Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 15:29-39

by Lora Copley

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

Out of the two “Feeding the Multitude” miracles, this one of “the 4,000” gets considerably less airtime than its larger twin. It’s not just overshadowed by the numbers (5,000 men, 12 baskets, more verses) but also in seeming importance. Besides the Resurrection itself, the 5,000 feeding is the only miracle all four gospels share. (As one writer put it: “it’s as if you can’t have a gospel without it.”)

Additionally, the feeding of the 5,000 is just plain easier to preach; its themes more obvious: the foretaste of the coming feast, the fulfillment of manna from heaven (John 6), the church/disciples learning to trust their Lord with their inadequacies so to help a hurting world, etc.) These themes are not entirely absent from the “4,000” accounts, but they are quieter, more sideline. Our text (and its parallel in Mark 8) seem to be addressing different concerns, yet even those concerns are not so obvious.

The context helps us. Many commentators argue this miracle is set in Gentile territory. For example, verse 31’s “they praised the God of Israel” suggest outsiders talking (eg. do we say “And Christians praised the God of Christians?”) Also the whole chapter concerns Gentiles- there’s a debate about clean/unclean and a healing of a Canaanite directly before the text. And we can’t overlook Mark’s account squarely putting Jesus in “paganland,” specifically the Decapolis.

It seems clear that the great crowds Jesus heals, feeds and feels compassion for in our text are Gentiles. And when it comes to Gentiles, Matthew’s gospel is a conundrum.

On the one hand, the gospel is as Jewish as a yarmulke. Old Testament quotations and allusions abound, Jesus is styled as a new Moses, and Matthew’s themes– kingdom of heaven, righteousness, God’s will, teaching/disciple-making, keeping commandments– are straight out of the synagogue. Not once but twice, Matthew has Jesus explicitly say, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” and “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (10:5-6; 15:24) That’s a saying, by the way, without parallel in the other gospels.

But– can you get more appreciative of Gentiles than Matthew? From cradle to grave, Gentiles are elevated in Jesus life. Here’s a sampling: four Gentile mothers are featured in Jesus’ genealogy, the magi come and worship, the centurion (and his division of soldiers) pronounce “Surely, he was the Son of God.” Also not once but twice, Matthew has Jesus explicitly acclaim individuals as having “mega-faith” –and both times they’re Gentiles. The first individual, the centurion in chapter 8, (with faith unequal in Israel- vs10) prompts Jesus to say that Gentiles will take their places with the patriarchs at the great eschatological feast. The other “great-faith” individual was the Gentile directly before our text, the Canaanite woman.

Isn’t it interesting Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite? Mark identifies her by the less theologically-loaded term, Syro-Phoenician. But Matthew’s Jewish audience would immediately be brought back to all that a descendant of one of the seven tribes of Canaan represents (note: Jewish thought always connected Canaan to its seven component nations or tribes -Deut. 7:1. Cf to Acts 13:19 as a NT example. Also see *the asterisk below for more of this connection.)

Jesus seems conflicted on how to help this Canaanite woman. But when the Canaanite responds with, “I’ll take the crumbs! Maybe I’m not seated at the table, but I know there’s is mercy enough for me. I know there is power enough in just a crumb of your grace to take care of my daughter’s demon-possession,” Jesus rushes in to meet her confidence.

Our text is within this frame. As F. Dale Bruner put it: “when the dam broke with the gentile woman, the gentiles were flooded with Jesus’ care.” (Matthew, pg 559). Jesus plopped himself down (vs 29) in the Galilee of the Gentiles, in the very locale- despised and unclean though it was- of former Canaanites and current pagans. And in that godforsaken place, thousands of people- just like the Canaanite woman of the previous story- bring their hurt. The maimed, blind, lame, mute are brought right to Jesus’ feet. (Right where Mark 7:25 had the Syro-Phoenician woman, at Jesus’ feet.)

For three days, Jesus heals these pagans, putting the God of Israel on display, fulfilling the ancient promise (Gen. 12:3) that “all peoples on earth will be blessed.” The universal intent of God’s mission is now becoming tangibly evident — a light for the Gentiles and glory for His people, Israel. (cf. Luke 2:32, Isa 49:6.) And the Gentiles can’t get enough– three days they stay with Jesus, praising Israel’s God. Hallelujah! (Note: Theologican Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis argues that “a three-day trek in the wilderness has been the biblical cipher for genuine union with God ever since Exodus 3:18c.” Fire of Mercy, pg 476 Cf. Num 10:33, Josh 1:11, Est 4:16)

This kind of revelation demands a party.

But it’s more than a revelation or celebration. Jesus’ incarnation means nothing if it’s not “down to earth.” Three days without food means possible collapse. (cf. Ex 15:22) And these people have entrusted themselves to his care; Jesus will not send them away empty.

So the text shifts perspective and now the disciples come into focus. In verse 33, they question where they could get “bread enough.” The disciples feel they are just being realistic. When asked how much bread they have? The disciples answer “7” and then sarcastically throw in, “and a few sardines.”

The disciples account for “7 and a few” realities that could make a difference in this situation. But the disciples should count higher. It is never realistic to discount Jesus; never rational, never practical to count Him out. (Bruner, 528) They forgot the One who works miracles with just a crumb of power.

So using “the 7 and a few,” Jesus “takes, and blesses and breaks and gives.” Did he give it to the crowd? No. He gave it to his disciples so they could feed the crowd directly. Jesus is the supplier. The disciples are the distributers –and to the Gentiles. They are now sitting the “dogs” at the table of their Lord, to receive the children’s Bread.

There’s a hush and gasps of disbelief as the miracle unfolds. Laughter bounces from group to group as people see the food keeps increasing! People wave their bread in the air- it’s a miracle! Someone shouts “Another round of fish sandwiches! On the house!” A child teases, “Mom, I can’t clean my plate tonight!”

But the disciples’ minds go to a place none of their dinner guests would have known: “Moses did this for our fathers in the wilderness, could Jesus be giving manna to all mankind- in this “eremos”? Elisha fed 100 of our people on twenty rolls, could our rabbi be a greater Elisha, a greater Moses– for the Gentiles no less?”

(And it’s just speculation, just a wondering–but even as there was twelve baskets of leftovers in the Jewish feast of the previous chapter, would the disciples have seen Jesus as “more than enough” also for pagans- for the spiritual descendants of the seven tribes of Canaan- by the seven baskets of leftovers? Maybe?)

The only reason a banquet could be spread for Gentile and Jew is that Jesus picked up the tab. He- the true Son- was turned away empty. The Father turned His back on Jesus on the cross, draining Himself of all compassion towards His son– so that we might receive the compassion He deserved. We were fed far more than crumbs, with the banquet He made of Himself.

*This Canaanite reference of Matthew 15 is all the more pungent when paired with Mark’s setting of the Decapolis. Galilee scholar, Bargil Pixner, wrote in his book With Jesus Through Galilee that both the Palestinian Talmud and several church fathers believed the Decapolis area was peopled by descendants of the seven Canaanite nations after they were expelled by Joshua. (Pixner wonders could the Decapolis town Gergasene/Gerasenes be connected to the Girgashite tribe of the ancient Canaanites? The Hebrew word “gerashim” means “expelled ones.”)
Whether this is the case, we don’t know. What we do know is after Alexander’s league of 10+ city-states (that we call the Decapolis) were settled, the Jewish peoples on the other side of the lake saw these cities as spiritual progeny of the original Canaanites, if not actual progeny, for they carried on the same traditions of sexual and religious idolatries.

Textual Points

Illustrations to Consider