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encouragement theology

Dogs Under the Table

Thoughts from Matthew 15…

I am sitting here reading this passage during a time of high stress. Life has been overwhelming. My plans haven’t worked out, so I need to try twice as hard. I’m disappointed by those I thought I could count on.

The perfect ingredients for a pity party!

And then I sit down to read this passage. I am far from any type of worship, and thoughts of devotion are far away. But I promised myself this morning that I would read the Bible, so I better get it over with!

It’s not a long passage, and since I didn’t really pay attention, I read it again. It is a familiar scene about a foreign woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter. About the third time through, I start to realize how selfish I am. I have been so caught up in myself!

Jesus often challenged the people around Him. Whether to draw out a suffering woman, to send out a man on a mission, or to confront His unbelieving disciples, He never settled for simple agreement with Him. He wasn’t looking for popularity, He was looking for those who truly believed in Him!

In this scene, a foreign woman approached Him, begging Him to heal her daughter. But Jesus wouldn’t help her until she completely humbled herself. She needed to put away any pride and then to simply trust in Him. But she had enough trust to believe that He would heal her daughter, and for Jesus himself to commend her, “Great is your faith!

Matthew 15:21-28
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Plan

Matthew 15:21
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

Mark 7:24
And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.

At this point, Jesus has concluded His ministry to the Jewish people of Galilee. He had crossed the entire region of Galilee, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles (see here and here). He even sent out His twelve apostles with the same message: the King is coming!

The people loved to hear Him, and even tried to make Him into their military ruler by force. But when He asked for their total commitment, they rejected Him

Now, He has begun to take His faithful disciples away from the massive crowds and the opposition of the Jews. It is less than a year from the cross, and He has much to teach them. He leaves the Jewish regions and heads north, toward the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon.a 

Yet even in the pagan cities, Jesus cannot be hidden. Mark’s account shows that the crowds followed Him, even into His house of lodging.

The Need

Matthew 15:22-23
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”

Mark 7:25-26
But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

But there, amidst this jostling crowds, came a pagan woman with a severe need. She had heard about this Jewish miracle worker and hurried to Him on behalf of her daughter.b Her child was possessed by a demon, yet she knew that Jesus had the power to heal her

She came to Him formally, addressing Him as the Messiah, “Son of David”. But she also came to Him persistently. The words in Matthew show that she was repeatedly crying out to Him, begging for Him to have mercy on her child!

But Jesus didn’t answer her and the disciples began to beg Him to send her away.c Whether they wanted their Master to heal the daughter or to send her away empty-handed, their main point was that they wanted her to leave them alone. The woman was following them through the town, calling out after Him to please help her!

Jesus showed reluctance to perform a miracle here in Tyre and Sidon. He had traveled outside of Galilee to avoid the fame that had been following Him and this Gentile woman was outside of God’s blessings on the Jewish people.6 

It is interesting to note that the woman was a Canaanite, a descendent of the wicked pagans who should have been destroyed by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).d Not only had her family survived, but now, over a thousand years later, this Canaanite woman shows greater faith than any of the faithful Jews of her day!

The Challenge 

Matthew 15:24-25
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 

Mark 7:27
And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

When Jesus does respond, He reminds His disciples that He was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (see also here). He is still calling Israel to repentance, and even though the Jews were rejecting Him, it is not yet the time to extend His message to the Gentiles. She had no right to claim Him as her Jewish Messiah. 

But Jesus would totally challenge those who came to Him. This woman needed to be brought past her pride and presumption, and first come to Him in total humility. He would accept nothing less. 

His response to the woman is offensive to our modern sensitivities. How could Jesus compare the woman and her nation as dogs? Even though the word for dogs here is the term for pet dogs (as opposed to the wild scavengers), it is still unusual to us.e 

Yet Jesus’ response was to put the woman in her place. She needed to fully recognize that she was not part of a blessed nation. She had no special rights that would entitle her any favors from the Lord!

He had given her a challenge: “Would you recognize your place in God’s plan for His people?” Was she willing to admit that she was only an outsider in God’s plan?

