Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30
21. And Jesus departing thence withdrew into the territories of Tyre and Sidon. 22. And, lo, a woman of Canaan, who had come from those territories, cried saying, Have compassion on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously afflicted by a devil. 23. But he made no reply to her, and his disciples approaching implored him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24. But he answering said, I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25. And she came and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26. But he answering said, It is not seemly to take the children’s bread, and throw it to the dogs. 27. But she said, Certainly, O Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters. 28. Then Jesus answering said to her, O woman, great is thy faith; be it to thee as thou desirest. And her daughter was cured from that time. 414
24. And he arose and departed thence into the borders of Tyre and Sidon; and, entering into a house, he wished that no man should know it, but he could not be concealed. 25. For a woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, no sooner heard of him than she came and fell at his feet, 26. (For the woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by birth,) and implored him to cast the devil out of her daughter. 27. And Jesus said to her, Allow the children to be first satisfied; for it is not seemly to take the children’s bread, and throw it to the dogs. 28. But she replied and said to him, Certainly, O Lord; for even the dogs 415 under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. 29. And he said to her, On account of that saying go away, the devil is gone out of thy daughter. 30. And when she had gone to her own house, she found that the devil had gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.
In this miracle we are informed in what manner the grace of Christ began to flow to the Gentiles; for, though the full time was not yet come when Christ would make himself known to the whole world, yet he intended to give some early manifestations of the common mercy which was at length offered indiscriminately to Jews and Gentiles after his resurrection. A remarkable picture of faith is presented to us in the woman of Canaan, for the purpose of instructing us by means of comparison, that the Jews were justly deprived of the promised redemption, since their impiety was so shameful.
The woman, whom Matthew describes as of Canaan, is said by Mark to have been a Greek, and a Syrophenician by birth But there is no contradiction here; for we know that it was the prevailing custom among the Jews to call all foreign nations Greeks, and hence that contrast between Greeks and Jews, which occurs so frequently in the writings of Paul. As she was a native of the territories of Tyre and Sidon, we need not wonder that she is called a Syrophenician; for that country was called Syria, and formed part of Phenicia. The Jews disdainfully gave the name of Canaanites to all the inhabitants of that district; and it is probable that the majority of them were descended from the tribes of Canaan, who when banished from their native country, fled to a sort of retreat in the neighborhood. Both agree in this point, that the woman was a native of a heathen nation, that she had not been instructed in the doctrine of the law, and that she came of her own accord to Christ, humbly to entreat his aid.
Mark 7:24. He wished that no man should know it. We must attend to this circumstance, which is mentioned by Mark, that when Christ came to that place, he did not erect his banner, but endeavored to remain concealed for a time, in that obscure situation, like a private individual. Mark speaks according to the ordinary perception of the flesh; for, although Christ by his divine Spirit foresaw what would happen, yet so far as he was the minister and ambassador of the Father, he kept himself, as his human nature might have led us to expect, within the limits of that calling which God had given him; and in that respect it is said that what he wished, as man, he was unable to accomplish. Meanwhile, this occurrence, as I have said, tends powerfully to condemn the Jews, who—though they boasted that they were the heirs of the covenant of the Lord, his peculiar people, and a royal priesthood—were blind and deaf when Christ, with a loud voice and with the addition of miracles, offered to them the promised redemption; while this woman, who had no relationship with the children of Abraham, and to whom, at first sight, the covenant did not at all belong, came of her own accord to Christ, without having heard his voice or seen his miracles.
Matthew 15:22. Have compassion on me, O Lord. Though this woman was an alien, and did not belong to the Lord’s flock, yet she had acquired some taste of piety; 416 for, without some knowledge of the promises, she would not have called Christ the Son of David. The Jews indeed had almost entirely departed, or at least had greatly turned aside, from the pure and sound doctrine of the Gospel; but a report of the promised redemption was extensively prevalent. As the restoration of the Church depended on the reign of David, whenever they spoke of the Messiah, it was customary for them to employ the name, Son of David; and indeed this confession was heard from the lips of all. But when the true faith had died out amongst them, it was an amazing and incredible display of the goodness of God that the sweet savor of the promises reached the neighboring nations. Though this woman had not been regularly educated by any teacher, yet her faith in Christ was not a notion adopted by her at random, but was formed out of the law and the prophets. It was therefore not less absurd than wicked in that dog, Servetus, to abuse this example for the purpose of proving that faith may exist without promises. I do not deny that, in this sense, there may sometimes be a sort of implicit faith, that is, a faith which is not accompanied by a full and distinct knowledge of sound doctrine; provided we also hold that faith always springs from the word of God, and takes its origin from true principles, and therefore is always found in connection with some light of knowledge.
