There are a number of stories in this reading, and they appear not to be given to us in a haphazard way. There is a natural progression from one to the other:
(1) Jesus heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).
(2) He heals many and multitudes come to him (Matthew 15: 29-31).
(3) He not only heals them, he feeds 4,000 (Matthew 15:32-39).
(4) Having just given a miraculous sign, he warns the Pharisees and Saducees against sign seeking (Matthew 16:1-4);
(5) He tells the disciples to beware the leaven, the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12).
(6) He asks the disciples who he is and Peter testifies that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:13-20).
(7) However, when Jesus tells the disciples that he will be killed and resurrected, Peter denies that teaching and is rebuked (Matthew 16:21-23).
(8) Following that rebuke, Jesus teaches the disciples what it means to be a disciple (Matthew 16:24-28).
(9) Taking Peter, James, and John as witnesses, Jesus is transfigured, speaks with Moses and Elijah, and the Father testifies of him (Matthew 17:1-9).
(10) The disciples ask whether this vision of Elijah was a fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah will come before the judgment day (Matthew 17:10; cf. Malachi 3:1; 4:25), and Jesus answers that he has already come in the person of John the Baptist (Matthew 17:12), distinguishing between the prophet Elijah and the priesthood calling that has that same name. (The names Elijah and Elias are the same in Greek and—I think—Hebrew. We make that distinction by using the name Elijah for the prophet and Elias for the calling.)
In these stories, how do we see Jesus preparing for what is soon to come? How is he preparing the disciples? Do they understand what he is teaching or is he teaching them something that they will understand only later, on reflection? How often do we understand only on reflection? What does that suggest about how we should approach doctrine, revelation, and scripture?
What comes before the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and how is that related to that story? What do we see in the story of that healing that is similar to the second story, in which the multitudes follow Jesus to be healed? What is different? How is the story of feeding the multitude related to the two previous stories? What do the first three stories show us about Jesus? Does Alma 7:11-12 give any insight into these stories? What do they say to us?
What does the discussion with the Pharisees and Sadducees about sign-seeking have to do with the previous three stories? The Pharisees and Sadducees were not usually in agreement. The former believed in the necessity of the Oral Law (i.e., pharisaic interpretation of and tradition concerning the written Law) as well as the written Law; the latter believe that only the written Law was law. The former believed in the resurrection; the latter did not. The former believed that it was sinful to adopt Hellenic (Greco-Roman) culture; the latter did not and for some time had been advocates of it. The former believed that the temple priesthood was corrupt; since the latter were composed primarily of temple priests, they did not. Jesus warns against the teaching of both the Pharisees and Sadducees. Against what teaching is he warning the disciples? Think about how his warning is a response to what the Pharisees and Sadducees have demanded and how this story fits with the stories in the previous chapter.
How is the warning against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees connected to Jesus’ question about who the disciples think he is? Why do you think Jesus asks that question at this particular point in his ministry? Why does Jesus call Peter “Peter, son of Jonah” here? Why does he give Peter the name “rock” when Peter is going to need rebuke immediately afterward and when he knows how Peter will behave at Jesus’ trial? Against what will the gates of hell not prevail, the church or the Peter or . . . ? What does Peter’s denial of Jesus’ coming death suggest about his testimony? Why is his denial followed by the teaching about discipleship?
How do the previous eight stories lead up to the transfiguration? Why does Jesus take Peter, James, and John to the mount to witness his transfiguration? What does that experience have to do with Jesus’ teaching about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees and with Peter’s testimony? Why does Jesus tell the disciples not to speak of what they have seen until after the resurrection? How would it have been important to the early church after the resurrection? Why do we need to know of the transfiguration?
How does the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration lead to the question about Elias? Why do you think the disciples asked that question? How do you think they understood Jesus’ answer? How do we understand it today?
Additional notes and questions about some specifics
15:22: Matthew calls the Gentile woman who comes to Jesus a “Canaanite,” using an Old Testament term that doesn’t have a specific reference in New Testament times and occurs no place else in the New Testament. Why do you think Matthew uses that Old Testament name rather than a contemporary name. (Mark says that she is Greek-speaking and from Syro-Phoenicia. See Mark 7:24-30.)
What does the woman show by addressing Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David”?
