This passage about the Canaanite woman and the way Jesus seems to treat her has been the source of many a discussion. Some are even offended at Jesus over this. Others try to smooth over what Jesus said and try to make it easier to understand. Why did Jesus seem to be so dismissive of a Gentile woman. Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
When we look at this passage in its context in Matthew, we should note that it immediately follows a confrontation Jesus had had with the Pharisees. The disciples had reported to Jesus that the Pharisees had taken great offense to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus had responded by saying that they were the blind leading other blind men into the ditch. He also said that the Pharisees were not His people but a weed in the garden which was to be plucked up. He then went on to explain to the disciples the parable which had offended the Pharisees that ritual defilement came from the inside and not the outside.
Immediately after the confrontation with the Pharisees, he departed for Sidon. Sidon was quite a distance in Gentile country. Did Jesus and his disciples resort there to escape from the Pharisees? This would at first seem like a good question to ask, except we read in the Gospels that Jesus was totally in control of the situation. But like Elijah who departed to Israel after offending King Ahab, Jesus too resorts to the city of Sidon in Lebanon. The account in the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus entered a house there. An interesting question is whether this was a Gentile house like the house of the widow who took care of Elijah in 1 Kings 17. If Jesus entered into a Gentile house, then it would be a slap in the face to the Pharisees interpretation of clean and unclean.
Matthew does not mention the house, but it is interesting to note that he uses the word “Canaanite” to describe the woman. This is the only time in the New Testament where “Canaanite” appears. This should provide us a clear link to the history of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, we learn of a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab in Joshua 2. She was to be exterminated with the rest of her nation. As a prostitute, she was the unclean of the unclean. But she demonstrated her faith in Yahweh by sheltering the spies and was heard when she pled for mercy. Her faith saved her, and she was added to the people of Israelite. And Matthew’s genealogy at the beginning of the gospel mentions her by name in the genealogy of Jesus.
The link to Elijah has also been mentioned. Jesus in his home synagogue greatly offended his former Jewish neighbors there as well by mentioning the Gentile widow who cared for Elijah at Zarapath in the region of Sidon as well as the Shumanite woman who cared for Elisha. So there was precedent in the Old Testament for that which Jesus was about to do,
Jesus was traveling with his disciples on the road when a woman came up from behind them pleading for Jesus to have mercy. She calls Him the Son of David. Even in this remote region, the fame of Jesus had spread. This cursed Canaanite woman believed that Jesus could help her daughter who was being tormented by an aggressively evil demon. The text says that she repeated this request to the point of annoyance. The disciples wanted shed of her and asked Jesus to dismiss her. They essentially took the position of the unjust judge who rendered a favorable verdict to a persistent woman. This of course is not a proper attitude to have. The disciples did not care for the woman. If it took healing to get rid of her crying, sobeit. If He didn’t heal her, that was fine also.
It is interesting that Jesus answers, but that the text does not say whom he addressed the answer to. It is probable that He was answering the disciples at this point. But I have the idea that He deliberately said this to be overheard by the woman as well. The usual translation of this answer is something like “I have not been sent except to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” At first, this sounds incredibly harsh and exclusive of her. However, this could also be in the form of a question “Was I indeed sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?” The question to be asked at this point is “Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Certainly it was not the Pharisees. They were lost, but Jesus dismisses them as not being of His Father’s planting. In other words, they were not his sheep at all. They were excluded from the ministry and compassion of Jesus.
Was Jesus referring to the lost sheep of Jewish racial and cultural extraction? The answer to this is yes. Matthew, the Jewish tax collector and author of the gospel stands out as an example. But what about Gentiles. Were they to be included among the lost sheep of the house of Israel? The development of the Gospel of Matthew clearly affirms this. We have already noted Rahab in the genealogy of Jesus. Also included in the genealogy are three other women, Tamar, a Canaanite woman who played the prostitute, Ruth, a Moabitess, whose race was to be forever excluded from the rolls of the Israelites, and Bathshebe, the wife of a Hittite who committed adultery with King David, the same King David who is mentioned in the text that was an ancestor of Jesus. They were all included in the most important genealogy of all Israel. Surely this proves the exception.
