Israel’s king as cosmic king? (Matthew 15:21-39)

Who can receive from his table?

The intriguing twist in Matthew’s Gospel is watching the king of Israel become king of the world.

Matthew’s opening situates Jesus in Israel’s story. The anointed Davidic ruler (1:1) is born into the derailed story of Israel’s kings (1:16-17), to save his people and fulfil what God decreed (1:21-23).

In Matthew’s closing paragraph, this king has authority to reign over the whole earth with heaven’s power. The nations are learning to live under his command, in his present and enduring reign (28:18-20).

Is this just a surprise ending? Or are there moves in Matthew’s story towards this goal?

Matthew hints that the restoration of God’s reign through the Messiah will not stop at Israel’s border:

  • Foreigners guided by astrology seem more aware of “the king of the Jews” than his own people who have the Prophets to guide them (2:1-6).
  • A Roman centurion sees Jesus operating with heaven’s authority more clearly than his own people do. This foreigner hints at people from the east and the west joining the Messiah’s table, participating in the patriarchal promises (8:9-12).
  • Jesus’ authority extends to pig-raising territory, though he may not be welcome if they lose their pigs (8:28-34).

Nevertheless, Jesus’ focus during his lifetime was to rescue his own people. After centuries with no shepherd, harassed by power after power, scattered helplessly in diaspora, God’s nation needed a king to gather them together like sheaves in a harvest (9:36-38). In this phase, the king restricted his agents to announcing his kingship to the lost sheep of Israel (10:5-6), though he saw they would ultimately be seen as a threat to gentile as well as Jewish rulers (10:17-18).

Turning point?

Sometimes Jesus’ response to conflict was to “withdraw” to solitary (14:13) or foreign (15:21) places. During their retreat to the Phoenician coast north of Israel (Lebanon today), one of the locals is desperate for help for her tormented daughter. If Jesus doesn’t draw the line at the borders of Israel, they will have no break, for the needs are just as overwhelming.

He doesn’t respond. Silence. The disciples can’t cope with her nagging pleas. “Get rid of her,” they plead. Isn’t that what the original Joshua would have done to a Canaanite?

Whose prayer should Jesus answer? The foreigner? Or the students he’s brought for rest?

Jesus explains his reluctance. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24). His Father commissioned him to recover the fallen nation, to be the king (shepherd) of God’s people. All the needs in the world should not distract him from this immediate mission. The son does only what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).

She isn’t dissuaded. Even the Canaanites love their children.

Jesus insults her. She must understand that his calling right now does not permit him to take on responsibility for her and (by implication) the rest of the non-Jewish community that will be standing in line behind her. He can’t take what God has provided for the children of Israel and toss it to the dogs.

She isn’t dissuaded. She accepts that she has no place at his table, no grounds for expecting anything from him. But could the ruler of the house please pass a scrap under the table to the persistent puppy?

That’s great faith! While the children argued over whether he was clean enough to feed them (14:13 – 15:20), this Canaanite recognized the son of David and received bread from this table.

Bread for the gentiles

This concession marked the end of Jesus’ break of course. He headed back south, and “went along the Sea of Galilee” (15:29). Mark 7:31 explains this means the Decapolis, the region east of the lake, populated largely by gentiles.

Here, Jesus willingly provided the children’s bread to these who were not children of the covenant — figurative and literal bread. Exactly as he had done for Israel, he healed them (15:29-31) and fed them (15:32-38) — all 4,000 of them!

This is astounding! First, Jesus healed and feed thousands of the children of Israel in the wilderness, reminiscent of God’s provision for his people in the exodus. Now Jesus heals and feeds thousands who are not just Jews. These people also receive provision from his table, and “praise the God of Israel” (15:31).

While Israel’s leaders were arguing over Jesus’ authority and whether his disciples were wrong to eat bread with gentiles instead of taking their own (16:1-12), Jesus once again took his followers into gentile territory to press the crucial question of his identity: who he is, his authority in the world (16:13-28).

Matthew still has a great deal to unfold before he discloses how Jesus receives the cosmic kingship that incorporates all people. Yet, the door is already opening when a Canaanite dog recognizes David’s regal descendant and starts receiving from his table.

The text

Matthew 15:21-39 (my translation, compare NIV)
21 Leaving there, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And look, a Canaanite woman from these parts approached shouting, “Help me, Lord, son of David. My daughter is suffering, tormented by a demon.”
23 He didn’t respond, not a word. His followers approached him requesting, “Send her away because she keeps calling out behind us.”
24 He replied, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel’s household.”
25 She came and knelt to him, “Lord, help me!”
26 He replied, “It is not good to take bread from the children and throw it to the dogs.”
27 She said, “Yes it is Lord, for the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then in response Jesus said, “Woman, your trust is awesome. Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was cured from that moment.

29 Moving on from that spot, Jesus walked along beside the Sea of Galilee and up the mountain, and he sat down there. 30 Large crowds came to him, bringing with them people who were lame, blind, crippled, deaf, and many others. They laid them at Jesus feet, and he healed them. 31 So, the crowd was astounded — seeing the deaf speaking, the cripples restored, the lame walking, the blind seeing — and they glorified the God of Israel.

32 Gathering his followers, Jesus said, “I feel for the crowd. They’ve already stayed with me for three days without having anything to eat. I don’t want to dismiss them without food in case they collapse on the way.
33 His followers say to him, “Where in this deserted place could we get enough food to satisfy a crowd like this?”
34 Jesus says to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few little fish.”
35 Instructing the crowd to sit on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and giving thanks he broke it and was handing it to his followers, who passed it on to the crowds. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. They picked up seven baskets of leftover pieces. 38 Those who ate were 4000 men, not counting the women and children. 39 Dismissing the crowds, he got into the boat and crossed over to the regions of Magadan.

What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 591:

The pericope does not end where it begins, in a racial stand-off between the Jewish teacher and the Canaanite woman, and when eventually her appeal is granted there is no sign of reluctance on Jesus’ part, but rather an exceptionally warm commendation of her “faith.” It is only when the pericope is read as a whole that it is properly understood, and the harsh racial language of the earlier part of the exchange is put in its true context, not as independent propositions but as thrusts in a verbal fencing match.

Nor was this ministry to a Gentile merely an exceptional concession by Jesus, for the following pericopes (vv. 29–38) will go on to depict the Messiah of Israel at work among non-Jewish people, including the literal sharing of “the children’s bread” with the “dogs” (vv. 32–38). The whole of the second half of chapter 15 thus puts into practice the message of its first half, the relaxation of the Jewish “purity” culture which had hitherto kept Jew and Gentile apart. In that process, so essential to the eventual internationalization of the Christian movement, the cheeky persistence of the Canaanite woman plays a defining role.

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 418:

By hailing Jesus as “Lord” (as in, “Your Majesty” — Manson 1979: 200–201), “Son of David” (15:22; cf. Ps. Sol. 17:21), she had already acknowledged him as the rightful king over a nation that had conquered her ancestors (Josh 12:7–24; 2 Sam 8:1–15) — more than many of his own people had done (15:2; 21:15–16; 23:39).

Update 2022-04-29: Original translation added.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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