Reflections on Children, Dogs and Bread

October 3, 2014 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 15:21–15:39

Synopsis: The title for this sermon (taken from Matthew 15:21-39) is Reflections on Children, Dogs and Bread. Strange title? Well, it is a strange passage! What do these three things have to do with each other? What do the three paragraphs in this section have to do with each other? And why does Pastor Cam state that the key to tying it all together is “Location! Location! Location!”


That is a strange story we read a few minutes ago, isn’t it? (Matthew 15:21-28) At a first reading, Jesus’ answer to the woman seems completely out of character, and even offensive. What is going on in this passage? Before I answer that question, let me point out that we are also including two more sections of text in this second half of Matthew 15. The next one is the account of a great flurry of healing miracles, in which Jesus healed “the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others.” These miracles led to a great outpouring of praise to God. Then the final section of text tells the story of another feeding miracle. It reads almost like a repetition of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 which we studied in Matthew 14. Only in this case Jesus fed a crowd of 4000 people, using 7 loaves of bread and a few fish.

The first question I want to deal with is: Is there a link or common theme that ties these three incidents together? I believe there is, and it is a very important one. It brings to my mind the mantra of the real estate industry. “Location! Location! Location!” It is not immediately apparent to a casual reading, but a little digging reveals an important clue. The common link is that all three of these incidents take place in Gentile territory and involve Gentile individuals or audiences.

Why is this significant? So far, Matthew’s account has been almost exclusively about Jews and Jewish audiences and Jesus’ claims to be the Jewish Messiah. This is appropriate to Matthew’s theme because he was writing primarily for a Jewish audience. However, in this chapter Matthew nudges the door ajar, and lets in an intriguing stream of light to indicate that God’s purposes are broader and more inclusive than has been revealed so far. These three incidents are hugely significant, because they give hints of what is to come; hints of Jesus’ wider purpose and broader agenda.

The first story is the most revealing. To understand it fully, we need to place the incident in its geographical context. Matthew introduces the story by telling us: And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. He went north into what is part of modern day Lebanon. The key point to note is that it was a Gentile region.

I think it is worth asking: Why did Jesus leave Galilee at this particular time? We can actually suggest several good reasons. One is that he was continuing to look for a place of retreat and rest with his disciples. They couldn’t seem to find it in Galilee. So he looks for it outside of Israel. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus did not want anyone to know that he was in the region.

I think that is one reason he went, but I don’t think it is the only or even the most important one. A number of events and clues indicate that he and his followers are increasingly at risk in Galilee. We know that word of his miracles has attracted the attention of Herod, who recently executed John the Baptist. We also know that Jesus is facing increasing hostility and rejection from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. In the first half of Matthew 15, we saw Jesus once again in conflict with the religious leaders.

If we include the record of John’s gospel, we also know that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, Jesus gave his great Bread of Life discourse. The truths he proclaimed there were so powerful and controversial that many of his followers turned away from him. So it was a time of increasing rejection of Jesus and his ministry by the Jews. We need this context to understand what happens in this story.

Jesus arrives in Tyre, and in spite of his desire for a private visit, word of his presence leaks out. A woman comes to see him. We are told clearly that she is not a Jew. Matthew refers to her as “a Canaanite woman from that region.” This would have been traditional Jewish terminology. Mark is more contemporary and specific, telling us that she was “a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.” She had a little daughter who was possessed by an evil spirit, and she follows Jesus, repeatedly crying out: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”

We are told that at first Jesus does not answer her at all. He ignores her. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, does it?

Then the disciples get involved. They come and beg Jesus to send her away, because her crying after them is creating the kind of attention they are trying to avoid. It is not exactly clear how they expected Jesus to send her away. It almost appears from Jesus’ response that their expectation is that he should help her and send her away. Because Jesus seems to be denying their request and refusing to meet their expectations when he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

This is consistent with the pattern of Jesus’ ministry thus far, with only one or two exceptions. In fact, when Jesus sent his disciples out on their mission, he specifically instructed them in Matthew 10:5-6: Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus is the King of the Jews. He has come to offer himself and his kingdom to the Jewish nation. Now this Gentile woman comes, appealing for his help, but appealing to him in his identity as the Jewish Messiah. Did you note her address to him? “Have mercy on my, O Lord, Son of David.” What right did she, a Gentile, have to appeal for help to a Jewish Messiah, sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

But this woman will not be denied. She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

Now we come to the troubling part of the story, in verse 26: And he (Jesus) answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

The language and the allusions sound incredibly offensive to us, especially when attributed to Jesus himself. But let us tread carefully as we try to understand what is going on. First of all, when language is written, we have no way of reading the body language and facial expression of the speaker. I am going to go out on an interpretive limb here, and suggest that Jesus spoke these words with a slight smile, a twinkle in his eye, and his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. His words reflect the predominant Jewish attitude of the day which, I believe, Jesus is about to defy.

