came to Him were Jews or gentiles. When we read in 4:24-25 that the crowds came to Him from all of Syria and Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and beyond the Jordan, the crowds may very well have been mixed, and Jesus did not distinguish between them. After all, even in the Diaspora gentiles attended the synagogues. Jesus was like Mount Zion in Isaiah to which all the gentiles would one day stream.

Jesus “went up to the mountain and sat there.” I did not have time to continue my notes at this point. However, where I wanted to go with them was this: Matthew begins the second feeding miracle with Jesus sitting on a mountain. Every time Matthew has Jesus on a mountain, it is significant. In the wilderness Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and presses the issue of worship. Sitting on a mountain Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples are to be a city set on a mountain. Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray. The transfiguration takes place on a mountain. When Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple and His coming again He is sitting on a mountain, and on the same mountain He prays in Gethsemane. At the end of the gospel He commissions His disciples on a mountain. It seems to me that mountains are spiritual peaks, either of prayer or revelation, and that to place the feeding of the more than four thousand on a mountain is meant to make the event revelatory. Metaphorically, Jesus is feeding the whole world of Jews and gentiles; they all are filled up and satisfied, with seven breadbaskets full of excess remain, seven signifying completion or fullness. Jesus, the Son of the Living God, after His death and resurrection fulfills the sign of Jonah and gathers people from the four winds into His qahal, and even the gates of She’ol cannot hold up against its onslaught. What is bound is the storm at sea (representing those who would oppose the church’s movement—all the “Pharisees” and their type); what is loosed are the poor and the gentiles who now enter the kingdom of the heavens as they come to the Messiah of Israel and give Him their allegiance and He gratuitously receives them into the sphere of His Person, the sphere of God’s grace. The Eucharistic feast of the church is a depiction of the reality of the church to which all people, not only Jews but even the far off gentiles, are invited to come to Jesus, the Master of the Feast.

Leave a Reply