“Jesus was not playing games with the woman, nor was He trying to make the situation more difficult. He was drawing out of her a growing response of faith.” – Warren Wiersbe3

The Response 

Matthew 15:27-28
She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark 7:28-30
But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Her response to this offense seems to be immediate. She accepted her position, yet still asked simply for a “crumb from the table”. She may be only the dog, but would He still allow her table scraps?

Her humble response showed her real faith in Jesus Christ. It was not the popular fascination of the Jews, nor was it based only on her urgent need. She believed in Him and totally trusted Him!

Jesus never met the woman’s daughter, yet the girl was healed instantly! And Jesus commended her, saying, “great is your faith!

“She accepted her place, she believed His Word, and she per­sisted in her plea, and Jesus not only met her need, but commended her for her faith.” – Warren Wiersbe4

Remember!

Faith does not come where we expect!

It is important to remember that Jesus interacted with thousands of Jews during His day. They were God’s people, raised on the Holy Word of God. Yet He only commended two people for their great faith, and both of them were pagan Gentiles (this Canaanite woman and the Centurion with the injured servant).3

Those who should have believed Him rejected Him. Those who should have rejected Him believed Him with great faith!

Your heritage and your past does not define you. What matters is your faith in Jesus Christ!

These people had no heritage of faithful families. This woman’s ancestors were wicked foreigners. Yet they learned how to first trust in Jesus Christ. 

There is no room for personal pride, nor can we claim any special rights. We must humble ourselves before Him, and then He will lift us up!

1 Peter 5:6-7
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Previous post: It’s the Inside that Matters!


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 15:21-28, pages 194-196

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 15, The King Denounces Hypocrisy

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 15:21-28, pages 44-45

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 7:24-30, pages 110-111

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXXIII: JESUS AND THE SYRO-PHOENICIAN WOMAN (St. Matthew 15:21-28; St. Mark 7:24-30.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxxiii.html

[6] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 9 https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/18-unsuccessful-attempts-to-find-solitude-with-his-apostles.html

[7] John MacArthur, The Quality of Great Faith, Matthew 15:21-28, Jul 25, 1982


Notes

[a] Tyre and Sidon were two Phonecian coastal cities to the north of Palestine. They were renown for their rampant wickedness and their judgement from Scriptures:

  • One of the most evil women in the Bible — Jezebel — was from this region (1 Kings 16:31).
  • Tyre and Sidon were the center of Baal worship in the Old Testament times (Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 26).
  • Tyre and Sidon were an example of Judgement in the New Testament times (see here).

[b] Matthew’s account simply says that the woman has a daughter, but Mark’s account is more specific, saying that she is a little daughter (thygatrion, [θυγάτριόν]). This indicates that she was a younger child. The only other place that this word is used in the New Testament is in describing Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter in Mark 5:23 (see also here). As shown in this study, a girl would be considered a woman at twelve years and one day. Therefore, we assume that the girl was about twelve years old or younger.

[c] Many commentators have highlighted the fact that Jesus refused to answer her when she called Him the “Son of David”, the title of the Jewish Messiah.1 2 3 This Gentile woman had no right to claim the Son of David as her own Messiah, as this privilege was reserved only for the Jews. Therefore, the commentators deduced that Jesus refused to answer her because of her attempt to act “Jewish”. But it is important to remember here that the issue with this Gentile woman was not her terminology, but rather her presumption. Jesus was not reacting to her use of His title, but rather, she needed to first understand that she was a Gentile, and not entitled to His direct service. Jesus was leading her toward faith, not proper terminology.

[d] Matthew says that the woman was a “Canaanite”, while Mark describes her as “a Syrophoenician by birth”. Her ancestry was from the original Canaanites, while her nationality was Phoenician (the land to the north of Israel).

[e] The usual word for dogs is kuón (κύων), which has a negative connotation, describing the despised scavenger animals that roamed the area (e.g. Philippians 3:2). But the word used in Matthew 15:26-27 is kunarion (κυνάριον), which describes the domesticated house dogs.

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