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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Why was Jesus so polite to the centurion and so rude to the Canaanite woman?

The story of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28; cf. Mk. 7:24-30) has been going round in my head the last few days, partly because I have been marking a number of undergraduate essays comparing the two versions of the episode, partly because I happened across quite a good podcast in which Trevin Wax and Brandon Smith ask why Jesus called the woman a dog. I wonder if there isn’t, in Matthew’s telling of the story, a rather mundane and pragmatic explanation of the disturbing episode.

Jesus withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon, or at least as far as the border region, presumably to escape attention (cf. Mk. 7:24). But a woman comes to him urgently seeking help for her daughter, who is oppressed by a demon.

According to Mark she is a “Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth”; Matthew calls her a “Canaanite”, a representative of the ancient unclean peoples of the land, a persistent polluting presence, a threat to the sanctity of Israel; and we are surprised when she cries out to him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” (Matt. 15:22). No doubt she had merely heard rumours that a supposed Davidic “messiah” with charismatic healing power was active in Galilee, but Matthew, of course, wants his readers to understand that Jesus is being proclaimed (proleptically) as Israel’s king by this wretched foreign woman. Mark has none of this.

Jesus rudely ignores her, it seems: “he did not answer her a word”. The disciples beg him to send her away, perhaps meaning: give her what she wants so that she’ll leave us alone. This makes sense of his reply to them, though quite likely we should suppose that the woman overheard it: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Healing her daughter, even with a view to getting rid of her, is not an option: he reminds them that his mission is exclusively to the Jews (cf. Matt. 10:5-6).

A question we have to consider at this point is: why wasn’t Jesus similarly affronted by the earlier request of the centurion that Jesus heal his servant or son?

Some have argued that Jesus is testing the woman, to see what sort of faith she has. R.T. France thought that the story about the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13) already teaches us that Jesus “envisaged a multi-racial people of God”.1 So Jesus wants to know whether the woman really understands what she is asking.

Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view even if the phrase “devil’s advocate” may not be quite appropriate to this context!2

The story of the centurion, I think, at most tells us that Jesus envisaged Gentiles attending the feast that would celebrate the restoration of Israel. They would come to Zion to pay tribute to the God of Israel, they would learn his ways (cf. Is. 2:2-4; Zech. 8:20-23). Neither the centurion nor the woman is called to follow Jesus; neither is offered membership of the people of God. In keeping with the Old Testament paradigm, they benefit only second-hand from the blessing of Israel. It cannot be inferred that Jesus foresaw or embraced the idea of a multiracial people of God.

Anyway, I agree with Wax and Smith when they discount—albeit with some hesitation—the view that Jesus is essentially saying, “I’m not here to help someone who just wants a handout or a free ride.” It seems to me very unlikely that this was all just deft pedagoguery. For a start, Jesus engages not with the woman, whom he ignores, but with the disciples: it is their misunderstanding, not hers, that he corrects in verse 24. It is only when she actually throws herself in front of him that he has to explain to her directly why he cannot help: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (kynariois)” (Matt. 15:26). Matthew has intensified Jesus’ antipathy towards her by omitting Mark’s “Let the children be fed first…” (Mk. 7:27).

A question we have to consider at this point is: why wasn’t Jesus similarly affronted by the earlier request of the centurion that Jesus heal his servant or son (pais)? As a representative of the Gentile occupying force his presence is as offensive to the Jews as the Canaanite woman’s. Even if the pais is a Jewish servant, it is the faith of the centurion that is at issue. In both stories the Gentile has to argue the case.

Why is Jesus so obliging towards the centurion (“I will come and heal him”, though this could be a question: “shall I come and heal him?”) and so dismissive of the woman?

My mundane and pragmatic explanation is that between these two incidents Jesus has been overwhelmed by the scale of the task confronting him.

As he goes through “all the cities and villages” of Galilee healing every disease and affliction, he has compassion on the crowds, who are “harassed and downtrodden, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36, my translation). It has become apparent that the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. This is not an exhortation to personal evangelism—it is a reflection on the dereliction of Israel, the extent of hardship and suffering. It is sharp social comment.

So he sends out the twelve disciples to proclaim the imminent kingdom of God, to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, instructing them to go only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, avoiding Gentile and Samaritan areas.

Have the Gentiles simply become a distraction? A hindrance?

