After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
Matthew 15:29-31 (NRSV)
In both this passage and the one that follows, it’s unclear exactly where Jesus is and who constitutes these crowds. Unfortunately, this is kind of important.
The reason we get into ambiguity is mostly because of Mark 7-8. Toward the end of Mark 7, Jesus is going to the Sea of Galilee by traveling through the Decapolis region. This region was almost certainly Gentile at the time. During this leg of the trip, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had trouble speaking. It seems to be an example of Jesus healing a Gentile, especially underscored by the fact that Jesus heals him away from the crowd and instructs all the witnesses not to tell anyone what just happened – a common thing Jesus does when he doesn’t want the Gentiles to get wind of what he’s doing.
Mark tells us that in those same days, Jesus feeds a crowd of 4000, which is the miracle that follows today’s passage in Matthew.
Because of this, many commentators on our passage believe the healings described in Matthew happened to Gentiles. Certainly, in line with Matthew’s narrative, this would make a certain degree of sense. Jesus has just had a woman convince him to heal Gentiles, so it would be a very interesting continuation of the story to have Jesus go on to perform healing and exorcisms among a great crowd of Gentiles and even, as we’ll see, perform another miraculous feeding that mirrors his miraculous feeding to Jews in the previous chapter in Matthew.
What’s more, our passage points out that the crowds “glorify the God of Israel,” which many readers think supports the idea that this crowd was Gentile, because why else would Matthew point this out? Of course Jews would glorify the God of Israel. What would be startling and newsworthy would be if Gentiles were healed by Jesus and, as a result, began to glorify Israel’s God.
If this is what the text is trying to portray, then what we have here is a very dramatic foreshadowing of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. Now, Gentiles are receiving the healing, restoration, and liberation that was promised to Israel at the hands of Israel’s Messiah, with the end result being that these Gentiles turn to Israel’s God. It should be noted that these Gentiles do not become disciples of Jesus, nor do they seem to join up with Israel in any way, but what we would have here is an incident of Gentiles being exposed to the miracles of Jesus and responding in faith, which is something Jesus has speculated would happen.
What’s more, this is an eschatological hope anticipated in the Old Testament – not the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of Israel, but their conversion to / glorification of Israel’s God when they witness the deliverance of Israel. For example:
On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the Lord of hosts is planning against them.
On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.
On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
Isaiah 19:16-25 (NRSV)
In the prophetic imagination, God is going to deliver Israel from her Gentile oppressors and put her back on top, and when this happens, those same Gentile oppressors will turn to the Lord and become a people to the Lord.
We still have to get through things like Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to see these hopes come into their own, but if Jesus is healing and casting demons out of Gentiles and they are, in turn, glorifying Jesus’ God, we may be seeing this happen in a small scale, foreshadowing way. We have to keep in mind that, if this is what Matthew is showing us, this is the same Matthew who repeatedly highlights Jesus being sent to Israel and keeping his ministry hidden from the Gentiles. We have to keep in mind this would be an exceptional episode, and because of its exceptionality, it draws our attention to what it says.
It’s also quite possible this is happening to a crowd of Jews, not Gentiles.
Bringing Mark’s gospel into play does not give us a clear cut indicator of what’s going on here in Matthew 15. Firstly, there’s been some recent scholarly disagreement as to whether or not Mark 7 is meant to indicate Jesus is passing through the midst of the Decapolis region, sticking close to the border, or is at least at the border by the time the events happen. I currently take the reading that Jesus is going through the middle of the region, but it’s possible that reading is wrong.
Secondly, Mark 7 tells us the route Jesus took on his way to the Sea of Galilee, but our passage begins with Jesus already traveling along the Sea. We don’t actually know where he is now with respect to the Decapolis. Mark’s “in those days” doesn’t really help us out, because that just means “around that time,” not that it happened on the same day.
So, by the time we get to our passage, we’re fairly disconnected from the background of Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7.
Regarding the healed people glorifying the God of Israel, well, Jews would glorify the God of Israel and would actually be more likely to do so than Gentiles. But there’s another reason why Matthew might think it was significant to point out that a crowd of restored Jews would glorify the God of Israel.
