August 16th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus had been going around teaching and preaching, healing the sick, and performing miracles. As a traveling rabbi, Jesus had disciples and crowds of people who followed him wherever he went, listening to every word that he had to say.
But here, in Matthew chapter 15, Jesus has an encounter with a Canaanite woman that seems to influence the trajectory of the rest of his earthly ministry. Up until this point, Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing mostly in Jewish areas, to people who would have been at least familiar with the law of Moses, and who would have practiced the Jewish faith and religion.
But after Jesus’s interaction with this Canaanite woman, Jesus’s ministry seems to broaden and expand well beyond the borders of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).
That being said, I personally believe this is one of the most difficult and challenging passages in all of Scripture to understand and to wrap our minds around, because Jesus’s statements to this woman seem rather cruel and heartless — so unlike the kind and loving Jesus who welcomed children and was compassionate to the outcasts that we see throughout the Gospel accounts. We wonder, why does Jesus treat this woman so harshly? What was going on in this story?
The Woman’s Request
We’re going to zoom in and take a look at this story bit by bit. Then we’ll zoom out a little bit, and take a look at the broader cultural context that was going on around them. And then we’ll try to piece it together, and see what we can take away from this story.
Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples were in the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was Gentile territory, and as Jewish men they would have stuck out like sore thumbs. It would have been obvious to everyone that Jesus and his disciples were not from that region.
“Just then, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon’” (Matt. 15:22). At first, Jesus doesn’t answer her. Eventually his disciples come to him and urge him to send her away. Jesus seems to agree with them, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15: 24).
But then the woman comes to him, kneels before him, and says “‘Lord, help me’” (Matt. 15:25). The woman takes on a humble posture, kneeling before him, begging him to help her. She addresses him as “Lord” and “Son of David” — both terms that were respectful of him and appropriate for his position of authority as a teacher and rabbi.
But Jesus answers her, saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26). This is the statement, of course, that seems so unnecessarily cruel and heartless. Why would Jesus use an analogy of a dog? Was he referring to her as a dog? How is this in any way the kind and loving Jesus that we see throughout the Gospel narratives?
Loving Does Not Always = Nice
Well, if truth be told, although Jesus was always loving, he was not always “nice.” Earlier in Matthew 15, Jesus had called the Pharisees and scribes — the religious leaders of the day — “hypocrites” — right to their faces! (Matt. 15:7). Later, in Matthew chapter 21, we’ll see Jesus turning over the tables of the money changes and those who were selling animal sacrifices in the temple. None of these are particularly “nice” things to say or do!
Although Jesus was motivated by love in everything that he said and did, the way he expressed it was often in a “tough love” sort of way. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth especially to those in power — particularly those who hurt or oppressed those under their authority, particularly religious leaders such as the scribes and Pharisees who placed undue burdens on the people. The Pharisees and scribes were people who, according to Jesus, honored God with their lips, but whose hearts were very far from God (see Matt. 15:8).
Calling the Pharisees “hypocrites” and turning over the tables of moneychangers who were blocking the way for people to pray and cheating them out of their hard-earned money was one thing. But we wonder: why does Jesus treat this woman so harshly, a woman who was desperately asking him to help her daughter, and who approached Jesus with humility and respect?
The Rest of the Story
Now there are a lot of theories about what was going on in this story. The truth is that we may never completely know why Jesus said what he said, or exactly how he said it.
But there are several pieces of cultural background and context that might help us understand a bit more about what might have been taking place in their interaction.
- First, we need to remember that, although Jesus was a man (and therefore held a certain level of power in Jewish society), as a Jewish man he was a member of an oppressed minority group, living under Roman occupation. We also know that Jesus was born to working-class parents who, by nature of their poverty, had to offer a pair of turtle doves or pigeons when they presented him in the temple as a baby. The offering of turtle doves or pigeons was a concession in the law for those who were too poor to afford a sheep (see Luke 2:24). We also know that Jesus’s father Joseph was a “tekton,” and although this Greek word is typically translated “carpenter,” it is really a more generic word for a “laborer.” Joseph was not necessarily the master craftsman that we often imagine, but perhaps more of a day laborer. And if that weren’t enough, Jesus grew up in the region of Galilee, an area of Palestine that was seen as “bucolic and backwater” by the Jews living in the more prestigious and powerful areas of Judea. And to top it all off, Jesus’s hometown was Nazareth, a tiny and insignificant town that was scoffed at even by other residents of Galilee (see John 1:46).
