Breaking Human Traditions, 1-9

15:1 Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, 15:2 “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” 15:3 He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? 15:4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 15:5 But you say, ‘If someone tells his father or mother, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God,” 15:6 he does not need to honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God on account of your tradition. 15:7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said,
15:8 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me,
15:9 and they worship me in vain,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”

Here is another fact-finding (or, rather fault-finding) investigation (see Mk 3:22) of what Jesus was getting up to.  It is an indication both of his increasing fame and the Jews’ increasing concerns.  This enquiry is biased and fault-finding from the start.

Mt 15:1–20 = Mk 7:1–23

“They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” – ‘Only traditional interpretation and expansion of the law required this. The written law did not. (Lev 22:1-16) Only priests needed to make an ablution before eating to cleanse themselves from anything unclean. Christ accused them of also expanding (and negating) the commandment about honoring parents by devoting goods to God, which then could not be used to support the parents.’ (Mt 15:4-6) (Ryrie)

The hand-washing referred to here has nothing to do with hygiene, nor was it required by the Law of Moses.  It was ritual washing prescribed by the oral traditions of which the scribes and Pharisees were the custodians.  Such rituals may well have functioned as ‘boundary-markers’ distinguishing Jews from the Gentiles.  But they hardly fit into E.P. Sanders’ category of ‘covenantal nomism’, for they do not derive from the Mosaic Law.

Ryle remarks that we have here evidence of the decay into which the Jewish religion had fallen, at the time of Jesus.  ‘From the religion of the books of Deuteronomy and Psalms, to the religion of washing hands, and pots, and cups, how great was the fall!’  Ryle adds, ‘There are branches of the Church of Christ at this day in which the Scriptures are never read, and the Gospel never preached, – branches in which the only religion now remaining consists in using a few unmeaning forms and keeping certain man-made fasts and feats, – branches which began well, like the Jewish Church, and like the Jewish Church have now fallen into utter barrenness and decay.’

“Your tradition” – What was being questioned was a matter of ritual not drawn from the Torah, but from the traditions that had grown up around the law.  Ex 30:19; 40:13 required priests to wash their hands and feet before entering the Tabernacle.  But this was vastly expanded over time so that ordinary Jews applied the purity laws to their own daily routines of praying and eating.  As Lane remarks, there was something potentially noble about this – an attempt to recognise ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and a desire to sanctify all aspects of daily life.

v8 The reference is to Isa 29:13; cf.Eze 33:31.

‘God wants us to give him our hearts, and not just our lip service. We believe in the heart, (Rom 10:9-10) love from the heart, (Mt 22:37) sing from the heart, (Col 3:16) obey from the heart, (Rom 6:17; Eph 6:6) and give from the heart.’ (2 Cor 9:7) (Wiersbe)

We do well to remember this in both our public worship.  We must not, as Ryle puts it, take our bodies to church but leave our hearts at home.  Our bowed heads, serious expressions, and dutiful responses may impress other people, but they do not impress God, who looks upon the heart.  And in our private devotions, too, let us remember that God does not regard the length or fluency of our prayers, but their heartfelt sincerity.

All of this is a long way from true, heartfelt worship.  Archibishop William Temple  defined such worship as follows:-

To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.

‘We need to listen again to the biblical criticism of religion.  No book not even by Marx and his followers, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible.  The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BC were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of Israelite worship.  Jesus then applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day…And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to us and our churches today.  Too much of our worship is ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear, religion without God.’ (Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 228)

v9 The Jewish leaders were not only insincere; they were also mistaken.

True Defilement, 10-20

15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 15:11 What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.” 15:12 Then the disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard this saying they were offended?” 15:13 And he replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted. 15:14 Leave them! They are blind guides. If someone who is blind leads another who is blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15:15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 15:16 Jesus said, “Even after all this, are you still so foolish? 15:17 Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and then passes out into the sewer? 15:18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. 15:19 For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 15:20 These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”

v18 God is more concerned with what comes out of the mouth that what goes into the mouth. The latter affect our physical well-being; the former reflect our spiritual health. ‘We work hard to keep our outward appearance attractive, but what is in our hearts is even more important. The way we are deep down (where others can’t see) matters much to God. What are you like inside? When people become Christians, God makes them different on the inside. He will continue the process of change inside them if they only ask. God wants us to have healthy thoughts and motives, not just healthy food and exercise.’ (HBA)

v19 = Mk 7:21

“Out of the heart” – ‘The source of true defilement in men is the human heart, and the tragedy of men’s having to sin reaches its demonic fulfilment in man’s wanting to sin.  There is no heart in which this radical evil has failed to take root.’ (Lane)

‘This explanation places the question of defilement and purity on a fundamentally different plane than that presupposed by the scribes and Pharisees.  By this interpretation Jesus does not alleviate the demand for purity but sharpens it…The capacity for fellowship with God is not destroyed by material uncleanness of food or hands; it is destroyed by personal sin.’ (Lane)

It is difficult, in the light of this teaching, to accept the assertion by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann (The Lost Message of Jesus, p67) that ‘Jesus believed in original goodness’ (i.e. not ‘original sin’).  Subsequently, Chalke defended this contention by reference to Gen 1:31, but this, of course, comes before the Fall, a fact inexplicably ignored by him.

