Jesus healed across national and religious divides

Posted Jan 22, 2020

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Daily Scripture

Matthew 15:22-29

22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.

Reflection Questions

“You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:4-5)

“The regions of Tyre and Sidon” (modern Lebanon) were Gentile territory, not Jewish. The disciples were no doubt nervously wondering “What are we doing here?” It appears that Jesus went there, at least in part, to teach them a lesson. His seemingly rude, nationalistic answers to the woman in need were like parodies of the disciples’ biased attitude. But the woman cleverly pressed her case. Jesus affirmed her faith and honored her request for help.

  • Written words can’t show tone of voice or facial expression. If verses 24 and 26 were Jesus’ true view of this desperate Canaanite mother, what he did in verse 28 didn’t make sense. Might we understand the story better if we imagine Jesus with an ironic lilt in his voice, and a bit of a twinkle in his eye? Clearly, in the end, Jesus honored the mother’s plea. How did his behavior rebuke and seek to change outlook the disciples’ expressed in verse 23?
  • Matthew’s gospel seems to have spoken particularly to Christians of Jewish background, some of whom struggled to accept Gentiles (cf. Acts 15:1-21). How would this story have spoken to the ethnic, cultural and gender divisions the early church faced? How does it speak to today’s divisions, such as between people trying to silence or “send away” victims of various types of abuse and those who demand justice for the victims?


Lord Jesus, you weren’t about to let national or gender prejudice keep you from responding to this mother’s heartfelt plea. Give me a willingness to do all I can to respond to pleas for help, even from beyond my comfort zone. Amen.

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Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden is Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality, teaching at several seminaries. Teaching is her calling, and she looks forward to every day with students. Her latest book (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness, Abingdon Press, 2017) traces ancient mindfulness practice for Christians today.

In this story Jesus says some pretty shocking things. This picture of Jesus, rejecting a mother pleading for her child, stops us in our tracks. This story could have been left out of Scripture altogether. Yet both gospels of Mark and Matthew include it. Why include an account of Jesus being rude, even hurtful? 

It helps to know the back story: Jesus is a Jew and Jews had entered Canaan and conquered it a thousand years before Jesus was born. The Canaanites that remained were seen as pagans, not part of the chosen people of Israel, and therefore, not within God’s covenant. This Canaanite woman who asks Jesus for help is not Jewish, not part of the covenant. So at first Jesus ignores this woman altogether. Finally, he tells her that, “It is not good to take the children’s (Jews) bread and toss it to dogs (Canaanites),” pretty harsh rejection. What?! Jesus ignores her and then slams her with an insult?

Yet she persists. “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

Now Jesus is stopped in his tracks. I wonder if this is a moment of conversion for Jesus. Jesus came face-to-face with a person he had deemed outside his sphere of ministry and this encounter causes him to change his mind. Perhaps Jesus was converted to see anew the possibility of his ministry far beyond the tribal boundaries of Israel.

Jesus sees not just a Canaanite, but this particular person in front of him. Not an abstract label of race or gender, but an actual, flesh-and-blood human being in whom he recognizes “great faith.” Once he really sees her, those artificial lines fall away and this bold, beloved child of God stands in front of him.

It’s human to struggle with folks who seem different. It’s human to put people into categories in order to make sense of the sea of humanity. And we may see Jesus being very human here.

But then, he shows us another part of being human: seeing beyond those artificial categories of race, nation, gender, to the belovedness of each one of us. The Jesus way of being human.

Maybe that’s why the gospel writers include this story: so that we will follow the Jesus way of being human. Today, may I see the belovedness of each person in front of me.

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