25 October 2016

Matthew 15:21-31

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (v. 28)

Psalm: Psalm 36


Dogs are not the Bible's favourite animals. They were 'unclean' for 1st-century Jews because they ate 'unclean' food, catching vermin and scavenging, and were rarely kept as pets. 'Dog' was term of abuse, much as it is today. It was certainly not an affectionate name to use for a non-Jew, who would also be considered 'unclean' because they ate 'unclean' food. So this is one of those awkward bits of the Bible, where Jesus speaks in, we might think, an uncharacteristically harsh way. But this is Matthew's Gospel - a Jewish Gospel for Jewish Christians - and the emphasis here is, undoubtedly, on the Jewishness of Jesus, the "Son of David" (v. 22), whose primary concern was for "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (v. 24), whose God was the God of Israel. And Jesus, as a 1st-century Jew, had a 1st-century Jew's attitude towards Gentiles (non-Jews) - one that would have been shared by many 1st-century Jewish Christians too. And the woman's request was only answered when she acknowledged her second-class status as a Gentile, standing at the back of the queue for God's grace.

While this may seem a bit tricky to us as modern readers it does point towards another of Matthew's concerns - to show Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, whose coming would exalt Israel over all other nations, and whose great 'messianic banquet' would feed, not just Israel, but all peoples (eg Isaiah 25:1-10). So this gentile woman recognised Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the "Son of David" (v. 22) ("Lord", here, is just a term of respect) and her faith was rewarded. And, continuing this theme, Jesus then goes up a mountain, and the crowd sees "the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing" (v. 31) - which is just what would be expected of the Messiah of the "God of Israel" (eg Isaiah 35:5, 6). It is worth remembering, perhaps, that when Christians refer to Jesus as Christ they too are identifying him as the Jewish Messiah - 'Christ' means 'anointed' in Greek, the same as 'Messiah' in Hebrew. But that's not usually what Christians mean, of course.

To Ponder

  • What does the word 'Messiah' mean to you? Is it, for you, the same as 'Christ'?
  • As a modern reader, who do you identify with in the story? Why?
  • Who, in your view, stands 'at the back of the queue for God's grace'?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.