An All-Inclusive Kingdom

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

29 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31 so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. – Matthew 15:21-31 ESV

At the beginning of this chapter, Matthew presented an encounter between Jesus and a group of Jewish religious leaders who had traveled all the way from the capital city of Jerusalem to Galilee. The purpose of their journey had been to try to expose Jesus and His disciples as rebels and lawbreakers. They wanted to discredit Jesus and His ministry by accusing Him of teaching His disciples to disobey the tradition of the elders – the man-made rules and regulations passed own by the rabbis and religious scholars of Israel.

But their attempted assault on Jesus ended with Him accusing them of putting their own oral laws ahead of the written commandments of God. They were more concerned with outward appearances than they were with the inner condition of their hearts, and Jesus labeled them as nothing more than hypocrites or play actors. They were simply going through the motions, giving God lip service, but refusing to honor Him with their hearts. And their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah was the greatest proof of the condition of their hearts. Their verbal condemnation of Jesus and His disciples revealed the defiled nature of their hearts.

Now, Matthew reveals that Jesus left the predominantly Jewish region of Galilee and headed to Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of the Mediterranean. These two cities, while located within the land originally promised by God to the Israelites, were primarily occupied by Gentiles. This departure by Jesus from the land of the Jews to the land of the Gentiles is filled with symbolism and will provide Jesus with a unique opportunity to teach His disciples a powerful lesson about the kingdom of heaven.

As soon as they arrived in the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus and His disciples found themselves confronted by a Canaanite woman. This description is important because it reveals her to be a descendant of the very people group who had occupied the land when Moses and the people of Israel had arrived from Egypt. The Canaanites were not only non-Jews but pagans and the long-standing enemies of Israel. As Jews, the disciples would have had a strong hatred for this woman because of her ethnic background, and their animosity for her shows up quickly in the story.

Her purpose for confronting Jesus stands in direct contrast to that of the Pharisees and scribes. They were out to condemn Jesus, but she was looking for His help. She made her need known from the outset.

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” – Matthew 15:22 ESV

It should not escape our notice that this woman referred to Jesus by His Messianic title: Son of David. Here she was a Canaanite, acknowledging Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of David. This woman had heard the rumors concerning Jesus and, even as a Gentile, had come to believe that He was who He claimed to be. And, most likely, she had heard about the miracles of healing Jesus had performed and sought to bring her own pressing need to Him, appealing to His mercy and compassion.

Her daughter was suffering from demon possession and she desperately desired that Jesus would use His miraculous powers to release her. But Jesus responded with silence. He said nothing. It seems that He was simply giving His disciples an opportunity to reveal their true opinions about this woman, and they did not disappoint. Annoyed by her incessant cries for mercy, they begged Jesus to send her away. And Jesus seems to have shared their view, telling the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 ESV). His somewhat caustic response must have made the disciples smile. As far as they were concerned, she was getting exactly what she deserved: Nothing. After all, she was a Gentile and, not only that, a despised Canaanite. In their minds, she was no less than a dog in value and worth.

But the woman, persistent and undeterred by Jesus’ words, knelt at His feet and cried out, “Lord, help me.” She was determined. But, once again, Jesus responded in a way that must have brought great pleasure to the disciples., telling the woman, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He seemed to be confirming their own views of this woman, relegating her worth to that of a dog. But what was Jesus doing here? Why was His response to this woman so harsh?

It is important that we recognize the key players in this little scene. We have Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and His 12 Jewish disciples. They were each proud members of the house of Israel, the chosen people of God. They were descendants of Abraham and recipients of all the promises made by God to Abraham. But this woman was a non-Jew, a Gentile from a pagan people group who, for generations, had been a thorn in the side of the people of Israel. God had made it perfectly clear to Moses how the people of Israel were to have handled the Canaanites and other pagan people groups occupying the land of promise.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you. This is what you must do. You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols. For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-6 NLT

But the Jews had failed to obey God. They never fully removed the Canaanites from the land, as this woman’s presence makes perfectly clear. And Jesus stressed that He had come to the house of Israel. He was the Hebrew Messiah, a descendant of Abraham and David. But, as we have seen, His own were methodically rejecting His claim to be their Messiah. The Jewish religious leadership saw Him as a renegade, not their Redeemer. The majority of the Jewish people, while enamored by His miracles, were not willing to recognize Him as their Messiah.

Yet, here was a Canaanite woman acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Messiah. And seemingly nonplussed by Jesus’ responses to her, the woman simply said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27 ESV). She didn’t take offense at Jesus’ words. She didn’t deny her own unworthiness. In fact, she was well aware that as a non-Jew, she had no right to come to the Jewish Messiah and beg for mercy. But her tremendous need drove her to do so. Her desperation overcame any feelings of unworthiness and undeservedness.

And notice what Jesus said in response: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28 ESV). This should bring to mind the words spoken by Jesus to Peter when he had stepped out of the boat and walked on the water, but began to sink when he took his eyes off of Jesus. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 ESV). Peter’s faith was little, but the Canaanite woman’s faith was great. Peter had doubted, but the woman had believed. And her faith was rewarded. Her daughter was healed.

Matthew follows this story with Jesus’ return to Galilee. As soon as Jesus and His disciples made it back into Jewish territory, they found themselves surrounded by crowds of people desiring to see Jesus perform miracles.

