Jesus is not acting very “Jewish” in Matthew 15. He goes on record as saying (in front of the Pharisees no less), that food does not defile (v. 10-12). He then withdraws into Gentile territory (v. 21), where He is pursued by a Canaanite woman (v. 22). Is Matthew is trying to tell us something?
I think so. By showing us Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (v. 1-9), he’s undercut their authority (which still would have been substantial at the time of Matthew’s writing). In Jesus’ declaring all food clean, he’s addressing one of the big first-century barriers between the Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:9ff, 15:23ff). By the time he gets us to Jesus’ visit to Tyre and Sidon, we should be primed for more in this direction and that’s exactly what we get.
Because of all of this, it’s best to understand Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman as a teaching episode for the disciples. In this instance, they occupy the antagonist role as the proud, short-sighted covenant people of God. They ask Jesus to “send her away, for she keeps crying out after us” (v. 23). They’re more concerned about themselves and their circumstances than the suffering of the woman and her daughter. God forgive us, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Jesus’ reply is to them rather than the woman when He reminds them that He was sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” (v. 24). It is definitely a teachable moment for the disciples—have they learned anything about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom (13:31-32) and of what will one day be their commission (28:18-20)?
They make no reply. Instead, it is the woman who seizes the opportunity. She falls to her knees before Jesus and asks for His help. His answer, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” though given to her is still directed to the disciples. I have no doubt that Jesus knew how this woman was going to respond. He knew that she wouldn’t be dissuaded—her daughter was at stake.
And it is her response that He wants the disciples to hear.
She responds that “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). It’s more than clever banter! There is faith in her words! She believes God had something for her. And she believes that even it is just crumbs—it will be enough. When the faith of this desperate mother is compared with the insiders’ anxiousness to have her dismissed, the contrast is stark. Jesus brings it all to the forefront by telling her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (v. 28).
The disciples have seen what great faith looks like. It doesn’t appear that the woman had much to go on in regard to her knowledge of Jesus, but it took her all of the way to Him and she wouldn’t leave until her request was granted.
Faith makes a better parent. Faith makes a better person. And Matthew would have us to understand from the contents of this chapter that though the kingdom of heaven is Jewish in its roots, it is universal in its reach—all the way to a Canaanite mother eager to receive crumbs from the King.