We can also see in Matthew that Gentile Magi came to Bethlehem and worshiped the baby Jesus. Magi, according to the Law of Moses were unclean and to be stoned. Jesus was taken by joseph and Mary into Egypt for protection. Matthew mentions a text from Isaiah 9 of Jesus coming from a mixed racial area of Galilee of the Gentiles. Crowds from both Jewish and Gentile areas followed Jesus in Matthew 4 and gathered when Jesus went up to preach the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus healed the Gadarene demoniacs who were in the unclean tombs in a Gentile area. He also fed 4000 in a Gentile area. In chapter 16, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ happened at Caesarea Philippi which was a heavy Gentile area. And the Great Commission was given to make disciples among the Gentiles.
It should be abundantly clear by this point that Jesus’ definition of the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” was different than the ethnic identification that the Pharisees had. Matthew is not an ethnically Jewish gospel at all. The church is the “house of Israel. Matthew mentions baptism as the means of entry into the house of Israel and not circumcision. Even the circumcision of Jesus is not reported on. The house of Israel was to consist of believers from all nations on earth.
The woman at this point shows that she too is a member of the house of Israel by bowing down in worship at the feet of Jesus. This is certainly something the Pharisees would not do. Everyone who is of the House of Israel will come and bow at the feet of Jesus.
Again, Jesus seems to make a difficult statement. He does not answer the woman directly but in the distant third person. “It is not proper to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” The word for “dogs here refers to the little hose dogs that Gentiles kept as pets. Jews considered all dogs unclean and did not keep them as pets. In fact, they called the Gentiles by the demeaning term “dogs”. This would be seen on the surface to be quite an insult. But Jesus had a purpose for making this statement. Jesus already knew what He was about to do, so there was purpose in His making what seemed such a harsh statement.
The woman responded humbly and reminded Jesus that the house dogs in Gentile houses were allowed to pick up the crumbs which fell to the floor. This was a great act of faith on her part. Only those who know their true condition as lost sinners would make such a statement. Others like the before mentioned Pharisees would be offended and leave. In her answer, she was affirming herself to be one of the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
Jesus recognizer her faith and confirms her as one of his found sheep by granting her request and commending her great faith. Jesus had previously in the Sermon on the Mount had commanded that that which was holy was not to be cast to the dogs or pearls before swine, another name the Jews called Gentiles. He would be breaking His own teaching in the sermon if He was granting this request to a Gentile. This woman, like Rahab belonged to the congregation of Israel. In this there is an ironic reversal. The Pharisees and their followers who thought they were Israel were the real dogs and swine before which that which was holy was not to be cast. The Pharisees thought they were Israel but were Canaanites in their heart like Achan, the troubler of Israel. This is why Jesus spoke to them in parables. In this He fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 6 that they would hear and not understand, see and not perceive. The woman who was most unholy outside was cleansed from within by her faith in Jesus. Jesus’ troublers appeared clean on the outside but were but whitewashed sepulchers inside and were to share in Achan’s curse.
This passage should really cause us to think in the church today. Have we become Pharisaical in our attitude, trusting in our election while at the same time rejecting the will of Jesus? Are we playing church, holy on the outside appearance but full of dead man’s bones within? The question to us today is “Who belongs to the House of Israel?” A similar question is “Who are the lost?” No one can claim church membership as a birthright. One comes to membership in the House of Israel by recognizing their drastic need of salvation, that we are totally unworthy of Jesus. We must fall at His feet and ask for grace as much as this woman did. She fell and confessed Jesus as the Son of David, another title for Christ. Paul tells us that we must believe the word of the Gospel in our heart and confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord to be saved. We must realize that Jesus died in the place of us unworthy sinners that we might have a place at the table in God’s kingdom. The people of the House of Israel are those who realize that they come to belong by this faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection. It is by this faith and confession that we are saved.
Let us think of the words of Peter. Let us make our calling and election sure.