The centurion’s appeal for help afforded Jesus an opportunity to reflect on the faithlessness of Israel. But by the time we get to the withdrawal to the region of Tyre and Sidon, he is in no mood to accommodate the importunities of a Gentile woman. So he says to the disciples: We agreed, right? We don’t need this. We confine ourselves to the lost sheep of Israel—and even then you will not get through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matt. 10:23).

His response to the woman, therefore, is blunt: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (kynariois).”

He has already told his disciples not to give what is holy to the dogs (kysin); “and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6). These are proper nasty street “dogs”, not the domesticated dogs that feed on the scraps that fall from their masters’ table. But the demarcation between the two groups—the exclusivism of Jesus’ mission—is striking all the same. This business is between God and Israel. The table is set for the children. The dogs must fend for themselves.

It is for the woman to persuade him that the dogs will always “eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their lord”. It’s bound to happen. Her refusal to take no for an answer is Matthew’s way of saying that the Gentiles will get something out of this, whether the Jews like it or not.

Donald Hagner says: “What becomes clear again from the present passage is a basic principle: that it is ultimately receptive faith and not physical Jewishness that determines the blessing of God.”3 But what “saves” the woman’s daughter is nothing as passive as “receptive faith”. It is the mother’s stubborn determination to get something for herself from what the God of Israel was doing for his people.

Jesus’ believed that he had been sent to proclaim to the whole of Israel, through words and actions, that within a generation YHWH would intervene decisively to judge and reform his people. He understood that this dramatic historical transformation would get the attention of the Gentiles: when YHWH bears his holy arm before the eyes of the nations, “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Is. 52:10).

He could imagine Gentiles coming from far and wide to sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, figuratively speaking, to celebrate the relaunch of a holy people. He could see Canaanites and others being blessed from the surplus of Israel’s blessing. But right now, he just didn’t have time for it.

  • 1. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), 590.
  • 2. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), 591.
  • 3. D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (1995), 443.

Comments

Thanks for your thoughts Andrew. I come to a somewhat different conclusion. In the account of the centurion, I understand Jesus to be predicting an in-flow of Gentiles to the eschatological feast, which takes place with the three patriarchs. The subjects of the kingdom, those for whom it was intended, Israel, will be ‘thrown outside’. It is the likes of the centurion who will be included, not those who thought they had the right to be included.

The account of the Canaanite woman could be seen as particularly significant for the gentile trajectory of Jesus’s ministry. It’s not really Jesus’s unwillingness to heal her daughter which need preoccupy us (puzzling as it may be), but that the woman is described as a Canaanite (unlike Mark’s Syro-Phoenician woman). This brings into sharp relief the contrast between Jesus’s healing of a Canaanite, and the genocide of the Canaanites in the earlier phase of Israel’s story. Canaanites are now shown favour (and included), Matthew 15:24 notwithstanding.

The ministry of Jesus then takes a distinctly Gentile turn. Matthew says that he next “went along the sea of Galilee”. The crowds come to him for healing, and he feeds the four thousand. Mark’s account adds that he travelled first in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, and then came to the largely Gentile region of the Decapolis, where the feeding of the four thousand takes place.

This feeding miracle is contrasted by some (eg Jeffrey John/The Meaning in the Miracles) with the first feeding miracle by a bit of numerology: 5 for the Torah, 4 being associated with the world, or the nations, outside Israel. It seems more than likely that the crowd was made up of many Gentiles, since that was their region. It’s also striking that shortly afterwards Peter’s confession of Christ occurs close to the town named in honour of Caesar (by Herod the Nabatean), to which Matthew and Mark draw attention. This was not to suggest Caesar’s inclusion of course, but in this case the significant challenge which Jesus’s ministry would present: Jesus was Lord, not Caesar.

Jesus’s initial rejection of the Canaanite woman seems out of character. We could try to understand his psychology, as you do. Another way might be to think of Jesus enacting the history of Israel in a short exchange. Dogs was an abusive term given by Israelites to Gentiles in general, and such were Canaanites, and this woman in particular. In the conquest they were fit for extermination. Now, the tables are turned. The woman is showing the very faith which qualifies her for inclusion, whilst those for whom inclusion was intended are disqualified. Psychologically, the encounter may even have confirmed Jesus in his Gentile ministry, as witnessed by his actions immediately following, rather than the opposite.

This reminds me of some exchanges we had before, at the end of which we came to very different conclusions -

https://www.postost.net/comment/5560#comment-5560

But you pays your money and you takes your choice.