15:28: Jesus speaks of the woman’s faith. Would she have spoken of herself as having faith? What does she do that he defines as faith? Does that tell us anything about the nature of faith?
15:35-38: Jesus has fed the crowd twice, here and at Matthew 14:13-21. What’s the point of these stories? Presumably Matthew includes them, not only because they happened—lots of things must have happened that he didn’t record—but because they are important to his message. How are they important to him? to us? Is there any connection between these feedings and the Last Supper?
16:11-12: The Pharisees and Sadducees are not a group. They agree on some things and disagree on others when it comes to their understanding of Judaism, but they are bitter political enemies. Why does Jesus warn again both, treating them as if they were one?
16:16: When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, is he speaking for himself, or is he speaking on behalf of the apostles as a group? How do you decide what the answer to that question is? The Word Christ means, in Greek, “Anointed.” In Hebrew, the word Messiah has the same meaning.
What is the significance of referring to God as “the living God”? What contrast does that phrase make and to whom does it implicitly refer?
Note: the Greek word translated living means “physically alive.” It can be used metaphorically, but many of the supposed metaphorical uses seem to me not to be so.
16:18-19: As the footnote in the LDS edition of the Bible indicates, Jesus gives Peter a name, Petros, that is the masculine form of the Greek word for rock, petra. The Aramaic word would have been Cephas (Kepha), a name that occurs several times in the New Testament. Since the Aramaic word almost always means round stone, rather than the more general rock, the play on words is most obvious in Greek and not so obvious in Aramaic (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, trans. James E. Crouch [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001] 359).
The word translated “church” was a general term meaning “assembly,” a place in which people met to judge cases, debate issues, and come to decisions. The word did not yet have the specific meaning that it has for us. Why do you think this word came to be the word for “church”? What are the keys of the kingdom?
If the gates of hell were not to prevail against the Church, how did the Great Apostasy occur?
In what does Peter’s authority consist (verse 19)? How does that compare and contrast with our usual explanation of priesthood: “the authority to act in the name of God”?
16:20: Why does Jesus tell the disciples to be silent about who he is?
16:23: Why does Jesus call Peter “Satan” and how do you think Peter probably responded? The word translated “offence” means “stumbling block.” In what way was Peter a stumbling block for Christ? Why does Jesus use the metaphor of tasting when he says to Peter, “thou savourest not the things that be of God”? Is that related to the teaching that Jesus is the bread of life?
16:24-26: To deny oneself, as the term is used in verse 24, seems not so much to be to give up one’s goods, but to give up one’s self. How do we do that? Why would we want to do it? Does “take up his cross” mean the same as “deny himself”? Why or why not? What do you think the disciples would have heard when Jesus spoke of that cross—remember, they do not yet really understand that Jesus is going to be crucified. What should the image of crucifixion mean to us when we think about Jesus’ demand that we follow him in being crucified? Why must we follow him in suffering if we wish to come to him?
When verse 25 teaches that we ought not to try to save our lives, what does it mean? What does it mean that we must lose our lives “for my sake”? In what sense do we find our lives if we lose them for Jesus’ sake?
17:2-5: How does this incident relate to Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai? Are we supposed to see a parallel between them?
Some older interpreters have suggested that Moses and Elijah have symbolic as well as literal significance: Moses can stand for the Law and Elijah for the Prophets, the second major part of Old Testament scripture. Understood that way, Jesus stands for the fulfillment of God’s revelation to human beings. (Few contemporary scholars accept this reading, but perhaps they are mistaken. What reasons might you give for and against it?)
Peter suggests that they build tabernacles–literally “huts”—perhaps reflecting the Feast of the Tabernacles, a commemoration of the Israelite stay at Mount Sinai. Why does he do so? He is prevented from doing so by the voice of the Father commending his Son. Essentially his suggestion is ignored. What might that interruption signify symbolically? How does what the Father says differ from what he said at Jesus’ baptism? How is that difference significant to Peter, James, and John?
Is there a connection between this mountain and its revelation and the revelation that occurs on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:1-18)?
17:11-14: What does it mean to say that John the Baptist is Elijah / Elias? Jesus is not preaching reincarnation, nor do we believe that he believed that John was Elijah returned from heaven in disguise. So what are we to make of what Jesus says here? Here’s another, more modern translation of verses 13-14: “All the prophets and the Law of Moses prophesied up until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come.” How would you explain that?
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