And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them – Matthew 15:30 ESV

But notice how Matthew describes the reaction of the people to what they witnessed. He simply says, “the crowd wondered.” They were filled with awe and admiration. And Matthew goes on to say that “they glorified the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31 ESV). But they did not acknowledge Jesus as lord. They did not refer to Him as the Son of David. There was no recognition of Him as their Messiah. And there is no indication of anyone expressing faith in Jesus. He provided them with healing, but they refused to worship Him as their Lord and Savior.

Jesus was slowly revealing to His disciples that, in the kingdom of heaven, faith was far more important than heritage. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah was going to carry far more weight than membership in the Jewish race. Remember what John the Baptist had said to the Pharisees who had come to him seeking to be baptized.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:7-9 ESV

The kingdom of heaven was going to be an all-inclusive kingdom, containing people from all walks of life and from every tribe, nation, and tongue. And Jesus was slowly revealing this important news to His disciples, preparing them for what was to come.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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Who’s the Law-Breaker?

1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” – Matthew 15:1-20 ESV

Matthew now moves the scene from Jesus walking on water to Him walking the streets of Jerusalem, where He was confronted by a contingent of Pharisees and scribes. These self-righteous religious leaders had a bone to pick with Jesus and were anxious to expose what they believed to be His blatant disregard for the tradition of the elders. This was a reference to the man-made rules and regulations established by men and found in the Mishnah. In this case, the Pharisees and scribes were wanting to know why the disciples of Jesus did not follow the regulations concerning ceremonial cleansing. This had nothing to do with personal hygiene but was about cleansing from defilement, including that which resulted from contact with Gentiles.

These men were not accusing the disciples of violating the Mosaic law, but of failing to keep the rabbinical interpretations of the law. So, Jesus responded to them with a question of His own, asking them, “why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3 ESV). This was a bold move on the part of Jesus because it exposed the real issue at hand and blatantly exposed these religious leaders as violaters of the Mosaic law.

But before they could respond, Jesus provided proof for His accusation, explaining their tradition of korban. This was a form of offering that entailed the dedication of a gift to God, but one that could be offered at a later date. Think of it as a kind of tax-free savings plan. According to the tradition of the elders, someone could dedicate money or an item of value to God, but not be required to offer it immediately. The actual offering was postponed indefinitely, allowing the individual to continue to benefit from the item in the meantime. And Jesus gave an example of this interesting loophole that allowed someone to openly disregard God’s command to honor your father and mother.

This man-made rule allowed someone to circumvent their God-given responsibility to care for their aging parents by simply claiming that their resources had been dedicated to God. But all the while, they would retain full access to those resources. And Jesus exposes this clever plan for what it was: Hypocrisy and open disregard for the law of God.

“So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” – Matthew 15:6 ESV

And Jesus used the words of God, found in the writings of Isaiah the prophet, to condemn them.

“These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

These men were revered for their apparent righteousness. They were respected for their knowledge of and adherence to the Mosaic law. But Jesus exposed them as hypocrites. They were all about appearances. Their concern for what men thought about them took precedence over how God perceived them. And Jesus revealed that the real issue here had nothing to do with ceremonial cleansing, but defiled hearts.

“…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” – Matthew 15:11 ESV

While the Pharisees and scribes were concerned about defiling themselves by failing to properly follow the prescribed forms of ritual purification, Jesus revealed that their problem was an internal one. And the religious leaders were fully aware of what Jesus was implying and offended by it. His disciples, somewhat naively asked Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matthew 15:12 ESV). Yes, He knew and that had been His intention all along.

According to Jesus, these men may have been religious leaders, but they had not been commissioned by God. They were self-appointed and little more than blind guides. In other words, they were worthless leaders. They had no idea where they were going and anyone who followed them would end up in a ditch. This would not be the last time Jesus attacked the hypocrisy of these men. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records even more scathing words from Jesus aimed at the Pharisees and scribes.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.– Matthew 23: 23-28 NLT

Peter, most likely speaking on behalf of all the disciples, asked Jesus to explain Himself. Peter felt like Jesus was using yet another parable and was anxious to understand what He meant. But Jesus, expressing surprise at their lack of understanding, explained, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19 ESV). This was all about the condition of the heart, not the keeping of man-made rules. Ritual purification could do nothing to change the inner state of a man. Keeping rules regarding outward purity will not produce a clean heart. But a defiled heart will produce all kinds of unclean behavior. The religious leaders were focusing all their attention on the outside, but Jesus had come to renew the inside. He was offering true cleansing from sin that began with a new heart.

As will be the case from this point on, Jesus is attempting to teach His disciples some very important truths regarding righteousness. It begins in the heart. Our outward behavior cannot make us righteous before God, because He sees the true condition of our hearts. And His assessment is that the human heart is in bad shape.

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?
But I, the Lord, search all hearts
    and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
    according to what their actions deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

No man can make himself righteous before God through outward adherence to rules and regulations. Our good behavior, even on our best day, is viewed by God as tainted by sin.

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

The problem with the Pharisees and scribes was that they were blind to their need for a Savior. They viewed themselves as right before God because they were religious about rule-keeping. They were ritually pure, but sadly, inwardly defiled because of their sin-filled hearts. And they refused to accept the remedy for their heart problem: Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson