Bible Study 11th August - Jesus Reaches Out to the Gentiles

Listening and Understanding- Jesus Reaches Out to Gentiles. 


Bible Passage: Matthew 15 v 10-28.


10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”


12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”


13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.[a] If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”


15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”


16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”


The Faith of a Canaanite Woman


21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”


23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”


24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”


25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.


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


27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”


28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.


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  1. Matthew 15:14 Some manuscripts blind guides of the blind




Jesus has two tricky encounters, first with the Pharisees and then with the Canaanite Woman and both seem to be linked by food! At first glance, the two sections of this passage seem unconnected, but when they are read together, the second story, from v21, takes on a different hue. It all starts with the Pharisees criticising Jesus’ followers over their hygiene (v2), to which Jesus replied that what makes people unclean does not come from what they put into their mouths but from what is in their hearts.

We live at a time in western history when people are being “de-platformed” or “cancelled out” because of something they have said that has upset some pressure group or other. 

Interestingly, in both of these accounts, Jesus is not afraid of upsetting people, either when it is warranted, or in order to make a greater point. 

When his disciples sidled up to him to tell him that his comments had upset the Pharisees, Jesus, no doubt compounded their disquiet, by making it plain that their hypocrisy actually qualified them to be “blind guides to lead blind people”!

These two accounts are also to be found in Mk. 7:1-26a. and St Mark's version adds even more detail to this exchange.

“Mark7v6 Jesus replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 

“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.

7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

When pressed, Jesus explained to Peter what this small food based parable meant. It isn’t the food that is consumed that makes people unclean but rather it is what what comes out of people; what they say, what they do and how they treat other people. 

The account of Jesus' encounter with the woman in the later section of the text, again shares the thematic link of food and belonging. Indeed the whole of Matthew 15 can be seen as a collection of stories that have to do with the basis of “inclusion” in God's people; who is in and who is out.

These narratives parallel the account of the Gentile centurion (Mt. 8:5-13) and, like the centurion, this ladies attitude is completely opposite that of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. She came honestly and wasn’t put off by apparent rejection. With all we know about Jesus, his response to her does seem to be totally ‘out of character’, and cold-hearted at best. Obviously the gospel narrative does not reveal the entire story, so readers are left to ponder why Jesus responded in this manner.  Commentators suggest two possibilities:


1). Jesus may have desired to test the feelings of His disciples. They, like so many other Jewish people, had a sense of exclusiveness. While Jesus had previously healed the servant of the Gentile centurion who some scholars suggest may have been a Jewish proselyte, but this woman was a descendant of the cursed Canaanites. Would the disciples endorse a cold-heart attitude or would they respond with the compassion that was expected of Jesus?


2). Jesus may have desired to further test the woman’s faith. In doing so, she might discover a deeper understanding of who Jesus is – much more than the title by which she called Him.


As the story concludes, it appears evident that she certainly did discover the real Jesus, and the disciples witnessed His compassion upon a hated people group.

St Matthew called her a “Canaanite woman” while Mark referred to her as a “Syrian-Phoenician” woman.  There is no discrepancy as the Syrian-Phoenicians were a subgroup of the Canaanites.  These people, like the Jews, were of Semitic origin and, therefore, their languages were similar.  Therefore Jesus could converse with her.


According to Matthew’s genealogy, one of his ancestors is Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho at the time of Joshua’s conquest (Jos. 2).  Jericho was part of the larger Canaanite people group. His journey into Gentile areas began the fulfillment of Isaiah 49:22, that is, a call to the Gentiles.


A further question arises from this second encounter. Just why did Jesus go to the regions of Tyre and Sidon and later to the Decapolis cities (Mt. 15:22-28; Mk. 7:24-26)?   


 It should be noted that the city of Tyre was within the ancient tribal area of Asher, but it was not included in the land of Asher.  Historically, it was a Canaanite city that by the time that Jesus visited it had eventually became a Greek city.  

Perhaps there may be several answers as to why Jesus made this detour:

a) It coincided with the time when His popularity was exploding and the confrontations with those in power were also intensifying. There was no longer to be found a place in Judea or Galilee where He and the disciples could enjoy some privacy.

b).Another reason may have been that these regions lay within the original covenant area promised to Abraham. While Tyre and Sidon were considered Gentile cities, they also had a significant Jewish population as well and Jesus would have wanted to reach them in his quest to bring about the kingdom of God.

c). However, commentators suggest that the main reason Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon was probably because of an event that occurred more than seven centuries earlier. One noted Israeli scholar who studied ancient highways and military campaigns, identified the route used by Tiglath-Pileser III in his conquest of the Upper Galilee region (730s B.C.).[3] This Assyrian king brought unimaginable suffering, death, and destruction to Phoenicia and Israel – especially to the tribal areas of Zebulun and Naphtali. He sadly lived up to this horrible reputation among the ancients, that no people group was crueler to their enemies than were the Assyrians. When Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon, He brought fulfillment to Isaiah’s prophecy as He retraced the route of Tiglath-Pileser III and, by contrast, brought life and healing to both Jews and Gentiles.

