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Compassion For All People

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 15:21–38

The obstacles we see to God’s work are opportunities for us to trust Him, conform our attitudes to His, and witness the fulfillment of His will. This is Jesus’ lesson for the disciples as Jesus ministers in two Gentile areas.


In Capernaum, the Pharisees criticized Jesus and His disciples for not following the rules—for eating food with unclean hands. Jesus turned the tables on them and revealed the hypocrisy of their unclean hearts.

Now with that, Matthew 15:21, says, “Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” This is pagan, Gentile territory on the Mediterranean coast. This had been the home country of Jezebel, where people had sacrificed children to the wicked god Molech back in Old Testament times.[1]

We are not told how long Jesus and the disciples had been there when their presence is discovered:

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.” (verse 22)

Mark tells us Jesus had entered a house and implies the woman immediately followed Him into the house (Mark 7:24-25).

Despite the fact she is described as a “Canaanite” and in Mark 7:26 as a “Syrophoenician by birth,” she “came out” to meet them intentionally. Her crying is continuous, and her need is desperate. It is interesting to me here that she uses a messianic title for Jesus, calling him, “Son of David.” She knows something about Him, but she is about to learn much more.

In Matthew 15:23, we read, “His disciples … begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” I believe the disciples want the Lord to answer her request, but only to stop her from pestering them. Besides, their ministry is primarily to Jews, certainly not to Canaanites!

Jesus wants to teach her something as well as refine her faith in Him. He says in verse 24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “You referred to me with the Jewish messianic title of ‘Son of David’; well, my mission is with the house of Israel.”

Instead of getting angry or walking away, immediately this woman kneels at Jesus’ feet and says, “Lord, help me” (verse 25). Her posture is one of humility, but this time she omits the messianic title, “Son of David.” She believes He is the Jewish Messiah, but now she comes to Him as a Gentile sinner desperately seeking His mercy.

Surprisingly, Jesus wants to instruct her even further. He says in verse 26, “It is not right to take the children’s [Jews’] bread and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles].” The issue here is the priority of the nation of Israel due to God’s covenant with Abraham. She needs to understand that His ministry priority is first to the Jewish people and then to the Gentiles.

Jesus’ words are not as harsh as they might appear. Warren Wiersbe explains:

Jesus did not call her a “dog” the way the Pharisees would have addressed a Gentile. The Greek word means “a little pet dog” and not the filthy [mutts] that ran the streets and ate the garbage.[2]

In other words, the beloved pets that belong to the children do not get to eat until the children have eaten. Here is the woman’s response in verse 27: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She clearly accepts what Jesus has said. As a Gentile, she does not have a place at the dining room table in the house of Israel; but she says even the pet dogs under the table are happy for the crumbs the children might drop. She will be satisfied with the “crumbs” from His ministry. She is saying, “Lord, I would be happy with just a little crumb from the table; you do not even need to give me a seat.”

Jesus has but one answer for her, here in verse 28: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” As a result, we are told, “her daughter was healed instantly.”

Jesus is teaching His disciples a subtle message here: both Jews and Gentiles are going to stand before God on equal ground, all “equally undeserving and equally sinners.”[3] If you will come to Jesus by faith, as this woman came, Jesus will save you and adopt you into His family (John 1:12) and give you a seat at the table.

Now with that, “Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee.” (Matthew 15:29). Mark 7:31 tells us that it was in the Decapolis, the Gentile region to the southeast of the sea.

Mark’s Gospel highlights one event during this visit: “They brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).

Jesus pulls this man to the side where they can be out of the public view. What Jesus does next is use a little sign language. He puts His fingers into the man’s ears, signifying they are about to be opened. Then he puts some saliva on his finger and touches the man’s tongue, signifying this man is about to be able to speak. And then, to make sure the man knows the power to heal him from his suffering is coming from heaven, Jesus looks up to heaven and sighs.

He then gives the command in verse 34, using the Aramaic word “ephphatha,” which the man can easily lip-read and understand.[4] It means “be opened,” and that is exactly what happens. Verse 35 says, “His ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

Now what are we to make of what happens next in verse 36: “Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it”? Well, it appears Jesus wants to slow things down, so to speak. The division between Jews and Gentiles was already massive, and His ministry among the Gentiles will only increase this division; so, Jesus does not want this to be front page news—at least not yet.

Matthew 15 then picks up the chronological story there on the mountain and tells us what happened next:

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.” (verse 32)

The disciples should have answered, “You know, we feel the same way, Jesus, and we know You can handle this without any trouble.” Unfortunately, their response is, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” (verse 33).

Did they so quickly forget that Jesus had miraculously fed 5000 men and their families earlier? I don’t think so! I don’t think this is a memory problem at all.

That earlier crowd of 5,000 was Jewish; this crowd of 4,000 is Gentile. What they are really saying is, “Lord, let’s send these pagan Gentiles away.” Let me tell you, they have a lot to learn. These two scenes involving a Jewish and a Gentile crowd say the same thing: the compassion of Jesus is unlimited. Jew or Gentile, pagan or raised in church, the ground at the foot of the cross, beloved, is level. So, the Lord miraculously feeds 4000 hungry Gentiles, this time using seven loaves and several fish.

He is also rebuking the heart attitude of His disciples toward those very different from themselves. Jesus is demonstrating compassion for all people.

Maybe the Lord wants to check your own heart attitude toward people who are different from you, whether the difference is ethnic, political, religious, economic, or something else. Beloved, like these early disciples, we are called by God to look past those differences and with compassion feed their souls with the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Luke (Kregel, 2005), 156.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1: New Testament (Victor Books, 1996), 54.

[4] John D. Grassmick, “Mark,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, ed. John. F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Victor Books, 1985), 136.

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