Understanding the Difficult Story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
As our society becomes increasingly sensitive to the language of exclusion, many Christians want to emphasize how open and inclusive the Bible is—especially on topics of race. And so, we should! The Bible is very clear on this point, beginning with Genesis, where all of humanity is created as image bearers of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and ending in Revelation, where people from all nations stream into the renewed Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24-26, cf. Isaiah 2:2-3).
But then we come to the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, which we find in Matthew’s gospel, and it seems to speak in the opposite direction:
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed in that hour.
What in the world do we do with this? Why does our Lord ignore this woman’s cries for help for her innocent daughter, tell His disciples that He won’t help anyone who’s not Jewish, and then call her a dog to her face?
Most of the Gentile readings of this passage through the ages have tried in one way or another to simply explain Jesus’ words away.
Because of the difficulty, most of the Gentile readings of this passage through the ages have tried in one way or another to simply explain Jesus’ words away—and many Christians today just try to ignore this passage altogether. When they do address it, they often try to find ways to say that Jesus didn’t mean what He said.
But I think we need to listen and take Jesus at His word here. Matthew is a very careful author, and he gives us no reason to think that Jesus does not mean what He says. The question for us is: Do we understand what He means? I think we will find that this story makes a lot more sense when we read it in light of the historical setting and the story of Israel found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
So, let’s take a few minutes to dig into the biblical history. And then, I think we’ll see that this passage carries a very challenging message for people in any time.
Biblical Historical Background
Throughout his gospel, Matthew tells the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel. And in this story, Matthew gives us a lot of clues to connect those dots. Just look at how he introduces this foreign woman to us. He says she’s a Canaanite from Tyre and Sidon who comes calling out to the Son of David. That would ring a lot of bells for Matthew’s first-century Jewish audience.
The Canaanites weren’t even a distinct people group in the days of Jesus.
For one, the Canaanites weren’t even a distinct people group in the days of Jesus as they had been in the past (note that Mark 7:26 identifies her more precisely as a Syrophoenician). Calling her a Canaanite is like calling a modern Irish person “Celtic.” Matthew uses the term “Canaanite” to draw our minds back to the long history of Israel’s problematic relationship with the Canaanites.
The Canaanites were ancient enemies of Israel. And the Canaanites who lived in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon were often especially troublesome. On one hand, they were a constant military threat that occasionally oppressed Israel. But more importantly, they had a seductive influence on God’s people that caused Israel, time and time again, to turn away from their creator God and worship idols.
It might be hard for us as modern people to understand the attraction of idols, but before scoffing at the naivete of ancient peoples, we should consider that ancient idolatry has a lot more in common with our modern culture’s relationship to things like money, success, beauty, and security than we might like to think. Our modern idols of materialism have their own shrines and cult images.
In ancient times, idolatry promised prosperity and certainty in an uncertain world. Unlike the creator God of Israel, who worked in His own time and according to His own wisdom, idols were supposed to represent gods that you could influence through ritual. And that was a powerfully attractive idea to ancient peoples living in a land prone to drought and famine.
And so, the Scriptures tell of how ancient Israel, the one nation who knew the true creator God personally, kept turning back to dead idols with a kind of national addiction—even when the practices and ethos of idolatry precipitated the spread of social injustice and led eventually the destruction of the nation (Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 1 Kings 8:22-53).
The turn to idolatry was often initiated by Israel’s kings (the sons of David) when they entered into the wrong kinds of relationships with people from other nations. Think of King Solomon, who was drawn into compromising his and Israel’s loyalty to God by his marriage to foreign princesses—many of them Canaanites. That compromise ultimately led to a civil war that split the nation (1 Kings 11:11-13).
We might also think of the famously bad King Ahab, who married a princess of Sidon, the notorious Queen Jezebel. Encouraged and aided by Jezebel, Ahab increased worship of foreign gods in Israel, persecuted the prophets of Israel’s God, and spread injustice throughout the land (1 Kings 21:25-26). The trajectory that Ahab set for the nation led directly to the Babylonian exile and is no small part of the backstory of the bad state of affairs for Israel under Roman occupation in Jesus’ own day.
Matthew gives us a historically loaded description of this woman.
So, we can see that Matthew gives us a historically loaded description of this woman. His first readers would have been on the edge of their seats wondering, how is the Messiah going to deal with this?
Reexamining the Passage
With all that backstory in mind, it is not so surprising that when the ancient enemy of Israel comes crying to the Messiah for help, He answers her not a word. As the son of David and as the anointed leader of God’s people, He is rightly cautious in His interaction with her. Considering the history, we might even be inclined to join with the disciples in encouraging Jesus to send the woman away.
But note that Jesus refuses to do that. He is not quick to make a covenant with her, but He does not reject her either.
Even so, Jesus’ next statement is difficult. He tells His disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That statement is a stumbling block for modern readers because it sounds like Jesus is saying, “I can’t help you because you’re the wrong race.” But a close reading of Matthew’s gospel and the Scripture’s story of Israel quickly contradicts that idea.
For one, Matthew goes out of his way in his genealogy of Jesus to tell us that some of Jesus’ own ancestors were Canaanite women (Matthew 1:3-7). And throughout the Scriptures, God explicitly tells the Israelites that His favor rests upon them, not because of their superiority to other peoples, but because of His grace (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).
That’s the Messianic priority chart: accomplish redemption in Israel, then send disciples to tell the world.