While Jesus was interested in bringing salvation to the Gentiles, He was first going to fulfill the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to all the people of the world (Gen. 12:3). This blessing would begin with all the Gentiles and Jews who lived within the Promised Land (Gen. 17:8). Therefore, Jesus traveled beyond the borders of the three Jewish provinces of Galilee, Perea, and Judea and into the lands promised to Abraham.  He did not, however, travel beyond the borders of the Abrahamic Covenant.


 St Mark, himself a “Syro-Phoenician” gave a clear geographical description of this area of detour, perhaps to avoid his readers confusing it with Libya-Phoenicia along the North African coast.  Today Syria-Phoenicia is known as Lebanon, which sadly, is much in the news this week, and once again in great need of a touch from the Saviours hands.


If the words of Jesus to the Pharisees seemed rather out of Character, his response to this lady who was so worried about her sick daughter does seem unexpectedly harsh!


Perhaps a further clue to this puzzling exchange lies in the cultural context of the title this dear woman chose to address Jesus by. And here I have to defer to language scholars who report that she approached Jesus with the title “Lord, Son of David.” 

This sounds quite reasonable to me but it seems that this was “a double Messianic title’, which, when spoken by a Gentile woman, (who was from the ancient Canaanite tribes), was deemed inappropriate as culturally and geaneticaly, Jesus was not her Lord.  She was speaking to him as if she were a Jewess.  In today’s counterpart, it would be as if a foreigner called her majesty the Queen, “My Queen”. That said, I suspect that her majesty would probably  not mind!!

However, in the ancient world, it seemed that her address was totally inappropriate.  Hence Jesus, response,  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  and then  “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”  Again, with all these apparent insults floating about I can hear multiple sharp intakes of breath as we digest these comments from our western viewpoint. However, these comments were not made to “Woke Westerners” to induce “choking on our cornflakes” (other breakfast cereals are also available), but rather to the Jewish ears of the ancient world. The word “children” was a reference to the descendants of Abraham, the Jews, whereas the common word “dogs” refers to the Gentiles.  Now here is the important cultural bit- Ordinary street dogs were straggly animals that roamed from rubbish heap to rubbish heap at this time and Jewish people referred to Gentiles as this kind of dog. (These were the definite outsiders).  However, the word the woman used for dogs is “ kunaria”,  which is not a “straggly street dog” but an affectionate “household pet”. There is clearly a huge difference between the two.[Barclay, “Matthew.” 2:122-23]. To call someone “a straggly street dog” was an insult that could have potentially exacted a deadly response!  Therefore, the conversation did not have a tone of aggression, but a plea of kindness.  The woman probably had “a kunaria” because at this time people did not have tableware as is common in the average UK home. Instead, they took food from a common bowl with a piece of bread wrapped in the palm of the hand.  When finished eating, the bread was tossed to the “kunaria”. She noted that family pets receive the benefits of the crumbs from the master’s (Mt.) or children’s (Mk.) table; suggesting that she should receive the benefit from the Jewish messiah.

Hearing this, Jesus is amazed and remarks, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.


To summarise our thoughts today:  Jesus came to bring the gospel first to the Jews in fulfillment of the promises of the ancient Hebrew prophets.  These events occurred at a time when the Jews began to reject the gospel and Jesus' response to this was to take the message of His kingdom into the Gentile world. His ultimate goal was to reach all nations with His saving grace.

St Paul later took on the mantle of ‘Evangelist to the Gentile World” and to carry on this endeavour that Jesus started here.


For our personal reflections: 

What is our response to these accounts I wonder. Over the years, there has been a great deal of drawing of lines around who is acceptable among Christian communities. Here are a few points to ponder:



  • When have you experienced life from the viewpoint of an outsider?

  • How can we be better at listening to those who are “outsiders”?

  • What new understandings might we gain from listening to them?



With thanks to roots magazine for ideas. 

Jesus Reaches Our:
Jesus Reaches Out To The Gentiles :
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