Connections 08.20.2017: Trajectory

Matthew 15:21-28

The fact that I remember the parody but not Longfellow’s original says way too much about me:

I shot an arrow into the air,
it fell to earth I knew not where.
Until at last with rage profound,
the man it fell on came around.
And now I do not really care
to shoot more arrows in the air.

In that silly poem, the arrow’s trajectory ended on a man and he wasn’t happy about it, which is understandable. I share the poem with you to remind you of what a trajectory is. The arrow’s flight begins, it follows a trajectory (a path or course determined by the laws of physics) until it gets where it’s going.

Let’s think about a biblical trajectory.

The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “The Lord saves.” The most famous biblical Joshua led the Hebrews to occupy the promised land, which wasn’t easy since people lived there. So it’s more accurate to say that Joshua led the Hebrews to conquer the land. According to the Old Testament book that bears Joshua’s name, the conquest was horrible, with entire populations of cities—children, women, and men—being wiped out.

At this early point of the flight of God’s people, we wonder where the trajectory will lead us.

But there were still Canaanites in the land a dozen centuries later when Jesus walked it. One day one of them—a woman, a mother—approached Jesus, shouting her request that Jesus have mercy on her daughter who had serious problems. Jesus’ initial non-response and the seemingly harsh ways he speaks when he does respond to her trouble us. Still, when all was said and done, Jesus responded to the woman’s tenacious, persistent, and stubborn faith by healing her daughter. As Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “This time … Israel’s Joshua does not kill but heals the Canaanite’s child” (Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary, 144). At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” (28:19a).

At this mid-point of the flight of God’s people, we begin to see where the trajectory might lead us.

The trajectory continues through the rest of the New Testament as the early church struggles to come to terms with the full inclusion of Gentiles. And the flight of God’s people continues to this second.

Dr. King (using the words of the nineteenth century minister and philosopher Theodore Parker) famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Indeed it does. I would also say, “The arc of the church’s history is long, but it bends toward inclusion.”

That’s because, while physics determines an arrow’s arc, grace, love, and mercy determine the church’s trajectory.

Jesus got there with the Canaanite woman.

We’ll get there too.


1. Do you see any connection between what Jesus says in Matthew 15:10-20 and what happens in the lesson text? If so, what is it?
2. If Jesus “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24), why did he go to “the district of Tyre and Sidon,” which was outside Israel and populated by Gentiles?
3. Why do you think Jesus responds to the woman as he does?
4. Why does Jesus judge the woman’s faith to be “great” (v. 28)?

Reference Shelf

“Dogs” was a term of ultimate scorn for gentiles: “As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the gentiles” (Babylonian Talmud H. agiga 13a; see ‘Aboda Zara 54b; Pirke Rabbi Eliezer 29; Joseph and Aseneth 10:13). Does Jesus share this same bigotry against gentiles? The text does not allow us to appeal to a gentle tone of voice or a twinkle in the eye to explain it away. One also cannot argue that the use of the diminutive form of “dogs” to refer to pet house dogs takes the sting out of what he says. A dog is a dog whether it is a pampered household pet or a street cur. There is no indication that Jesus was struggling over the scope of his mission and mulling things over in his mind as he speaks to the woman, or that he withheld his help to test her faith or to evoke a more strenuous effort of faith. If this were a test of faith, what would have happened if she failed the test? What if she had weak faith like the father of the epileptic (Mark 9:24)? It also does not help to trace this story back to the bias of the earlier Jewish Christian church that was resisting the mission to the gentiles. The story reflects the real distance between the Jew and the heathen, and perhaps a socio-psychological explanation offers the best possibility for understanding Jesus’ response (G. Theissen, “Lokal—und Sozialkolorit in der Geschichte von der syrophönikischen Frau (Mk 7.24-30)” ZNW 75 [1984], 202-25). Rich Tyre was perceived as posing a threat against Galilee as a permanent aggrandizer. Economically, Tyre took bread away from Galilee. Jesus may have shared the prejudice of the underprivileged against the privileged. What he might be saying is: “Let the poor people in the hinterland be satisfied first for once. It is not good to take the bread of the poor people and throw it to the rich heathens in the city” (Theissen, 217).

The scandal remains, but possibly our modern sensitivities are mistaken. We assume that Jesus is obligated to respond to every request and to heal everyone. We tend to dejudaize Jesus and are offended by the particularity of God’s election. During the ministry of Jesus, the boundary between Jews and gentiles is very real. On the one hand, this incident affirms the priority of Israel as children (Deut 32:6; Isa 1:2; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1; Jubilees 1:24, 28; Mishna ’Abot. 3:15). Our prejudice is that gentiles are just as important as Israel, if not more so, because we know that many in Israel will reject the messiah while gentiles will respond in greater numbers. In Matthew’s day, the church was becoming predominantly gentile; and this incident makes it clear that they are not included because Israel was rejected capriciously. Jesus restates the limitation of his mission to Israel, and a gentile expresses the faith of Israel by recognizing Jesus as the son of David and acknowledging the priority of Israel as the children. The miracles of the loaves and fishes preceding and following this incident make it clear that divine provision for Israel can be extended to gentiles and that Israel will still have no lack. The children are filled and there are abundant leftovers.

On the other hand, this story brings to the fore the issue of faith and foreshadows the response of the gentiles to the gospel. Even though Jesus has been sent only to Israel, membership in Israel does not guarantee salvation. The key will be faith, and “faith is not a national privilege” (Sand, Matthäus, 315). This woman’s faith has not removed the barrier; it has only overcome it (Donaldson, Jesus on the Mountain, 133). The barrier will be removed only after the death and resurrection of Jesus when he commands his disciples to go to all the nations (28:16-20).

David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 166-67.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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