23. But he made no reply to her. In various ways the Evangelists bestow commendation on the faith of this woman. Here they bring before us her unshaken constancy; for the silence of Christ was a sort of refusal, and there is reason to wonder that she was not cast down by this trial, but her continuance in prayer was a proof of her perseverance. This appears, however, to be inconsistent with the nature of faith and of calling upon God, as it is described by Paul, who assures us that no man can pray aright till he has heard the word of God.
How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?
and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?
Who then will say that this woman had faith, who takes courage from her own feelings, though Christ is silent? But as Christ has two ways of speaking and of being silent, it must be observed, that though he withheld at that time the words of his mouth, yet he spoke within to the mind of the woman, and so this secret inspiration was a substitute for the outward preaching. Besides, her prayer arose out of the hearing of faith, (Ro 10:17;) and, therefore, though Christ does not immediately reply, she continually hears the sound of that doctrine 417 which she had already learned, that Christ came as a Redeemer. In this way the Lord often acts towards those who believe in him; he speaks to them, and yet is silent. Relying on the testimonies of Scripture, where they hear him speaking, they firmly believe that he will be gracious to them; and yet he does not immediately reply to their wishes and prayers, but, on the contrary, seems as if he did not hear. We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor. But if a small seed of doctrine in a woman of Canaan yielded such abundant fruit, it ill becomes us to be dejected, if at any time he delays and does not immediately grant a favorable answer.
Send her away. The disciples present no request in favor of the woman, but as they are annoyed by her importunity, they desire that, in some way or other, she may be dismissed. It is a childish contrivance, which the Papists have endeavored to support by means of this passage, that departed saints are allowed to plead for us; for, granting that this woman solicited the disciples to give her some favor or assistance — which, however, cannot be proved from the passage — still there is a wide difference between the dead and living. It must be also observed, that, if they really intended to aid her by their advocacy, they obtain nothing.
24. I am not sent. He informs the Apostles that his reason for refusing the woman of Canaan arises out of his desire to devote himself entirely to the Jews to whom alone he was appointed to be a minister of the grace of God. He argues from the call and the command of the Father, that he must not yield any assistance to strangers; not that the power of Christ was always confined within so narrow limits, but because present circumstances rendered it necessary that he should begin with the Jews, and at that time devote himself to them in a peculiar manner. For as I have said in expounding Mt 10:5, the middle wall of partition (Eph 2:14) was not thrown down till after Christ’s resurrection that he might proclaim peace to the nations which were aliens from the kingdom of God: and therefore he prohibited the Apostles, at that time, from scattering anywhere but in Judea the first seed of doctrine. Justly therefore, does he affirm that, on this occasion, he was sent to the Jews only, till the Gentiles also followed in the proper order.
To the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He bestows the designation of sheep of the house of Israel not on the elect only, but on all who were descended from the holy fathers; for the Lord had included all in the covenant, and was promised indiscriminately to all as a Redeemer, as he also revealed and offered himself to all without exception. It is worthy of observation, that he declares himself to have been sent to LOST sheep, as he assures us in another passage that he came to save that which was lost, (Mt 18:11.) Now as we enjoy this favor, at the present day, in common with the Jews, we learn what our condition is till he appear as our Savior.
25. And she came and worshipped him. We might be apt to think that this woman contends with some measure of obstinacy, as if she would extort something from Christ in spite of him; but there is no reason to doubt that she was animated by the conviction which she entertained as to the kindness of the Messiah. When Christ expressly declared that it did not belong to his office, she was not intimidated by that refusal, and did not desist from her purpose. The reason was, that she adhered firmly to that previous sentiment of faith which I have mentioned, and admitted nothing that was opposed to her hope. And this is the sure test of faith, that we do not suffer that general commencement of our salvation, which is founded on the word of God, to be in any way torn from us.
26. It is not seemly. Christ’s reply is harsher than ever, and one would think that he intended by it to cut off all hope; for not only does he declare that all the grace which he has received from the Father belongs to the Jews, and must be bestowed on them, otherwise they will be defrauded of their just rights; but he disdainfully compares the woman herself to a dog, thus implying that she is unworthy of being a partaker of his grace. To make the meaning plain to us, it must be understood that the appellation of the children’s bread is here given, not to the gifts of God of whatever description, but only to those which were bestowed in a peculiar manner on Abraham and his posterity. For since the beginning of the world, the goodness of God was everywhere diffused—nay, filled heaven and earth—so that all mortal men felt that God was their Father. But as the children of Abraham had been more highly honored than the rest of mankind, the children’s bread is a name given to everything that, relates peculiarly to the adoption by which the Jews alone were elected to be children The light of the sun, the breath of life, and the productions of the soil, were enjoyed by the Gentiles equally with the Jews; but the blessing which was to be expected in Christ dwelt exclusively in the family of Abraham. To lay open without distinction that which God had conferred as a peculiar privilege on a single nation, was nothing short of setting aside the covenant of God; for in this way the Jews, who ought to have the preference, were placed on a level with the Gentiles.