Other lists of vices are found in Rom 1:18-32; Rom 13:13; 1 Co 5:9-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 4:19; 5:3-5; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thess 2:3; 4:3-7; 1 Tim 1:9-10; 6:4-5; 2 Tim 3:2-5; Tit 3:3, 3:9-10; 1 Pet 4:3; Rev 21:8, Rev 22:15.

‘It is worth noting that ‘sexual immorality’ (porneiai) is in the plural, and is included as a separate item from ‘adultery’ (moicheia). This term would include premarital sex before marriage, and sex with a prostitute, but would also refer to illicit sexual unions prohibited in Leviticus 18. Given Jesus’ ‘conservative’ approach to sexual ethics generally (such as supporting the more restrictive of the approaches to divorce), it is difficult to imagine that he did not also share the characteristic Jewish rejection of same-sex relations.’ (Ian Paul)

“Evil thoughts” – ‘Our hearts are of that colour which our most constant thoughts dye into it. Transient fleeting thoughts, whether of one kind or another, do not alter the temper of the sould. Neither poison kills nor food nourishes, unless they stay in the body; nor does good or evil benefit or hamr the mind unless they abide in it.’ (Gurnall)

“Adultery” – ‘This is the violation of the marriage bond: a married man’s voluntary sexual intercourse with someone other than his wife; or a married woman’s voluntary sexual intercourse with someone other than her husband.  It should be made clear, however, that Jesus sharpened the edge of every commandment. He taught that hatred is murder (Mt 5:21-22), and that a married man’s lustful look at another woman is adultery (Mt 5:28).’ (Hendriksen, on Mark)

v20 ‘If nothing outward can defile, it is obvious that nothing purely outward can sanctify – as the Church of Rome teaches that Sacraments, for example, do of themselves (“ex opere operato”).’ (JFB)

John Stott offers, from this passage, the following outline concerning evil:-

  1. Its extent is universal
  2. Its essence is self-centredness
  3. Its origin is the human heart
  4. Its consequence is defilement

“These are what make a man ‘unclean'” – ‘They render a man unfit for communion with God, they bring a stain upon the conscience; and, if not mortified and rooted out, will shut men out of the new Jerusalem, into which no unclean thing shall enter.’ (MHC)

A Canaanite Woman’s Faith, 21-28

15:21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 15:22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 15:23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 15:24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 15:25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 15:26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 15:27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Mt 15:21–28 = Mk 7:24–30

The account which follows is paralleled in Mk 7:24-30.  Matthew, however, while still recording the miracle, emphasises the dialogue.  As in the account of the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13) the main focus is on Jesus’ attitude to Gentile faith.

In the present story, ‘the issue of defilement now recurs in a more practical form.’ (NBC)

There are Old Testament precedents (notably the Sidonian woman and Elijah (1 Kings 17:18–19) and the Shunammite woman with Elisha (2 Kings 4:28) for Gentile women pleading for help from a prophet, and refusing to take no for an answer.

A Canaanite woman– ‘Matthew’s use of the old term “Canaanite” shows that he cannot forget her ancestry: a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies comes to the Jewish Messiah for blessing.’ (EBC)

According to Mark, this woman is from Syro-Phoenicia (a region outside Judea).  Peter Enns (The Bible Tells Me So, p42) thinks that the woman isn’t really a Canaanite – Matthew just calls her that, as if to make the point that the only mention in the NT of Israel’s ancient enemies is in the context of our Lord’s favour towards them.  (Enns adds that if there were any ‘Canaanites’ living in the land in Jesus’ day, it was the Romans – and Jesus made perfectly clear that these ‘enemies’ were to be ‘loved’ by his followers.)

Actually, this woman’s ethnic and cultural background would seem a little more complex than Enns allows.  Mark describes her as ‘Greek’, suggesting that she was Hellenised to some degree.  Her conversation with Jesus was presumably carried out in Greek.  Then her opening words are in Jewish idiom, with ‘Son of David’ being a Jewish title for the Messiah.  And, as France points out, her subsequent dialogue with Jesus ‘suggests a more sophisticated awareness of the significance of Jesus’ role as the Jewish Messiah.’