This brings into sharp relief the contrast between Jesus’s healing of a Canaanite, and the genocide of the Canaanites in the earlier phase of Israel’s story. Canaanites are now shown favour (and included), Matthew 15:24 notwithstanding.

Indeed, and we might also take this into account, which is part of the instruction to the disciples when he tells them to go nowhere among the Gentiles:

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matt. 10:14–15)

And even more pertinent:

But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. (Matt. 11:22–24)

This lends some weight to Phil’s suggestion that the Gentiles in Matthew serve to highlight the faithlessness of Israel.

I try not to link to my own stuff very often, but I did a take on Jesus’ treatment of the woman that I’m still pretty good with:

http://tinyurl.com/y8fv58hd

On the matter of the kindness show to the centurion, I wonder if part of it isn’t the centurion’s reputation. In Luke’s account, the centurion sends Jewish elders to ask for Jesus’ help, and they inform him that the centurion “loves our nation” and built the synagogue. So, he’s not only a God-fearing Gentile, he’s specifically a Gentile who has assisted Israel during her oppression.

Jesus is of the mind that those who help the righteous in their time of need receive the reward of the righteous; I wonder if that doesn’t play into it, here.

Thanks for the link, Phil. Well worth reading. A couple of comments…

I think there probably is a distinction to be made between the kuōn (“dog”) of Matthew 7:6 and the diminutive kynarion of 15:26 since these “dogs” are allowed indoors and have the children as “masters” (note the plural). Cf. BDAG s.v.: “a house-dog or lap-dog in contrast to a dog of the street or farm”. Such dogs would presumably not be unclean—the association with uncleanness may have come from contact with human excrement in the streets and fields. Jesus may even be thinking of Gentile households, I suppose. So the emphasis would be on the vastly different status of the children and their pet dogs.

Jesus doesn’t make anything of the contrast with the faithlessness of Israel in the story of the Canaanite woman.

That’s a good point about Luke’s version of the centurion story, though. Jesus had lived in Capernaum (Matt. 4:13), so perhaps the man was known to him. And I agree about the theme of righteous Gentiles being rewarded.

Thanks for the point about the Greek distinction. That’s a good observation and maybe, therefore, I made too much out of the rabbinical view of dogs in general.

You’re right of course that Jesus does not comment on the faithlessness of Israel in the passage with the woman. I think part of the issue is, why does -Matthew- tell us this story? I think the Gentile standouts in Matthew generally serve that point of contrast and, in Matthew 15, the story follows Jesus’ denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes. I think the contrast is implied but not stated. Whether Jesus had this in mind during the actual encounter with the woman, I don’t know, but I think Matthew may have. Obviously, that’s speculation on my part, but not unfounded speculation I think.

Adam Winn relates this episode to the story of Elijah and the gentile widow-mother in 1 Kings 17. Elijah asks her for bread but she only has enough for her and her children to eat one final meal. By obeying the word of Elijah, giving him food first, her grain is miraculously preserved for the rest of the famine. The point of the story seemingly being that Israel’s God provides for gentiles who trust and show deference to God and his anointed.

So while Jesus asserts the general biblical principle (Israel blessed first—nations only blessed through Israel) in Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman trusts that through this system (master/God, children/Israel, dogs/gentiles), and despite her place in it, God will provide fully for her and her family. Her faithful response evokes the response of Elijah’s widow-mother.

In the case of Matthew, I think we are also meant to connect the faithful Canaanite woman with the first faithful Canaanite woman, Rahab. Both of these characters recognize that Israel’s God is redeeming Israel—whether through Joshua or through the new son of David. They both rejoice in this future and pledge allegiance to God’s anointed.

Yes, there is a quite pervasive theme of the reward of righteous Gentiles, running through to Jesus’ judgment of the nations according to their response to the presence of his suffering disciples and, in my view, Paul’s argument in Romans 2 about Gentiles who will be justified because they instinctively do what the Law requires.

But is the story really an example of a Gentile gaining entry into the messianic kingdom, as you say in your blog post? I am struck by the impertinence of the woman in getting something she would not have got otherwise. But all that happens is that her daughter is healed. Is she anything more than a sign that on the day of judgment Israel’s neighbours will confess that YHWH has established his reign, through his new king, over his restored people? She has been rewarded for her faith in Israel’s future king.

I am struck by the impertinence of the woman in getting something she would not have got otherwise.