There is also a subtle nuance in Jesus’ choice of words here. The Jews did often refer to the Gentiles as dogs and it was considered an insult. However, the word for dogs that the Jews usually used when referring to Gentiles was a much harsher and more derogatory term. It was a word used for the stray dogs that rummaged in the garbage heaps and alley ways of the villages. Jesus used a different word. He uses the word for a small dog or puppy, a family pet; one that would actually be allowed near the family’s table. So Jesus takes traditional Jewish thinking, but with that subtle change in words, he robs his statement of much of its sting.

The woman even seems to take him up on his gentle humor and responds in kind. Look at her words in Matthew 15:27: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Her words bring back to me a memory from my growing up years. We had a little dog. She was of no particular breed, about the size of a beagle or a Jack Russell terrier. My father named her “Kawa” which is the Kisukuma word meaning “little dog.” She was a part of the family, sitting on our laps, sleeping at the bottom of one of our beds each night.

I also have a younger brother. He is 10 years younger than I am. During those years, he was still little, sitting in a high chair at family meal times. Now here is my question. Where do you think the little dog sat at mealtimes? That’s right. The little dog sat beneath the little brother. Why? Because that’s where he could be assured of getting the most to eat! I believe it is a picture very like that one that Jesus and the woman are drawing in their verbal jousting.

In the picture, who is the parent, offering bread? It is Jesus. Who are the children seated at the table? They are the Jews, the members of God’s chosen people. But there is a little more to the scenario than that of the pet dog waiting for the haphazard scattering of crumbs from the children’s table. In the eating custom of that day, bread was the staple of the diet. When served with other food, the bread was not only part of the meal, but it also served as a spoon or dining utensil. The bread would be broken and used to pick up or sop up the sauce or vegetables or meat, just like we use the Arabic bread we get here to dip into the humus or mutabbal or pick up pieces of shish tawook. And sometimes as the bread was used in this way, it became soggy. If the children were picky eaters, they might lay this bread aside, maybe brush it from the table or even throw it to the pet dog waiting under the table.

With that background and image in mind, I suggest that what the woman is really saying is simply this: “But the pet dogs do get to eat what the children don’t want.” Now the question is, what was the bread the “children” of Israel were pushing from their table? Remember, Jesus has left Galilee because of the increasing rejection of his ministry by the Jews. He had proclaimed himself to be the “bread of life that came down from heaven” and he invited the people to eat. When he did that, many of his followers, his Jewish followers, walked away.

Now this Gentile woman finds him in his place of retreat. She evidences a keener perception of what was happening than any of Jesus’ disciples. “If the children (the lost sheep of the house of Israel) don’t want the bread you’ve come to offer, I do!” Jesus is delighted by her answer. “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Jesus had come to offer the Kingdom of God to the Jews first. But it was always God’s plan to extend his kingdom beyond Israel’s borders. Even in the original promises to Abraham, God said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Here in this passage in Matthew, a glorious future for the Gentiles is hinted at as Abraham’s seed, the Messiah, reaches out to bless this Gentile woman and heal her daughter. And he did it in response to her faith, just as he had blessed Abraham because of his faith.

In the next paragraph, we see Jesus engaging in a great ministry of healing. Once again, the key to the section lies in its location. It is not quite clear in Matthew’s account. He only tells us that Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him…. (v.29-30) But if we compare this with Mark’s Gospel, Mark tells us that this took place in the region of the Decapolis. Decapolis means “ten cities.” It was a cluster of ten towns lying to the east of the Sea of Galilee in what is now Jordan. If you have ever visited Jordan and visited the Roman ruins of Jerash, Jerash was one of the cities of the Decapolis. But the key to all this background for our purposes is the realization that this was a predominantly Gentile region.

So Jesus is now extending the scope of his ministry. He is in Gentile territory, but word of his miraculous power has spread throughout the region. They bring people with every imaginable ailment and put them at Jesus feet. And Jesus healed them! In a great display of his Messianic power, the mute speak, the lame walk, and the blind are given sight. And the paragraph ends with these significant words: And they glorified the God of Israel. This is significant because the wording makes it clear that these are Gentiles who are glorifying the God of Israel. Prophecy is being fulfilled here once again. In Isaiah 35:5-6, Isaiah prophesied: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. And this is happening among the Gentiles. It is another hint to the larger purposes of God in sending the Messiah and that he has plans that extend beyond the boundaries of Israel.

Thirdly, today, we are looking at the account of another feeding miracle. Once again, we must keep the location in view. Jesus is still ministering to the crowd in the Decapolis. So he is still in Gentile territory. Let’s pick up the story.

