Sunday January 18, 2015 | Abe Johnson
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just 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.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
In this third installment of the Women on the Outside series, we explore the story of a Phoenician woman Jesus encountered while with His disciples in the Tyre and Sidon region. We discuss how Jesus held the challenge and beauty of His mission as first the rescuer of the nation of Israel with His overall mission and call to make disciples of all nations.
There are three important points of context to consider before diving into the passage in Matthew 15. Until the Great Commission at the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the disciples were never told to make disciples of all nations. The focus had been primarily on the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Additionally, right before the story of the Phoenician woman comes a story of identity. Jesus is teaching about what defiles a person – what makes a person clean or unclean. The last important contextual point is what comes after this story. Matthew accounts of the story of Jesus feeding the 4000 and he points out that after the multiplication everyone was full, and there was even food left over. This picture of abundance in the Kingdom of God is important in understanding Jesus’ interaction with the woman from the descendants of Canaan.
The story of the Phoenician woman is unique in several regards. This is the only time Jesus is recorded doing ministry outside of His home nation of Israel. Tyre and Sidon were part of a region that was very wealthy and mostly Greek culture. Additionally, up until now in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is met with infirmity or demons He responds with compassion, empathy, and healing or deliverance. This situation is different because Jesus responds with silence when the woman begs on her demon possessed daughter’s behalf. It isn’t until after the woman goes on to plead with the disciples, and then again talks with Jesus and cleverly puts a twist on His response about Him being sent first for the Jewish people does she receive deliverance for her daughter.
It’s important to understand that Jesus coming to earth to be with humanity wasn’t a do over. This was a continuation of God’s original plan and desire to be in relationship with us and be our sole provider of value, security, and life. The only difference is after the fall Jesus coming to earth became a rescue mission – to get Israel back and save all the nations. That said Jesus stepped in to a mess when He entered the world. He grew up a Jewish boy with Jewish culture and customs with a Jewish understanding of the world. He likely grew up hearing stories of the dangers of the Canaanites and how they would steer Him away from God. He grew up witnessing firsthand how the Gentile “dogs” were murdering His people, stealing their money and food, and oppressing the Jewish nation.
The tension of this backstory and the beauty of the woman’s faith that the Messiah would usher in a Kingdom where there would be so much abundance that even the Gentiles could eat the leftovers must be held in tension. Jesus caller her a woman of great faith because she saw the world as wasn’t yet but would be some day. She had a bigger picture of the coming Kingdom than even Jesus’ disciples. Out of her desperation she had faith in the Messiah to provide for her. Because of Jesus not one of us is on the outside anymore. Through Jesus, God brought us all into his family and adopted us as sons and daughters.