I’m interested in what you mean by this? Is she not a admirable figure?

On thinking about it more, I think you are right that this story isn’t about covenant membership or entrance into the messianic kingdom exactly. And yet, wouldn’t it be correct to say that the restored Israel envisioned by the NT has political and religious authority over the once pagan nations? Isn’t the day of judgement a reckoning of the nations as well as of Israel?

When I started the piece, I was going to suggest that this was a sort of eschatological mugging, that she compelled Jesus to reckon with the interest that Gentiles would have in the renewal of Israel. Why shouldn’t she hustle for some benefit when she had a seriously troubled daughter?

I was going to compare her intervention with the manner in which Cornelius and his household gained access to the Jesus movement simply by believing a story that had nothing to do with them. Salvation wasn’t offered to the Gentiles; they just came and took it.

But I was impressed by the larger narrative in Matthew, from the story of the centurion onwards, and began to think that there may be a more straightforward reason for Jesus’ reluctance to help her.

And yet, wouldn’t it be correct to say that the restored Israel envisioned by the NT has political and religious authority over the once pagan nations? Isn’t the day of judgement a reckoning of the nations as well as of Israel?

Yes, I would agree. I think a new imperial order was in view, not an unrighteous pagan one but a righteous Yahwistic one. The key question was: where would the seat of government be? After the resurrection it became clear that Jesus would judge and rule over the nations from his seat at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

Andrew, I am new to this blog, so you will excuse me in case you find my question dumb. The question is: how have you answered your own title-question? Thanks.

Hmm. Good question. Possibly not. I suggested in the post that it was in part the escalation of Jesus’ mission that accounts for his determination to restrict himself to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He was clear in his own mind that he was the son sent exclusively to the vineyard of Israel; and although Gentiles in Israel or on its borders might take an interest in what was going on and might presage a future pilgrimage to Zion to learn the ways of Israel’s God, that was not his business. Was he being rude to the woman? I don’t think so. She is not a “dirty Gentile dog”. She is in the position of a household dog with no formal entitlement to the renewing power of the Spirit in Israel. She’s not a member of the house of Israel.

Thank you for reassuring me that my question was not so dumb, after all. I believe that you have covered adequately the reasons of Jesus’ repeated snubbing of the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman, until he was won over by her perseverance, humbleness and faith.

On the other hand, the only “explanation” I can find in your post for Jesus’ different behaviour towards the Roman centurion and the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman is this passing paragraph:

My mundane and pragmatic explanation is that between these two incidents Jesus has been overwhelmed by the scale of the task confronting him.

I think that part of the explanation can be found in Luke’s accountof the Healing the Centurion’s Slave (Luke 7:1-10) that, for some reason you have neither cited nor quoted. Here, in particular:

When he [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.”When he [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” (Lk 7:3-5)

Unlike the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman, the Roman centurion was made kosher by the pleading of the “elders of the Jews”. Not unlike the situation described in Acts 10:22. Maybe also the first centurion was a phoboumenos ton theon, like Cornelius.

Presumably, too, Jesus knew the man, or at least knew of him. Matthew tells us that Jesus lived in Capernaum (Matt. 4:13), and Luke describes him teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Lk. 4:31). So no doubt, yes, the centurion had a head start on the Canaanite woman. On the other hand, Jesus may not have thought too highly of the synagogue elders: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades” (Lk. 10:15).

On the other hand, Jesus may not have thought too highly of the synagogue elders: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades” (Lk. 10:15).

Possible, of course. But If this was the case, then Jesus’ prompt response to the entreaties of the synagogue elders would be even more puzzling. He might even be prompted to reply:

“Gentlemen, what does this have to do with me? You will only see from me the sign of Jonah, in due course.”

Don’t we assume that between Luke 7 and Luke 10 it had become apparent that in Capernaum and elsewhere he had been sowing seed on stoney unproductive soil?

That Lk 10:15 refers - or hints - (NOT, in general to Jesus’ reception in Capernaum BUT) to the “synagogue elders” of Capernaum is you peculiar, unsupported reading. BTW, Capernaum is only the last town of a list, after Chorazin and Bethsaida!

Where, exactly, would Jesus have perceived this change of attitude of the “synagogue elders”, anyway, “between Luke 7 and Luke 10”? Please provide reference.

It must be after Lk 8:40-55, where we find Jairus, the “president of the synagogue” (archisunagôgos) asking Jesus to save his dying 12 years old daughter.