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).
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.