“Lord, Son of David” – The first appellation may be no more than a polite address.  The second is remarkable, coming as it does from the lips of a Gentile.

‘It is said that “He answered not a word,” but it is not said, he heard not a word. These two differ much. Christ often heareth when he does not answer-His not answering is an answer.’ (Samuel Rutherford)

“Send her away” – They clearly wanted some peace and quiet (cf. v21).  They might well have thought that this could most readily be achieved by Jesus granting her wish.

v24 See Mt 10:5f.  Interpreters must reckon with this very clear restriction by Jesus during his earthly ministry, along with the subsequent expansion of his mission to all nations (Mt 28:16).

Jesus’ mention of the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ cannot refer to the lost then tribes (because that would have made no sense in the context of this chapter) but rather to Israel as a whole.  His statement thus lends some support to the notion (of Wright and others) that Israel was thought of as still being in exile and that Jesus mission involved bringing that exile to an end.

‘Jesus’ statement in verse 24 does not preclude a later mission to Gentiles. The servant of Isaiah 53:6–8 suffers on behalf of the lost sheep of Israel (cf. Isa 40:11; 56:11), but the servant’s mission was ultimately to reconcile all nations to God (42:6; 49:6–7).’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

v25 ‘When the answers of prayer are deferred, God is thereby teaching us to pray more, and pray better. It is then time to enquire wherein we have come short in our former prayers, that what has been amiss may be amended for the future. Disappointments in the success of prayer, must be excitements to the duty of prayer.’ (MHC)

An atrocious saying?

15:21-28 Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!”  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Mk 7:27 records Jesus’ response to this woman’s request in the following words: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.”

Was Jesus a racist?

According to Austin Steelman, ‘this isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about.  This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.’

Steelman argues that Jesus, being truly human, was a product of his own culture, along with its embedded prejudices.  But he is able to listen, to learn, and to change his mind.  The takeaway for us is that ‘inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.’

As Ian Paul notes, one of the ironies of this interpretation is that the real hero of the story is Mark, who could see clearly what he Master could not.  Another irony is that Steelman is, in effect saying, ‘Don’t be like Jesus; be like me!’  Or, at least, ‘Don’t be like the benighted Jesus at the beginning of this story, but like the enlightened Jesus at the end of it.’

Ian Paul quotes David Henson:

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur. To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child…Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism…

Rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.

This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.

So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudice or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.

Racial slurs are one thing: accusing anyone (not least the Lord Jesus) of racial slur without good evidence is no better.  To infer from Jesus’ humanity that he was sinfully prejudiced runs against the consistent witness of the entire New Testament (see Heb 4:15, for example).

Certain ‘progressive’ people who think that Jesus has to unlearn his racial prejudice from this woman seem to have forgotten (or perhaps they think that Jesus himself had forgotten, as had Mark), that he had already crossed ethnic boundaries, as in his dealings with the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5).

Indeed, ‘progressive’ readings of this text abound.  The following comes from a law (not theology) undergraduate at Harvard:

It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about.  This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.

This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity. Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion…

You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice. He listens…Jesus listens. And he changes his mind…The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman…Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.

As Ian Paul shrewdly remarks:

It is not too difficult to read the agenda of this commentator: conservative Christians are like the ignorant, prejudiced Jesus at the beginning of the story, but progressive Christians like me are like the enlightened Jesus at the end of the story. The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus and more to be like the commentator.

Writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon does not suggest that Jesus has forgotten his previous encounters with Gentiles.  Nevertheless, she presses on: ‘Their conversation is stunning. Even though Jesus has already exorcized demons from a Gentile and raised someone’s daughter from the dead, he refuses her request harshly: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). But the woman is dogged on behalf of her daughter: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28). Jesus commends her “word” (Gk. logos), her clever and pointed—and effective—saying, and the demon leaves her daughter. Mark seems to go out of the way to present Jesus learning from a Gentile woman in a Gentile place about the inclusivity of God’s realm.’

Also writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Amy-Jill Levine says that ‘the claim that Jesus’ response, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” was expressed with a smile on his lips is apologetic.’  Unfortunately, the author does not substantiate her assertion.

Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, tweeted that ‘It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man who changes his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person.’

Evan’s remark suffers from undue psychologising.  Better to accept that Matthew’s Gospel, and the others too, is more interested in theology than psychology.  The critics cited above fail to see an acceptance of Jesus’ humanity does not imply an acceptance of his sinfulness, which, in fact, is something that Scripture explicitly denies (see Heb 4:14, for example).