We need to keep in mind that the mission of Matthew’s Jesus is to the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is not ministering to devout, faithful Jews. He is reclaiming the lost ones. He is recovering an Israel that has largely abandoned her God because she considers herself abandoned by Him.
We have already seen a number of places where Jesus is shown in Matthew to be a new Moses (including the feeding of the 5000), and it’s noteworthy that Moses believes that Israel won’t know who their ancestral God is:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
Exodus 3:13-15 (NRSV)
Moses is on a mission from Israel’s God to deliver Israel from her oppressors, but Israel has forgotten her God and has to be reminded.
What we may be looking at, here, is not a foreshadowing of God’s plan for the Gentiles, but rather a dramatic deliverance and reclamation of the lost of Israel. Jesus said in the passage before this one that he was sent to the lost of Israel. Of course, in the passage before this one, he also heals a Gentile.
Finally, we also have to take into account that a large display of Jesus ministering to Gentiles would be rather discontinuous with everything we know about Jesus’ ministry up to this point. There’s no way he can keep this quiet (there are 4000 of them), so some dramatic display of healing to the Gentiles that everyone will talk about is pretty jarring, not just for Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry but all the Synoptics, really.
If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that the “shockingness” of this story is both an argument for a Gentile crowd and an argument for a Jewish crowd.
Well, welcome to the wild, wonderful world of historical reconstruction. When we do history, two truths have to be reckoned with:
- By definition, the things that are most likely to happen are what usually happen.
- When unlikely things happen, they’re worth noting.
Much disagreement among historians comes down to how this tension plays out.
On the one hand, it would be really irresponsible of a historian to accept all reports of highly unlikely events as historically accurate. I’m not just talking about dramatic miracles, here, but even events that seem unlikely given the time or the culture or the people involved because they’d be inconsistent with what we know. Generally speaking, responsible history work sticks with determining what was most probable.
On the other hand, we all know that improbable events are a… heh… normal part of reality. Think about your own life. Is everything that happens to you the most statistically probable thing? Is everything you do or say completely consistent with your general character or culture or situation in life? You probably don’t go an entire day without something discontinuous happening to you, and that’s just a day in the life of one person! And when those things happen, you make note of them, don’t you?
So, this is the problem. Jesus healing a huge audience of Gentiles in the midst of a mission very clearly defined as being to Israel with a self-conscious effort to keep Gentiles from finding out about it would be really out of sync with what we know about Jesus. On the one hand, that makes it unlikely the crowd was Gentile. On the other hand, it’s exactly the unlikeliness of it that would motivate Matthew to record it.
Personally, I’m inclined to think the crowds were Gentile. I think that explains why Matthew bothered to include this story and, when we get to the passage about feeding the four thousand, I think there’s some numerical symbolism that bears this out. I think there is a nice, narrative connection between Jesus insisting on a mission to Israel only, then a woman talking him into extending his healing to a Gentile, and then this act of mercy to Gentiles on his way back. I am inclined to think of this story as a shocking foreshadowing – much like the story of the Canaanite woman.
However, I’m very on the fence and could easily be persuaded the other way. This story serving as a reinforcement of Jesus’ mission to recover the lost sheep of Israel is more consistent with Matthew’s narrative and the second Moses imagery is also very consistent with Matthew. What we’d be seeing here is a powerful incarnation of God’s fulfillment of His promises to His people as they are healed, freed from spiritual profession, and the lost detritus of Israel begin to praise the name of their ancestral God once more, also fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.
And who knows? Maybe Matthew left out definitive, identifying information on purpose. Maybe we’re supposed to come away with both truths – the hope for the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel – found pictured here in the ministry of Jesus.
Because whether the crowd is Jewish or Gentile, one thing is clear: Jesus is restoring them. He is healing their sicknesses and diseases and will even feed them, and when they experience the good he is doing for them in their midst, they glorify the God of Israel.
- What does this story show us about Jesus’ concepts of salvation, deliverance, and redemption? What implications might that have for the work of the Church in the world?