Jesus veers from his primary task in order to free a pagan Canaanite from demon possession (Matthew 15:21 – 15:28).
Jesus left Gennesaret, withdrew from the Pharisees, and travelled to Tyre and Sidon. A local Canaanite woman came to Jesus crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not say a word.
Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman persisted. She knelt before Jesus and cried out, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes, it is, Lord,” the woman said, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed at that exact moment.
What the story means to us today
The pagan woman’s faith changes Jesus’ mind
The key to this story lies in the second verse – “A Canaanite woman” came to Jesus. The Canaanites were pagans (the region of Tyre and Sidon were pagan areas) with no belief in God and were long-time enemies of Israel. Jesus was sent to help pagans. he was sent to correct Israel’s misconception of God’s divine message. This was his primary task at the time, and he remained focused on it.
Despite the woman’s pagan beliefs, and time for Jesus’ earthly mission quickly running out, the faith of the Canaanite woman moved Jesus so much that he granted her prayer and healed her daughter.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The Canaanite woman – an enemy of the Jews?
Mark tells us that the woman was Greek, but Matthew points out that she is a Canaanite. “Canaanite” would have been a term only applicable to the ancient enemies of Israel in the Old Testament. At the time of Matthew’s writing, they were no longer a distinct group of people. Why did Matthew categorize the woman as a Canaanite? Matthew’s writing targeted Jews and thus, he purposely points out the descendants of ancient enemies now coming to Jesus for help.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”
Matthew’s account of the event seems harsh to the uninitiated reader. When asked to help the pagan gentile, Jesus tells the disciples that he was sent to help the lost Israelites, not the gentiles. In fact, at first Jesus tried to ignore the woman but she persisted so much that the disciples begged Jesus to send her away.
The disciples do not seem to be surprised by Jesus’ reaction to the woman. This is because Jesus’ response is not as harsh as it seems. We can’t hear the intonation in Jesus’ voice nor see his body language. Possibly Jesus purposely forces the gentile to exhibit faith through her persistent request. But more likely, Jesus is focusing on the task at hand – to witness to the Jews. Jesus would have loved everyone, regardless of their faith or heritage. He frequently insisted the disciples do the same. It was simply not the time for gentiles to join the Christian movement.
However, we know from other verses that Jesus knew his ministry would ultimately spread to the gentiles. In Matthew 10:18, Jesus explains to the disciples that they will ultimately witness to governors, kings, and the gentiles. In Matthew 8:5, after the centurion was healed, Jesus noted that he had “not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” as the gentile centurion. Jesus went on to predict that “many will come from the east and the west and take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in heaven” and with reference to the Jews, that “the subjects of the kingdom would be thrown outside”. Jesus knew Jews would have a difficult time accepting his lessons and that gentiles would be much more acceptable of his message.
We must remember that at this moment in time, Jesus is on a frantic task to witness and reform God’s people, the Israelites, before authorities stopped his movement. The Jews’ misunderstanding of Old Testament tenets must first be corrected before the disciples move to the gentiles, a group to whom the message would be entirely new and more difficult to understand. The Israelites must fully comprehend the message, leaving no room for confusion or misinterpretation. As we now know, the strategy worked flawlessly, and Christianity ultimately spread throughout the entire world. In one sense, it could be said that Jesus ministered to the Jews FOR the gentiles.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”
When the Canaanite woman requests assistance, Jesus responds,
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Why was it not right to help the gentile woman?
The New Testament was not a literary work written all at once by the same author. Each author wrote his works directed at a specific audience. Matthew targeted Jewish readers and wrote with them in mind. Mark, who wrote to gentiles, expands on Matthew’s account with a softened version of Jesus’ statement by including, “First, let the children eat all they want.”
Jesus’ response was to explain to the woman, “It is not right to take Israelites bread and toss it to pagan unbelievers”. This woman, however, was a strong believer with much faith. She tells Jesus in essence, “even non-believers hang on to at least some of your words”. Her extraordinary faith, despite being a pagan gentile, caused Jesus to stop what he was doing and turn his attention to her, granting her request for intervention on her daughter’s behalf. This may have been a turning point in Christ’s ministry – the moment when the Christian movement changed to include both Israelites and gentiles.
Gentiles are “dogs”?
Jesus tells the woman, “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”. To modern readers, this appears to be an insult, possibly even prejudice, racism, or bigotry. However, as the entirety of the New Testament demonstrates, this would be out of character for Jesus. So why did Jesus imply healing the Canaanite woman would be equivalent to taking bread from children and giving it to the dogs?
Jesus’ response to the woman was a simple statement of fact. Jesus was sent to minister to the Jews and correct the foundation of the Old Testament religion. What Jesus meant was, it is not right for Jesus to fall off his task of delivering God’s message to the Jews to turn his attention to the gentiles.
In addition, the reference to “gentiles” as “dogs” must be taken in context of the time. “Dogs” was likely not derogative but meant to imply precedence – the children would naturally be fed first, before the dogs. In ancient Greek, “dog” was not overtly derogative but rather implied dependency, as seen with children.
The science and history behind the story
The woman and her daughter identified in the Clementine homilies
The Clementine homilies name the mother and daughter. The Clementine’s date from around 200 AD and contain writings about the Apostle Peter and circumstances under which Clement came to be Peter’s travelling companion. The names may be invented but if accurate, the Clementine’s say the mother’s name as Justa and her daughter Berenice.
Tyre and Sidon
Jesus “withdrew” to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Archaeologists have found much evidence from both locations. These cities were located on the Mediterranean coast (north of Gennesaret), about 30 and 50 miles from Galilee.
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 demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
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 the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
The NET Bible
15:21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 15:22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 15:23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 15:24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 15:25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 15:26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 15:27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
New King James Version
21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”
23 But He answered her not a word.
And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.
22 From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”
23 Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.”
24 Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.”
26 He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.”
27 She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.”
28 Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
King James Version
21 Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.
Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database