France recognises that this has been described as ‘an atrocious saying’, expressing ‘incredible insolence’ and based on ‘the worst kind of chauvinism’.  It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse.  But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind.  But, says, France, ‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’

The truth is that the progressive readings, note above, are entirely blind to the sophistication of Jesus’ (and Mark’s) teaching method.  As France (NICNT) notes: ‘Misunderstandings of the pericope spring largely from the failure to read it as a whole. It is a dialogue within which the individual sayings function only as part of the whole, and are not intended to carry the weight of independent exegesis on their own. The whole encounter builds up to the totally positive conclusion of verses 29 to 30, while the preceding dialogue serves to underline the radical nature of this new stage in Jesus’s ministry into which he has allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by the woman’s realism and wit. He appears like a wise teacher who allows, and indeed incites, his pupil to mount a victorious argument against the foil of his own reluctance. He functions as what in a different context might be called a ‘devil’s advocate’, and is not ‘disappointed’ to be defeated in argument. As a result the reader is left more vividly aware of the reality of the problem of Jew-gentile relations, and of the importance of the step Jesus here takes to overcome it.’

NBC similarly: ‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’

Ian Paul adds that the pattern which is apparent here: ‘”‘to the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1.16) might have been critically important if Mark’s gospel was written in the context of Rome, where relations between Jew and gentile Christian might have been tense.’

It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse.  But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind.  But, says, France, ‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’

Here, as in many other places, we would love to have been able to hear our Lord’s tone of voice (teasing?) and see his facial expression (a twinkle in his eye?).  But even though that is impossible, we can nevertheless infer these things from the context, and particularly from the fact that the women showed no signs of having felt offended.

NBC: ‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’

Michael Bird‘s comment is worth quoting in full:-

‘Jesus’ ironic remark towards the woman concerns the focus of Israel in his mission and deliberately attempts to elicit a shrewd comeback. He acknowledges the validity of the woman’s reply that Israel’s blessings can, even in limited ways, extend to Gentiles, a theme found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition (e.g. Lk. 4.25-27).  But the key issue is that such a blessing is available for Gentiles in the present.  Rhoads paraphrases the woman’s response: ‘Even now I and my daughter at the margins (should) benefit from just one exorcism from among the many benefits for the Jews.’  This aspect has a direct bearing upon the argument that I am constructing.  Whereas the salvation of the Gentiles was ordinarily programmed to occur at the eschaton, here the in-breaking of the kingdom and the gradual restoring of Israel was already bringing immediate results for Gentiles. Jesus’ ironic aside is met with recognition from the woman not merely of the priority of Israel, but the significance that Israel’s salvation holds for Gentiles in the present. As the children of Israel are being fed, crumbs are now falling for the dogs. As Israel’s restoration becomes more and more of a reality, it becomes more and more possible for Gentiles to experience the blessing of its fulfillment. In this sense, interpreting the pericope in terms of ‘Jew first and then Gentile’ fails to grapple with the significance that a partially realized restoration has for Gentiles.  That is not to collapse the entire eschatological hope for the Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry since the full inclusion of Gentiles can only begin when Israel’s restoration is complete.  What is important is that the restoration of Israel, in nascent form, carries with it incipient eschatological benefits for the Gentiles who find themselves confronted with God’s anointed prophet. As the children of Israel are fed, it is possible for the dogs (i.e. Gentiles) to be fed as a consequence of Israel’s dawning restoration.’

Ian Paul quotes a commenter: ‘To me it seems that in this passage Jesus uses a similar pedagogical method to Jahweh allowing/challenging Abraham (Gen 18:22-33) and Moses (Ex 32:7-14; Num 14:5-20) to be “obnoxious” and persistent intercessors. It seems at first reading that their patience and mercy is greater than God’s, and yet it is God stretching and shaping them to stand in the gap between himself and his people.’

France summarises: ‘A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!’

To summarise: Jesus’ comment is designed to draw the woman out and to explore what kind of faith she has in him as ‘Son of David’.

