In the passage below, what is Jesus doing? What is the purpose of his engagement with the Canaanite woman?
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matt. 15: 21–28).
When the Canaanite woman asked Jesus for help, his disciples displayed an attitude of refusal. What is the basis for their exclusive attitude that not everyone has a right to benefit from Jesus’ healing power? “The Hebrew word Khenai‘ani [Canaanite] means also ‘trader’ or ‘merchant’ because in early times the Canaanites, especially the Phoenicians, were known in the world as traders.”1 Merchants were known for their ungodly ways and in Hosea 12:7 the term is used to represent an unholy person.2 So, just the fact that the woman was a Canaanite woman might have registered in the minds of the disciples that she was an ungodly woman on the basis of racial stereotype, and therefore should be shunned. Such an attitude reflects that the disciples were ranking themselves with a higher status than the woman, and on the basis of their “superior” position wanted to exclude her from sharing in the rights and privileges available to them.
Jesus is never happy with such a hierarchical attitude and attempts to correct it on the spot with the help of the Canaanite woman. Jesus does not judge his disciples without first obtaining evidence. Initially, Jesus is purposefully silent to the woman’s request. He steps back and allows himself to hear how his disciples will handle the situation. After the disciples’ condescending remark to send her away and not be bothered with her, Jesus speaks as if to overtly share the disciples’ rationale for wanting to turn her away, which receives no objection from his disciples. In top-down systems, the chief executive just gives the command for someone to do something, and such a person is not obligated to share the reason for giving the order.
The disciples just want to turn her away without explanation, but Jesus offers the unsaid reason behind the disciples’ desire to dismiss her. Although Jesus articulates to the woman that the Messiah is only for the Jewish people, he does not really agree with his disciples’ view; rather, he is playing devil’s advocate in favor of the anti-Gentile prejudice expressed by his disciples so that through the intellectual argument of this woman he could teach his disciples that the Gentiles are legitimate beneficiaries, along with the Jews, in the promises of God to Abraham.
Jesus prods the woman to say the correction that needs to be said to the disciples’ thinking without placing her in a direct confrontation with her detractors. Jesus knew that in some cases it would be too radical to tell his own disciples certain things directly, especially early on in his ministry. So Jesus allows them to hear rather than be told the crushing message that the Jews are not above the Gentiles, but his kingdom is to contain them both.
This hearing required the help of someone else to create the dialogue. And while this other person could have been male or female, God chose a female because women in that day were well acquainted with exclusion, especially to basic physical rights, such as education. This woman did not despise Jesus because of his nationality. She did not exalt herself against Jesus or his Jewishness. She respectfully calls him, “Son of David.” Jesus’ statement to her was an alteration to his earlier instruction to his disciples in Matt. 10:5-6 to not go into any cities of the Gentiles or Samaritans; this instruction was intended only for the initial phase of the introduction of Christianity into the world. Later, in the Great Commission, Jesus commands his disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. Yet Jesus does not tell the woman that the Messiah was for the Jews first, but for the Jews only. In Matt. 10:6 Jesus does not specify to his disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel only or first, yet the disciples had come to assume that he meant only. The disciples’ exclusionary attitude lies in their tendency to forget Jesus’ deity and obsess themselves with his Jewish lineage from David. The disciples were baffled at Jesus’ death; they were not anticipating his resurrection because their focus was on the Jewishness of Jesus to restore a physical kingdom to Israel. But the woman’s address to Jesus as “Lord, Son of David,” reflects that she was holding in balance both his deity and his physical human traits.
Considering Christ’s deity, she reasoned in her time that even a purely human physical master allows dogs to eat the crumbs that fall from his table. How much more, then, will a divine Messiah share the bread he first gave to the Jews? All analogies are imperfect and she is not acknowledging that just as dogs are lower than humans, so Canaanites are less than Jews. Despite probably possessing no formal education, this woman’s observation and understanding of Jesus’ teaching, and her knowledge of the Old Testament, led her to respond to Jesus with a Jewish type of argument, known as the “light-heavy” (or Kal VeChomer in Jewish terms), that Jesus himself used on other occasions. The light-heavy argument establishes that what is true in a lesser case is even more true in a greater case. Jesus said if human fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, then how much more the heavenly Father is able to give good gifts his children. In the same way, the Canaanite Woman makes a lesser to greater argument by establishing that a certain truth for animals is even greater for humans—if even dogs share in crumbs from their master’s table, how much more shall she as a human share in the bread of her Master, Jesus. She observed that in some arenas in the physical realm a phenomena of overflow exists to some degree, so how much more true in the spiritual realm!
She recognized that because the kingdom of God has an overflowing structure, recipients who first receive its blessing cannot claim any right to halt its flow from continuing on to those around them—only the master can decide that. The fact that Jews were born into the kingdom of God before Gentiles means nothing; such ‘birth order’ carries with it no special rights over the Gentiles. God has made the two one (Eph 2:15). Part of the equality of Gal. 3:28 that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female comes from the fact that while in the physical realm, people with a patriarchy mindset have made a big deal of various forms of hierarchy, in the spiritual kingdom of God there is no birth order of any kind that creates levels or tiers, but only overflow.
The dogs in the woman’s example were on par with the children in terms of their privilege to share in the same food. Only the master was over both of them. Jesus does not debate the woman’s understanding of the structure of his kingdom. On the contrary, he affirms her faith for she proclaims her right as a Gentile to share in the blessings of her daughter’s healing from her Master on the basis of the joint or paired Jew-Gentile structure in his kingdom before it had yet come into existence! Her teaching agrees with Jesus’ later words, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” Jesus himself is the only head, with no humans ruling over other humans for they are all equal, being related by the same means of kinship. May we as Christians adopt Christ’s structure for church and the home that Jesus allowed this woman to teach to his disciples.
1. David Baron. The Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1972), 532.
2. Charles Feinberg. Zechariah: Israel’s Comfort and Glory (New York: American Board of Missions To the Jews, Inc., 1952), 148.