And to throw it to the dogs. By using the word throw, Christ intimates that what is taken from the Church of God and given to heathens is not well bestowed. But this must be restricted to that time when it was in Judea only that men called on God; for, since the Gentiles were admitted to partake of the same salvations—which took place when Christ diffused everywhere the light of his Gospel—the distinction was removed, and those who were formerly dogs are now reckoned among the children. The pride of the flesh must fall down, when we learn that by nature we are dogs At first, no doubt, human nature, in which the image of God brightly shone, occupied so high a station that this opprobrious epithet did not apply to all nations, and even to kings, on whom God confers the honor of bearing his name. 418 But the treachery and revolt of Adam made it proper that the Lord should send to the stable, along with dogs, those who through the guilt of our first parent became bastards; more especially when a comparison is made between the Jews, who were exempted from the common lot, and the Gentiles, who were banished from the kingdom of God.
Christ’s meaning is more fully unfolded by Mark, who gives these words, Allow the children first to be satisfied He tells the woman of Canaan that she acts presumptuously in proceeding — as it were, in the midst of the supper — to seize on what was on the table. 419 His chief design was, to make trial of the woman’s faith; but he also pointed out the dreadful vengeance that would overtake the Jews, who rejected an inestimable benefit which was freely offered to them, and which they refused to those who sought it with warmth and earnestness.
27. Certainly, Lord. The woman’s reply showed that she was not hurried along by a blind or thoughtless impulse to offer a flat contradiction 420 to what Christ had said. As God preferred the Jews to other nations, she does not dispute with them the honor of adoption, and declares, that she has no objection whatever that Christ should satisfy them according to the order which God had prescribed. She only asks that some crumbs — falling, as it were, accidentally — should come within the reach of the dogs And at no time, certainly, did God shut up his grace among the Jews in such a manner as not to bestow a small taste of them on the Gentiles. No terms could have been employed that would have described more appropriately, or more justly, that dispensation of the grace of God which was at that time in full operation.
28. Great is thy faith. He first applauds the woman’s faith, and next declares, that on account of her faith he grants her prayer. The greatness of her faith appeared chiefly in this respect, that by the aid of nothing more than a feeble spark of doctrine, she not only recognized the actual office of Christ, and ascribed to him heavenly power, but pursued her course steadily through formidable opposition; suffered herself to be annihilated, provided that she held by her conviction that she would not fail to obtain Christ’s assistance; and, in a word, so tempered her confidence with humility, that, while she advanced no unfounded claim, neither did she shut against her the fountain of the grace of Christ, by a sense of her own unworthiness. This commendation, bestowed on a woman who had been a heathen, 421 condemns the ingratitude of that nation which boasted that it was consecrated to God.
But how can the woman be said to believe aright, who not only receives no promise from Christ, but is driven back by his declaration to the contrary? On that point I have already spoken. Though he appears to give a harsh refusal to her prayers, yet, convinced that God would grant the salvation which he had promised through the Messiah, she ceases not to entertain favorable hopes; and therefore she concludes, that the door is shut against her, not for the purpose of excluding her altogether, but that, by a more strenuous effort of faith, she may force her way, as it were, through the chinks. Be it unto thee as thou desirest. This latter clause contains a useful doctrine, that faith will obtain anything from the Lord; for so highly does he value it, that he is always prepared to comply with our wishes, so far as it may be for our advantage.
“Et des ce mesme instant sa fille fut guairie;” — “and from that very instant her daughter was cured.”
“Car les chiens mangent, ou, mais aussi les chiens mangent;” — “for the dogs eat, or, but even the dogs eat.”
“Quelque goust de piete et vraye religion;” — “some taste of piety and true religion.”
“Toutesfois ceste doctrine ne laisse pas tousiours de retentir en son coeur;” — “yet that doctrine does not fail to resound continually in her heart.”
This is probably an allusion to Ps 82:6, I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are CHILDREN OF THE MOST HIGH. — Ed.
“De vouloir ainsi mettre la main sur la table des enfans, au milieu de souper;” — “in wishing thus to put her hand to the children’s table in the midst of the supper.”
“Pour se rebequer et heurter directement;” — “to give a saucy and open contradiction.”
“Ceste femme, profane de nation;” — “that woman, a heathen as to her nation.”