Lost Sheep, Pet Dogs, and Children

You think of Jesus, appropriately, as compassionate. Why then, as Matthew 15:21–28 records, when a woman is crying to him desperately for healing for her daughter, does Jesus first remain silent, and then tell her that it’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs? It seems out of character.

Jesus came as the shepherd of the lost sheep of Israel. A Canaanite woman pleads for mercy. Jesus may well have been avoiding the crowds of Israel. He had withdrawn with his disciples after John’s death (Matthew 14:12), only to be followed by the crowds, whom he healed and fed. The withdrawal may also have defused and postponed confrontations with the Pharisees and other leaders of Israel (Matthew 15:1; 16:1), because his time had not yet come. In any case, Jesus is outside the bounds of Israel, in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, in relative seclusion with his disciples. The Canaanite persistently cries out for mercy. Matthew (a Jew, and writing his Gospel originally for fellow Israelites) significantly identifies her as a Canaanite, a descendant of the original inhabitants of the land, whom the Israelites had only partially removed from the promised land. She is not one of the covenant people. She addresses Jesus respectfully, and by his messianic title as “Son of David.” Her concern is for her daughter,who suffers from demon-possession. Her persistent cries result in the disciples asking Jesus to send her away, possibly implying that he ought to grant her request in order to dismiss her.

Jesus describes his work as for his covenant people. Initially Jesus is silent. Finally he identifies his work as being directed to the lost sheep of Israel. He uses Old Testament imagery (Psalm 23; Isaiah 53:6) as he describes his people as lost sheep. The imagery also implies that he is the shepherd who has come to deal with that situation, Ezekiel 34. The rich shepherd imagery of the Old Testament focuses in the Good Shepherd. When the woman worshipfully pleads for help, Jesus responds, drawing a verbal picture of a family meal. Though Jesus’ initial silence, and then his language may appear harsh, remember that we don’t know the tone with which this was communicated. It is not lack of compassion, Matthew 14:14; 15:32. It is certainly not that Jesus has a low view of women. Look at his conversation with the woman at the well. Listen to what he says to Mary when he is in the home of Mary and Martha. The dogs here are apparently family pets, not the urban scavengers that they usually are in the Bible. However valued family pets may be, they do not have the place of children. One does not take food needed for the children and give it to even a cute little dog. “The Lord Jesus indeed hid from Israel for a time but He did not disown His people. He could not do that because He could not deny God’s covenant with them. God had first to fulfill His promise to Israel. God is eternally faithful to his covenant and grants His salvation by way of that covenant.” (S. G. de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 3, p. 243) The point is that Jesus’ work, at this point in redemptive history, was directed to his covenant people. His trip to Tyre and Sidon was not a missionary expedition. The Great Commission was still future. Although there were some notable exceptions of Gentile faith, it was not until after his rejection by Israel, not until after his crucifixion and resurrection that the good news would be proclaimed to the nations.

Live by faith! Recognize how extensive is God’s covenant grace. The woman grasps the point of Jesus’ little parable. Rather than being offended, she understands that God’s grace to his covenant people involves an overflow to others as well. Indeed, she was not a descendant of Abraham, though by faith she proves to be a true daughter of Sarah. She pleads for even a small measure of the covenantal grace of God. Unlike many of the Israelites, who prided themselves on their covenant relationship with God, she recognizes that even the covenant structure itself is all of God’s grace. The basis for her plea is not merit, but simply God’s undeserved grace. The initial silence of Jesus, then the comment about not giving the children’s food to the dogs was not harsh. Instead, Jesus was drawing out a confession of faith in him. In recording the extent of God’s covenant grace here, Matthew is reinforcing a theme of anticipated Gentile response. He has described the coming of the Gentile Magi, Matthew 2. He has recorded the faith of the Roman centurion, Matthew 8:10. He will record the frightened confession of the executing centurion and his men, Matthew 27:54. Finally, he will conclude his Gospel with the world-encompassing command of the Great Commission. “[T]he cure of the child of the Canaanitish woman is clearly significant, not simply as one more instance of a display of divine power, but as pointing to the flexibility of the rule that Jesus had been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24, 28).” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Chirst, pages 145–146)

Trust the covenant Redeemer! Jesus commends the woman for her great faith. Her daughter was healed from that very hour. Interestingly, the two people whom Jesus commends for their faith are Gentiles (here and Matthew 8:10), and both involve healing at a distance. Her trust is accented by the “little faith” displayed by Peter and the other disciples. The woman recognized Jesus for who he is, the messianic Redeemer. She recognizes that if he is indeed the promised Son of David, his coming into the world must mean an overflow of God’s grace, even to a Canaanite woman like herself. She understood that her only hope was to throw herself on his mercy, to trust in him. “Jesus’s true family consists of those who trust in him, not those who are related to him by blood. Because Jesus is restoring not only Israel but also all of creation, including gentiles (Matt. 15:21–28; 21:40–44), the true people people of God no longer can be marked out by certain nationalistic badges that distinguish one nation from another.” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 424) In recording this incident Matthew is challenging his original readers, and you and me, to trust in this same Jesus.

In the light of Matthew’s entire Gospel, you and I, Gentiles like this woman, are called to see ourselves, not as puppy dogs begging for scraps under the table, but rather, as included among the lost sheep for whom the Shepherd died. As you trust in him you enter his family as one of the children.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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