Jesus Learns from Experience

And Other Matters about and in the Text of Matthew 15:21-28

by Sigurd F. Westberg

There are few passages in the Bible that have troubled the minds of Christian people as much as this one. The commentaries provide good peripheral information, but do not meet the problem head-on. I am not confident that what I have to say here will clear up all the difficulties, but I hope you will get some ideas that you can weigh and eventually accept or reject.

In verse 22, a Canaanite woman (who is identified by Mark as Syrophoenician — Mark 7:26) came to Jesus with a desperate and urgent need. She cried out," Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." Jesus did not answer.

Why didn't he? I think he was deeply troubled as to how he should respond. She called him Son of David, which was a messianic title. That suggests faith. But Jesus, who, we must remember, was a Jew, seems to see an inconsistency between responding to this Gentile woman's need and the fulfillment of his mission: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

Who were these "lost sheep"? (The material in this paragraph is largely from The Interpreter's Bible, in loco.) They were the country people who were careless of the details of the law. They were called the am haarez (people of the land), and the Pharisees regarded them with contempt. The great rabbi, Hillel, whose dates were 30 BCE to 10 CE, the greatest rabbi of the time of Herod, noted for his great piety and compassion, said, "None of the am haarez is religious." These are the people to whom Mark refers when he says, "The common people heard him gladly" (12:37).

The chief reason that this passage has puzzled Christians, it seems to me, is that we have become docetic in our view of the nature of Christ. That is, we have emphasized the deity of Christ by denying or minimizing his human limitations, as the docetists did and do. He was the Son of God, on that we are agreed. But he was also fully human.

This means that he had to learn about God's will for his life and mission little by little, just as we all learn. He did not know all about his mission congenitally. The incarnation means that he was truly human and that the human nature was paramount. It had to be if he was to convey some inkling of the nature of God the Father to us. God is essentially unknowable to us, as God said to Isaiah (55:8, 9): "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, . . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." If we could not see and understand God in human metaphors, he would remain completely beyond us. We must see God in Jesus Christ the human being, who was as really and truly human as we are.

Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Christ experienced our weaknesses and temptations. He was human. The New Testament tells of the development and growth of Jesus in all respects, including his understanding of his own mission among women and men.

After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph presented him in the temple and then returned with him to Nazareth, and Luke says (2:40): "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." This reflects physical and spiritual development. At his baptism the voice from heaven told him, "You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased." This was not empty talk. It was extremely important. Jesus needed to know that God considered him his son and that he was well pleasing to God. This was the foundation of his commission.

Jesus was now prepared to begin leaning what his mission was to be. And the learning would come in the doing. He had hard lessons to learn, and he continued to learn to the end of his life. Hebrews 5:7-8 indicates that this was the case. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, . . . ." clearly speaks of the Gethsemane experience. In this context we read the remainder of the passage: "Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered," that is, he was still learning on the cross.

The point I want to emphasize in this digression is that Jesus was constantly learning, just as you and I are. And in the episode we are considering in Matthew 15, Jesus experienced another revelation from God concerning the nature of his mission.

Jesus gave the woman the orthodox answer. She was outside the pale. He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus was not unkind to her. She had often heard from Jewish leaders that she was not eligible to receive mercy from God, and it was usually spoken harshly. Though I am confident Jesus spoke softly, he repeated the same intolerant orthodoxy.

The woman was not scared off, because she heard compassion in Jesus' voice and attitude, if not in his words. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She was not insulted. She answered with amazing wit and humility and faith. "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."

She had come to the right place. She was willing to receive help no matter what his attitude to the Goyim (Gentiles) might be. The answer this woman gave was the vehicle that God used to reveal more of his will concerning Jesus' mission.

Jesus said, in amazement, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you according to your faith." It sounds like Jesus deferred to God for the answer to her prayer. He did not say, "Bring your daughter here" or "Bring me to your daughter," as he did to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Now he passed the buck to God the Father and, when the daughter was healed, he saw that "God shows no partiality." His understanding of his mission was changed in one important detail. He was still sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but now he had to delete the word "only."

The book of Acts, in the tenth chapter, gives us the same drama with different actors in the wonderful story of Peter and Cornelius. In the story of the Syrophoenician woman (a Gentile) the clincher came with the healing of the daughter. GOD DID IT! It showed God's attitude toward people for both the woman and Jesus to see. In the story of Peter and Cornelius the clincher came when the Holy Spirit descended on them, confirming what Peter had learned from the vision of the sheet full of animals: "What God has cleansed, you must not speak of as unclean." Here Cornelius (a Gentile) was the vehicle God used to teach Peter that God shows no partiality. GOD DID IT! And it showed God's attitude toward people for both Cornelius and Peter to see.

Paul speaks of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the purview of the Gospel and calls it a mystery that God had revealed to him (Eph. 3:1-6).

This is the end of the exegesis — the critical study of the text. Various applications will come to anyone preparing to preach on this text. Here are some that I have used:

  • We learn about new dimensions and directions in our mission while we are doing it.
  • We must not be so sure that we know God's will for our lives that we cannot be led in other directions.
  • The Canaanite woman and Cornelius were important to God, and to Jesus, and to Peter. We must constantly be aware of the importance of the people to whom we minister.
  • See all articles by Sigurd F. Westberg