Israel is called to be holy people of grace who welcome foreigners—a city on a hill, which encourages outsiders to follow God (Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 10:17-19). That’s why Jesus says that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He has been sent to set things right in His role as Israel’s anointed king. It is then after His resurrection that He gives the great commission for His disciples to go out to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). That’s the Messianic priority chart: accomplish redemption in Israel, then send disciples to tell the world.
But the Canaanite woman is not deterred by this priority. Again, she approaches Jesus, kneeling and saying over and over, “Lord have mercy.”
Jesus’ response at this point is the hardest part of this passage for us to understand. He says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! What can that mean? It seems unnecessarily rude and hurtful. But a closer look at the text shows us that Jesus’ intention is not to wound.
Similar to His use of the term “lost sheep”—which is also not a flattering metaphor—Jesus uses an evocative image to make His point. It is not a flattering image, but He’s not merely name calling.
If He had wanted to do that, He would have used the normal Greek word for “dogs,” which the Pharisees often used pejoratively for non-Israelites, and which implies “street mongrel.”
Instead, Jesus uses a word that means a “cared-for pet,” and He uses it to create a metaphor drawn from daily life. Both children and pets live in the house and are part of the family—both are objects of love and care—but one rightly has priority of parental concern.
In effect, He is saying (in an obviously provocative manner) that it is not right to take the blessings that have been promised to God’s people and give them to the people who for centuries have rejected God and encouraged God’s people to do the same.
That grates against our modern sensibilities. We like to see people as autonomous actors, navigating and understanding the world by the virtue of their own free will and intellect. But the Bible is just a lot more realistic than that. We are all very much a product of our culture, and it often takes a miraculous work by the Holy Spirit to ever get us to divest ourselves of our inherited prejudices and idolatries.
This Canaanite woman seems to understand that. She is not affronted. She does not walk away. Instead, she takes the blunt and difficult truth of Jesus’ words and accepts them. “Yes, Lord,” she says. Her “yes” is a kind of admission, as if to say, “Yes Lord, I know that I come from peoples who worship other gods and do practices that the Israelites say are immoral and unjust. And in my life, I’ve taken part of all of that.”
But her “yes” is also a contradiction to what Jesus has said. “Yes, Lord,” it is right to share with me because “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their lords’ table.” She says, “I am not asking for the children’s bread; only give me what they leave over and that will be enough for me. ”
Jesus is amazed by this statement. He emphatically praises her faith and grants her request. The reason He’s surprised is that He has so rarely seen faith like this—either from the religious leaders of Israel or even His own disciples.
The faith of the Pharisees and other religious leaders He has encountered is often based on performance. They say, “If we can just get all the people of Israel to be holy enough, then God will have to bless us.” And when Jesus comes healing on the Sabbath, they don’t recognize who He is. The faith of Jesus’ own disciples is not much better. It is often marked by a desire to be impressive. James and John want to sit on Jesus’ right and left in glory, and Jesus says, “You just don’t get it, ” (Matthew 20:20-28). Peter sees Jesus walking on water and says, “I can do that too! ” And as modern readers, we’re amazed that Peter is actually able to do it, though when his eyes leave his Savior, he falters and sinks. And Jesus says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:25-31). The faith that Jesus does not praise is faith that thinks it can win God over with performance—that’s just another form of the faith of idolatry, trying to use works to oblige God to do what you want.
The disciples and the Pharisees were always trying to impress God with their performance in order to court God’s favor, because deep down they weren’t really sure that God had enough blessings to go around.
The faith of the Canaanite woman is only remarkable in its humility and in her persistent focus on Jesus as her only possible source of help.
The faith that the Canaanite woman offers Jesus is nothing like this. Hers is a faith that is only remarkable in its humility and in her persistent focus on Jesus as her only possible source of help. And hers is the only faith that Jesus calls “great” in the gospel of Matthew.
By faith, the Canaanite woman is able to see that even in the crumbs falling from Israel’s table, there are enough blessings for the whole world. Where others see scarcity, she sees grace.
A Final Question
But that still leaves us with a question, how can the Messiah accept and heal a representative of Israel’s ancient enemy? Why did her faith make the difference?
I think the answer can be seen when we take a closer look at Matthew’s description of the miracle Jesus performs to heal the woman’s daughter. Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed “from that hour.” The word “hour” there is significant. Matthew uses that word throughout his gospel as a key thematic word that only ever refers to one of two things: the hour of healing (Matthew 8:13; 9:22; 14:15; 15:28; 17:18; 20:12) and the hour of judgment for sin (Matthew 24:36, 44; 25:13; 26:40, 45, 55). And at the end of the gospel, it is revealed that these two hours are actually one and the same. They become one in the death of Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:45-46). The hour in which healing and acceptance by God come to the world is the hour in which the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners and gives His life as a ransom for many. Matthew thus shows us how even the most notorious enemies of God —even people like me—will be able to share in God’s blessings by faith in the Messiah who died for the sins of the world and rose again.
In my mind, the mentality that gives birth to racism, whether overt or systemic, is the mentality of scarcity. We fear that there are not enough resources to go around—not enough wealth, not enough status badges, not enough comfort, not enough security. So, we hoard and look for excuses not to share with others. We paint others as undeserving villains and ourselves as deserving do-gooders. We tear others down to build ourselves up and push others to the side so that we can control the center.
That mentality is the fruit of the idolatry of materialism—ancient or modern. But the fruit of true faith in Messiah—which the Canaanite woman strikingly displays—is filled with complete confidence in the providence of God and the humility to take a seat anywhere in God’s house. Even under the table.