The Canaanite Woman

Q.  Please explain the episode of the Canaanite woman in  Matthew 15:21-28.

The parallel passage to this is found in Mark 7:24-37.  This incident follows the Lord’s encounter with the scribes and Pharisees who came to him from Jerusalem (Matt. 15:1-20).(All Scriptures quoted from the NASB).

We assume from what is said here that Jesus crossed the border into Gentile territory.  The record does not say that he went to Tyre and Sidon, but rather to “the district,” that is the territory which belonged to those cities.  If this is the case, it is probably the only time he was on Gentile soil during his public ministry.  It may have been that following the sanctimonious Pharisees who thought the whole world outside of Judea to be unclean, it would be a refreshing thing for Jesus to cross over the line and feel that he was still in God’s world.  It may also have been to teach the lesson here to his disciples that God was indeed interested in the salvation of the Gentiles, even though their work would initially involve only the Jews.  It was at this point that the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus.  The Canaanites were the original inhabitants of Palestine, and the Phoenicians were descended from them (Cf. Gen. 10:15-19).  How this woman learned of Jesus’ presence in the area is a mystery.  But like so many who were suffering in his day, she wanted the opportunity to see him and appeal to him.  Mark records that she fell at his feet and appealed to him.  Matthew says that he did not say a word to her initially.  In many ways this is a remarkable passage.  It has been called the silence of love; and from what we know about the end of the story, we can well understand that it was.  The silence of Jesus toward this woman was not the silence of indifference; his purpose was to teach a lesson, possibly to test and to demonstrate her faith.  The disciples did not mean for Jesus to send her away without granting her request; but rather to do what she asked and thereby get rid of her.  They were annoyed by her cries.  They apparently did not like this form of public attention, a strange woman crying after them.

Jesus replays “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”   which was the instruction he had given to his disciples in Matt. 10:5,6.  This was not meant to suggest that he was not interested in the woman’s petition, he was simply reminding his disciples of the proper course of his public ministry, and theirs.  We know that Jesus did frequently give help to Gentile people, but that was not the prime purpose of his ministry (Cf. Acts 3:26; 18:5,6)  Next she bows down before him and begs him again, to which he responds:  “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”   The word for “dogs” here literally means “little dogs,” and the picture here is that of a family meal, with the pet dogs running around the table and begging for something to eat.  The idea is not the uncleanness of the dogs, but rather their dependence and subordinate position.  There was therefore nothing degrading about the Lord’s metaphor; he was simply emphasizing the relative positions of the Jews and Gentiles.  The children first, then their pets.  Then the passage says:  Mark 7:27  “And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She answers in a most remarkable way: “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”  Jesus had suggested the order in the home by which the pets are required to wait until the meal is over before receiving their portion, now the woman, with great wit and faith makes the keen observation of a well known fact, “little dogs” under the table are permitted to eat the crumbs which fall to the floor even while the meal is in progress.  She is here indicating her faith that even though the feeding of the children (Jews) is still underway, she will receive help before the needs of the Jews have entirely been satisfied.

The use of the diminutive throughout this exchange between Jesus and the woman is very interesting and suggestive.  First, Jesus says that it is not good to feed the “little dogs,” before the “little children” have their portion; and then the woman replies, “Yes, Lord, even the “little dogs” eat of the “little crumbs” which fall from their masters’ (little children”) table.  This woman skillfully turned the Lord’s figure to her own advantage.  She accepted the Lord’s evaluation of the situation, and pleads only to fare as the household pets which are fed without loss to the household.  It seems at first that Jesus would deny her request.  But he does not, and never intended to.

Many lessons are suggested here:

1) When the Jews reject the Gospel, the Gospel will be taken to the Gentiles.

2)  Persevere in Faith.  Note all the hindrances which were thrown in this woman’s way, which only increased here faith.

3)  Keep praying in faith (Luke 18:1-8)

How often does Jesus appear, for awhile, to give no heed to the cry, until even a cold world begins to pity the wretched petitioner.  But finally, when a mighty faith has been developed out of sorrow and weeping, the unheard answer comes.

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