32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

We may be tempted to question why Jesus performed such a miracle on two different occasions, and if he did, why the disciples were so obtuse and dense in not believing Jesus could do it a second time. I believe the answer to both objections lies in the Gentile context of the miracle. This is a similar miracle but it is performed for a very different audience. What’s more, his disciples did not expect, or necessarily even want him to perform such a miracle in this context precisely because the crowd was largely Gentile.

If you follow John’s account of the feeding of the 5000, after that incident, the crowd came and asked him to keep on feeding them. “Give us more bread,” they asked in so many words. Jesus refused to give them more physical bread, and instead offers himself as the living bread. Now, if Jesus has refused to feed a Jewish audience, why would his disciples expect him to do a miracle to feed a Gentile multitude? So once again they raise the objection that there is nowhere to buy bread for so many. But once again, Jesus surprised them. Once again he took their totally inadequate resources into his hands, multiplied the bread and fish and fed the multitude

Are you seeing a pattern of symbolism here, related to bread? Jesus feeds a Jewish multitude with bread. But when he offers himself as the living bread, they refuse to eat. Then he goes to a Gentile region, and a Gentile woman says, by faith, “Give me the bread that the children don’t want.” Now Jesus symbolically performs an almost identical miracle of feeding a great multitude, only it is a Gentile crowd, as he offers the bread the children of Israel didn’t want to the Gentiles.

Jesus is here signaling to his followers, and to the Gentiles in these regions, that he has come down from heaven with wider purpose and a broader agenda. He has come for the people of Israel. And it is to them that he goes first, and it is to them that he offers himself first. But in light of their rejection, he is already signaling that he has a plan to offer himself and his salvation to the Gentiles and these accounts signal that many of them were ready to receive him. I believe that is what is going on under the surface and between the lines of these three accounts.

I believe these were incidents and teaching opportunities that Jesus’ disciples didn’t “get” until much later. But they did eventually catch on. It was Peter who, some years later, would be sent by God to proclaim the Gospel to Cornelius, a Roman centurion. When he reports his experience to the church back in Jerusalem, together they conclude in the words of Acts 11:18: Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life. I can almost hear the apostles discussing together: “Now we understand what Jesus was trying to teach us, even back then in Tyre and in the Decapolis. God’s grace extends to everyone who will put their faith in Jesus.”

What are the implications for us today? Let me highlight several.

Let us rejoice that we have been included. Most, if not all of us here today are Gentiles. We were not born as physical descendants of Israel. We have no claim on God’s favor or his promises based on blood or birth. But we have been included. John says in John 1:11-12, He came to his own, and his own people (the Jews) did not receive him. He is speaking specifically of the nation of Israel there; the children who rejected the Bread of life. But he goes on: But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Jesus, the “Bread of Life” has offered himself to all who will receive him, regardless of national, physical, or even spiritual heritage. These first hints in Matthew’s Gospel concerning Jesus’ concern for the Gentiles are hugely significant for us.

Let us recognize that inclusion is by grace, through faith. Jesus marveled at the woman’s faith. And then, although she, as a Gentile, had no legal claim on him as the Son of David, the Jewish Messiah, he extended his grace to her. That is the only way that anyone can be included in the kingdom of God. For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Let us embrace the reality that all who have been included are one family. We can celebrate the fact that there are no dogs among the members of Christ’s kingdom, not even pet ones. We are all children. Did you see that in the verse I just read in John 1:12? But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Paul says it this way in Ephesians 2:19: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Our God has made us one.

And finally, with privilege comes responsibility.

Let us accept the responsibility that comes with being included. Let us pick up Paul’s thought in Romans 10:12-15:

12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

If the offer of God’s grace is open to all, without distinction, then all, without distinction, have the right to hear the Good News. And it is our responsibility to tell them.

Discussion Questions

  1. Read Matthew 15:21-39
  2. What questions does this passage bring to your mind?
  3. How does knowing that all of these incidents happened in Gentile territory affect your understanding?
  4. In the sermon, Pastor Cam pointed out that the word for “dogs” in verses 26 and 27 is the word for small dog or pet. How does that affect your understanding of the passage? Does it remove the potential offensiveness of the statement or not?
  5. Trace the occurrence of bread in chapters 14 and 15 in light of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” sermon in John 6 (take the time to read John 6:47-51). How does it all tie together to trace the progress of Jesus’ ministry? (Hint: in Jesus’ and the woman’s reference to children, dogs and bread, who/what is the bread, who are the children and who are the “dogs”?)
  6. Pastor Cam closed with four applications. Take some time to reflect on each one in turn – then spend some time in prayer together, turning each of the points into a prayer point:
  • Let us rejoice that we have been included
  • Let us recognize that inclusion is by grace through faith
  • Let us embrace the reality that all who have been included are one family
  • Let us accept the responsibility that comes with being included

More in The Gospel of Matthew

November 14, 2014

We Beheld His Glory!

October 17, 2014

To Follow Jesus

October 10, 2014

I Will Build My Church