- This woman, on the other hand, hailed from the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were wealthy port cities along the coast of the Mediteranean that had long been renowned for their production of the coveted and very expensive purple dye. The Gospel of Mark says that this woman was of Syrophoenician origin (see Mark 7:26), which means she was quite possibly a member of the Greek ruling class who had exploited the labors of the Jewish settlers in the surrounding countryside. As one biblical scholar puts it, “the woman belongs to a group that in a sense has been taking other children’s bread” (Keener, IVP N.T. Bible Background Commentary, 146).
And so in some ways, we could see Jesus’s statement here as another example of “speaking truth to someone in power.” Or perhaps Jesus was putting into words the cultural or ethnic tension that would have existed between their particular people groups, and calling out some of the commonly-held presuppositions that their peoples held about one another.
There’s one other interesting piece of cultural background that may or may not be helpful here, but may perhaps shed some light on their conversation as it relates to Jesus’s analogy of “dogs.” We know that the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’s day did not view dogs as household pets. “In Jewish Palestine, dogs were regarded as scavengers, but in well-to-do households influenced by Greek custom” (such as the household that this woman would have been from), dogs were often seen as pets (Keener, 146).
Jesus says that it wouldn’t be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But this woman takes the analogy and turns it around on Jesus, arguing that even dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table — perhaps pointing out that in her culture, dogs were actually treated quite well.
Putting all of this together then, we see Jesus, the son of a poor, hard-working laborer, who grew up in a backwater town in a despised area of Palestine, approached by a potentially wealthy and powerful woman who was a member of an elite class of people that had continually marginalized and oppressed Jesus’s own people, asking him to heal her daughter.
Rather than immediately giving her what she asked for and sending her on her way (despite her humble posture and desperate plea), Jesus articulates his sense of calling and mission to seek after and search for the lost sheep of the household of Israel. At the same time, he also puts into words the tensions that existed between her people and his.
In response to Jesus’s analogy, the woman argues that even she, as a Canaanite Gentile woman, was deserving of at least a little bit of Jesus’s love and compassion. She makes the case that Jesus was so powerful that even just a little bit of Jesus’s power could heal her daughter, and at the same time eloquently and concisely makes the case that ministering to those outside of the household of Israel would not in any way depreciate Jesus’s ministry and vocation to the Jews.
In responding in this way, the woman does not deny the tension that existed between their people groups. But nor does she give up. She persists. She even takes up Jesus’s analogy, turns it around, and uses it in boldness and humility to argue her case.
What amazing faith, humility and courage on the part of this woman! Jesus sees it, proclaims, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt. 15:28a). And Matthew tells us that “her daughter was healed instantly (Matt. 15:b).
To All The Lost Sheep
After this, we see what appears to be a broadening in Jesus’s ministry. He seems to be more intentional about reaching out to the Gentiles. In the following passage Jesus feeds 4,000 people, and there were seven baskets of food left over. In the Gospel of Mark we learn this miracle takes place in the Decapolis, a region of 10 Greek Gentile cities. Many commentators believe that the 7 baskets of food (as opposed to the 12 baskets full left over after he fed 5,000 people) symbolizes Jesus’s ministry to the Gentiles.
And even though Jesus had told his disciples here in Matthew 15 that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Matt. 15:24), at the end of the book of Matthew we see Jesus sending out his disciples to go “and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
I for one am grateful for the example of this bold and courageous woman, who was willing to push back, who approached Jesus with boldness and humility. She persisted and didn’t give up. Her faith and humility and courage should be an example to us all.
We may never know why Jesus said exactly what he said. But I think in Jesus we can find a model of what it looks like to acknowledge the real tensions that exist between various groups of people in our society, but also to recognize faith even in the people we least suspect.
So often we try to determine who we think will be open or receptive to hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ, but in doing so we may close ourselves off to the possibility that those who are very different than us might have great faith. But when we step out, when we proclaim the Good News even to those who we think might look down on us or despise us, so often God surprises us.
And so let us follow Jesus wherever he may lead us. Let’s allow ourselves to be challenged to move beyond our communities, beyond the groups of people we may feel comfortable serving. And let us be generous in sharing God’s blessings and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ freely to any and all who will listen!
And like the Canaanite woman, may we persist in great faith, and in humility and courage in bringing our prayers and requests before the Lord.