‘Every accepted prayer is not immediately an answered prayer. Sometimes God seems not to regard his people’s prayers, like a man asleep or astonished; (Ps 44:23; Jer 14:9; Ps 22:1,2) nay, to be angry at them; (Ps 80:4; Lam 3:8,44) but it is to prove, and so to improve, their faith, and to make his after-appearances for them the more glorious to himself, and the more welcome to them; for the vision, at the end, shall speak, and shall not lie, Heb 2:3. See Job 35:14.’ (MHC)

v27 Consistent with the interpretation given of the previous verse, the woman’s reply gives no indication that she feels insulted.  Her reply, however, does suggest remarkable perception ‘in recognising both the primary scope of Jesus’ mission to Israel and also the fact that that was not to be its ultimate limit.  She thus, like the centurion, foreshadows the time when the true Israel will transcend the boundaries of culture and nationality.’ (France)

‘The woman’s answer is masterly. Those two words “but even” reveal immense wisdom and faith. She does not argue that her needs make her an exception, or that she has a right to Israel’s covenanted mercies, or that the mysterious ways of divine election and justice are unfair. She simply asks for help, hopeful that she may be allowed to receive a crumb from the kindness of the Lord.’ (EBC)

“You have great faith!” – ‘It is her faith that he commends. There were several other graces that shone bright in her conduct of this affair-wisdom, humility, meekness, patience, perseverance in prayer; but these were the product of her faith, and therefore Christ fastens upon that as most commendable; because of all graces faith honours Christ most, therefore of all graces Christ honours faith most.’ (MHC)

‘Though weak faith, if true, shall not be rejected, yet great faith shall be commended, and shall appear greatly well-pleasing to Christ; for in them that thus believe he is most admired. Thus Christ commended the faith of the centurion, and he was a Gentile too, he had a strong faith in the power of Christ, this woman in the good-will of Christ; both were acceptable.’ (MHC)

We may compare this encounter between Jesus and the Syropheonician woman with that between our Lord and the centurion of Capernaum (Mt 8:5ff; Lk 7:2ff) and between Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10).  In Lk 4:25-27, Jesus had already signalled his desire to continue the OT precedent of blessing individual Gentiles.  These episodes ‘contain the promise of that abundant outpouring of blessing upon Gentiles of which we read in Acts, commencing with the Cornelius episode in Acts 10’ (F.F. Bruce, Answers to questions, p48).  This pattern is continued in Acts 13:46, with the turning to the Gentiles, and continues up to, and beyond, Acts 28:28.

Healing Many Others, 29-31

15:29 When he left there, Jesus went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up a mountain, where he sat down. 15:30 Then large crowds came to him bringing with them the lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 15:31 As a result, the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they praised the God of Israel.
Mt 15:29–31 = Mk 7:31–37
Mt 15:32–39 = Mk 8:1–10
Mt 15:32–39 = Mt 14:13–21

Mark and Matthew relate two very similar feeding miracles (Mk 6:30-34; 8:1-10; cf. Mt 14:13-21; 15:32-39). Scholars frequently assume that Mark (and Matthew following him) has told the same story twice. The feeding of the 4,000 is said to be a variant of the feeding of the 5,000, which is the version found in Luke and John.

The following reasons are adduced for thinking that Mark and Matthew have given two accounts of the same story:- (a) the disciples’ question, Mk 8:4, seems odd if a feeding miracle had already taken place, not long before; (b) the two stories have many points of similarity; (c) immediately after both incidents Jesus boards a boat and sails across Lake Genneresaret; (d) after both accounts the disciples express fear of confusion because they did not understand the significance of the ‘loaves’, Mk 6:45-52 8:14-21.

However, it could equally be argued that Mark and Matthew have deliberately brought out the similarities between two different incidents, in order to emphasise the teaching about the person of Christ and the disciples’ difficulties of faith.

This miracle shows the great generosity of Jesus, and his power over nature.

They praised the God of Israel – As N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) remarks, ‘In first-century terms the main thing that would be ‘seen’ in the mighty works was not a supernatural display of power for its own sake but the coming of Israel’s god in power to save and heal, to do for these individuals what had been promised (it was thought) to the nation as a whole. As Matthew puts it, ‘They glorified the god of Israel.’ The works of power were a vital ingredient in the inauguration of the kingdom.

The Feeding of the Four Thousand, 32-39

15:32 Then Jesus called the disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have already been here with me three days and they have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry since they may faint on the way.” 15:33 The disciples said to him, “Where can we get enough bread in this desolate place to satisfy so great a crowd?” 15:34 Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They replied, “Seven—and a few small fish.” 15:35 After instructing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 15:36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and after giving thanks, he broke them and began giving them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowds. 15:37 They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 15:38 Not counting children and women, there were four thousand men who ate. 15:39 After sending away the crowd, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

“I have compassion for these people” – This should not be ignored as a motive for Jesus’ miracles. ‘To be sure, Christians should be provoked by the idolatry of a Hindu city, as Paul was by the idols in Athens, and moved to evangelism. But, like Jesus when he saw the hungry crowds, we should also be moved with compassion to feed them’. (cf. Acts 17:16-17) (Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today)