IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 28, September 6 to September 12, 1999

Matthew 15:21-39

by Dr. Knox Chamblin


  1. THE TRANSITION. 15:21.

    1. Matthew's Language.

      V. 21a, "And (kai) going out from there," directly links this passage to the preceding, probably for reasons both historical (Mt follows Mk's sequence at this point) and theological.

    2. Jesus' Movements.

      "Jesus left that place and went away to [eis, into] the district of Tyre and Sidon" (15:21b, NRSV). He travelled not just to the border of Gentile territory, he penetrated it (cf. Gundry, 310). Thus it is not surprising that he encounters a Canaanite woman. (Even when he leaves this region, he stays in Gentile territory: cf. the comments on 15:29-31.) Thus both Jesus (by his choice of itinerary) and Matthew (by his arrangement of material) visibly underscore the lesson implicit in 15:1-20. Cf. III. below.


    1. Her Request.

      The appeal of 15:22 acknowledges Jesus' Messianic status and his ability to cure her demon-possessed daughter.

    2. Her Persistence.

      Nothing deters the woman, neither her knowledge that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah ("Son of David," v. 22); nor his initial silence (v. 23a); nor the disciples' efforts to get rid of her (v. 23b); nor Jesus' demurral ("I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel," v. 24); nor the maxim that underscores it ("It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs," v. 26); nor the cumulative effect of those things. The effect of this manifold opposition is to celebrate her persistence (crowned by her witty retort, v. 27, to Jesus' maxim), and to give great force to Jesus' climactic utterance: "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted" (v. 28). In the maxim of v. 26 the children represent Jews, and the dogs Gentiles - but not disparagingly (though this was often the case). "The diminutive [kynariois, "little dogs, puppies"] together with the portrayal of the dogs as eating from the table favors that we have to do with household pets rather than with the street-roaming scavengers" (Gundry, 315).


    That Jesus actually heals the woman's daughter, demonstrates that he has come to save the Gentiles. The language of v. 28b ("And her daughter was healed from that very hour"), is very close to that of 8:13 (concerning the centurion's servant). Here, as in the story of 8:5-13, Jesus heals at a distance (which reflects Jesus' present concentration on Israel, v. 24) - as Mk 7:29-30 makes explicit. Does Jesus deliberately choose a maxim about food (v. 26), to make a connection between the healing (or saving) of a Gentile and the abolishing of "unclean" foods (vv. 10-20)?


  1. THE PREPARATION. 15:29-31.

    1. The Objects of Jesus' Compassion.

      The healing of Gentiles continues. In leaving the region of Tyre and Sidon and coming to the Sea of Galilee (v. 29a), Jesus moves from one Gentile territory to another: cf. 4:12-16 (on "Galilee of the Gentiles") and 15:31 ("they praised the God of Israel"). See also Gundry, 317-18.

    2. The Greatness of Jesus' Authority.

      Having come to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus "went up into the hills and sat down" (15:29b), language very close to that of 5:1-2 (the passages have in common the phrase eis to oros, and the verbs anabaino and proserchomai; kathizo, 5:1, and kathamai, 15:29, are synonymous). Here, as there, Jesus is portrayed as the New Moses who possesses supreme authority. There he exercised his authority by teaching Jews. Here he does so by healing and feeding Gentiles.

  2. THE FEEDING ITSELF. 15:32-39.

    1. Parallels with 14:13-21.

      We may note the following common features. On their significance, see comments on 14:13-21.

      1. Jesus' provision.

        1. Jesus both heals and feeds members of the crowd.

        2. The food is provided in an emergency.

        3. Bread and fish are multiplied.

        4. On each occasion, "they all ate and were satisfied" (the Greek of 14:20a is identical to that of 15:37a).

      2. Jesus' appeal.

        1. Jesus shows compassion for the people. (In 14:14, his compassion is immediately associated with his healing ministry; in 15:32, with his feeding the people.)

        2. Jesus ministers to the crowd through the disciples.

        3. The three aspects of Jesus' "visible parable" are again present.

    2. The Distinctiveness of the Present Passage.

      The most notable difference between the two passages, is that Jesus here ministers to Gentiles. His compassion provides just as lavishly for them as it had for the Jews. His Jewish followers (here represented by the disciples) are therefore, in obedience to his example and command, to impart the Kingdom's blessings of the Gentiles (cf. 28:19). In doing so, they may count on Jesus to supply the power needed to multiply their resources (15:33-36). The threefold lesson of the loaves is meant for Gentiles just as surely as for Jews.

      Some consider that the difference between the Jewish setting of the first story and the Gentile setting of the second, is heightened by the Evangelists' choice of numbers. See the interesting (but to my mind, largely fanciful) discussion in Alan Richardson, The Miracle Stories of the Gospels, 97-98.