A Framework to Understand Jesus’ Response. It is believed that the etymology of “Hebrew” comes from the Semitic root ‘apiru, which refers to those who cross over. It is an apt description when one considers the journeys of Abraham and Sarah, the travels of Jacob/Israel and his 12 sons, and the Exodus of the Jews to Israel – a narrative history of people who were “other” and yet willing to “cross over” because of the call of God. And paradoxically, the disciples are not willing to “cross over” to console this woman who is “other.”
This “otherness” has to understood in the context of Mt 14 and the Mt 15:1-20
Why did the disciples cross the lake (14:22)? To get to the other side – but not willingly. What’s so important on the other side, that Jesus, literally, “immediately” (eutheos) “forces” (anagkazo) the disciples to get into the boat and head that direction? When disciples first cross the lake through a storm, they land on the Gentile/unclean side (Mt 8:23-34). With the boat trip of Mt 14, Jesus had sent them to “the other side” (14:22, see also 16:5), was that meant to be the Gentile side? In Mark, Jesus had sent the disciples to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45), which is in Gentile side of the Jordan, but they don’t make it. They end up in Gennesaret (Mk 6:53; Mt 14:34) which is on the Jewish side of Lake Galilee. Can storms at sea (and “little faith”) keep disciples from reaching the destinations where Jesus has sent them? It is a question we can all ask of ourselves and our communities of faith. This issue of “other” and “clean/unclean” is the issue Jesus takes up in Mt 15 (and was addressed in the “Context” section).
The disciples are people learning what it demanded of true discipleship to Jesus. They are emerging from a time in which there is a major holiness movement headed by the Pharisees which is implemented in the laws of ritual purity and cleanliness – in which things and people can make you unclean. The disciples are being called into an era is which they are called to “cross over” to all peoples, but not just yet. That commission will become clear in the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus. For now, it is already clear in Matthew that Jesus and his disciples ministered only to the lost sheep of Israel (9:35–36; 10:5–6).
However, there has already been one notable exception to this rule, the healing of the Centurion’s servant (8:5–13). It is noteworthy that both the previous and the present cases of ministry to Gentiles center around exceptional faith (8:10; 15:28). Both cases involve a request for another person, the Centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (8:6, 8; 15:22). Both cases also speak of blessing in terms of table fellowship (8:11; 15:26–27), which is then applied to the primacy of Israel. The Roman official may look forward to sitting down at a table with the Jewish patriarchs, and the woman may have scraps of the children’s bread. The language of the table is clearly eschatological in 8:11 and is implicitly so here in Matthew 15, since the woman received blessings flowing from the presence of the Kingdom (12:28). The story of the Canaanite woman is, in a way, the preamble to the gentile missions: not yet, but emerging. For now the Israelites are still called to be the light to the nations – and hence the primacy of mission to them.
Matthew 15:24 I was sent only…: This saying may reflect an original Jewish Christian refusal of the mission to the Gentiles, but for Matthew it expresses rather the limitation that Jesus himself observed during his ministry.
Matthew 15:26: the children: the people of Israel. dogs: dogs and swine were Jewish terms of contempt for Gentiles. This saying may originally have derived from a Jewish Christian community opposed to preaching the gospel (what is holy, pearls) to Gentiles. In the light of Matthew 28:19 that can hardly be Matthew’s meaning. He may have taken the saying as applying to a Christian dealing with an obstinately impenitent fellow Christian (Matthew 18:17).