“Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 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." 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." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour,” [Matthew 15:21-28]
When we read the story of how Jesus healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, we are immediately struck with how politically incorrect Jesus seems to be. At the time, women were certainly treated like second-rate citizens. To make things more complicated, she was a “Canaanite,” meaning that she was a gentile, a non-Israelite. She was desperate, and knowing the Jews’ disdain for gentiles, her desperation drove her to Jesus. Her need and her faith in Jesus’ ability to heal her daughter was far greater than her pride. Jesus’ disciples certainly didn’t see her need. They were not feeling compassionate nor could they see her desperation. She was an embarrassment, and they were probably a little irritated that Jesus had said nothing to address the situation: ‘Jesus, get rid of this pest!’
Jesus then makes an unusual move. As if to confirm what the disciples were feeling, Jesus tells the woman that He’s not here to help her. Imagine the disciples nodding in approval: “That’s right! She’s a Canaanite! Send her away, Jesus!” Why would Jesus make such a claim: That He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel? After all, He had spoken to and even healed non-Israelites on other occasions. But Jesus, as always, takes this opportunity to teach His disciples, and all of us, something very vital.
Jesus’ mission was to the Israelites first. He came to Israel primarily because God intended for Israel to tell the whole world about salvation in Jesus Christ. And He still has this intention. But Jesus was softening the hearts of those in Israel who would listen that they might understand that salvation is meant for the whole world. And yet, Jesus seems to be very harsh to this woman, first by telling her that He was sent only to the Israelites. The woman then threw herself down at Jesus’ feet, kneeling before Him –an act of submission. She admitted willingly that He was greater and she was lesser. In her desperation, she pleads for her daughter. She has seen what evil can do, and now, she appeals to the only Good she can see. Her heart cries out, “Lord, help me.” She has subjected herself to humility and persistently asks and asks and asks again, not letting go of the hope that this man can help her daughter. At this moment when her desperation is obvious, Jesus makes a startling remark: He seems to call her a “dog.” To call someone a “dog” in that part of the world, even to this day, is a very insulting comment. Jesus is implying heavily the idea of master and slave: God is the Master, the faithful Israelites are the children of the Master, and the dogs… the dogs are those who are even more subservient. Jesus does soften the word that He uses for “dog.” The word He uses means “little dog,” which can be interpreted to mean a small dog or a puppy. Now imaging the disciples thinking, “Jesus, where are you going with this?” In regard to the master-slave relationship, it certainly invokes the prophetic history that Noah revealed to future generations in Genesis 9:25: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” In Jesus’ time, those people who remained of the original seven tribes of the Canaanites, that Israel had been commanded to destroy or drive out of the land, had mostly settled in the region known as the Decapolis (the Ten Cities). But one son of Canaan, Sidon, settled in an area outside of the promised land. This region came to be known as Phoenicia and this woman was apparently a descendent of Canaan through Sidon. As a descendant of Canaan, she fell under the prophetic utterance that Noah spoke some 2300 years earlier –that all of Canaan’s descendants would be slaves of Israel. The reasoning for this prophecy is found in the story of Genesis 9. The descendants of Ham, specifically through the line of his son, Canaan, would become some of the most wicked people on earth. And if you recall the story of the Northern Tribes of Israel in the days of King Ahab (1 Kings 16ff) you learn that he married a Sidonian princess named Jezebel, one of the most spiritually wicked people mentioned in all of history; it was through her reign that Israel was introduced to a radical and very perverse form of Baal worship. This is some of the history of the region where Jesus had now brought His disciples, but Jesus often seemed to take His disciples on “retreats” to regions where most Jews would never dare to venture. So what did Jesus mean when He said that it wasn’t right to take the children’s bread and give it to their dogs?
First, Jesus is making a general but valid point: Canaanites have generally been far from God, but Jesus uses a term that would sound more like “beloved pet” than mangy cur. He seems to be saying, “The blessings and the inheritance of God are intended for God’s children, those who please Him –not to those who have been subjugated to the children because of their wickedness. Notice that the woman doesn’t become offended. She doesn’t deny that her people have classically been spiritually evil rather than part of the Covenant of Israel. She takes ownership of that fact by not denying it. But we also need to remember that even among the Canaanites there were those who believed the Word of God and were saved by faith, and grafted into the blessings and family of Israel. In fact, the lineage of Jesus contains a very significant Canaanite woman from the city of Jericho who turned from paganism and prostitution and was saved by faith and the grace of God. While Jesus’ disciple would have shooed the Canaanite woman away, Jesus seized this opportunity to make a powerful point: Even the Canaanites can be blessed through Israel and by God’s grace. And this is exactly the point she made by saying that even the “dogs” can benefit from the “crumbs” that fall from the Master’s table. Indeed. Again, notice that she didn’t take offense. Had she been offended, she would have missed out on the blessing. And she quickly came to a conclusion that many struggle with: We are not as great or strong as we think we are. She didn’t care if she needed to fall at Jesus’ feet in reverent submission. She didn’t care if she had been labeled a “slave” to the house of Israel. She didn’t think herself superior enough to walk away when Jesus used such derogatory language. She made the point that Jesus wanted His own disciples to hear: When there is a need for faith, when there is a need far greater than ourselves, pride cannot dictate our actions. These are the kind of people Jesus is truly looking for. He needs people whose faith is greater than their capacity to be offended. How greatly the world needs a witness that grasps deeply God’s greatness in reverent humility. This is bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. How we desperately need a Savior to remind us of the state in which we are trapped without Him! But this humble woman from Canaan sets a great example for all of us: She didn’t need to be reminded. She had already made up her own mind and had prepared her heart to acknowledge that Jesus was greater and she is not. And she knew that Jesus could help her. And Jesus commended her for her great faith and healed her daughter that very moment. Imagine the power that God’s people have access to when we focus on Jesus’ greatness rather than our own.
Love in Jesus,