1.21 Synoptics -- The Canaanite Woman
Mat 15:21-28, Mk 7:24-30. This is the famous story of the Canaanite woman, whose daughter was demon-possessed. Mark calls her Greek, Syro-Phoenician. The accounts differ only in the extent of rudeness Jesus showed her. Matthew says that Jesus ignored her before refusing her. The disciples, full of nationalistic spirit and empty of compassion, appealed to Him to send the woman away, "for she keeps crying out after us." Jesus seemed to agree with them:
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" (Mat 15:24).
This saying is found only in Matthew. It can be taken in only two ways – first, that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah alone, is contradicted by other statements in favor of the Gentiles: telling the disciples they must bear witness before the Gentiles (Mat 10:18), and commanding them to go to the Gentiles after his resurrection (Mat 28:19). Or second, that Jesus limited his earthly ministry to the Jews. This is most likely, despite Matthew’s use of the word "only." Mark writes, "First let the children eat all they want" (Mk 7:27), which implies that the Gentiles could have the leftovers.
Besides, if Jesus was sent only to Israel, what was he doing in Tyre and Sidon? Matthew says he "withdrew" to those cities, Mark that he tried to keep his presence there a secret. Possibly he was trying to avoid the crowds that accompanied him in Israel proper. These seacoast towns were in the Roman province of Syria north of Galilee. Not that there weren’t Jews there, but like the region of the Decapolis, it was on the periphery of Israel, where many Gentiles lived. Thus, he was on the woman’s home turf. She was not intruding. It might be different if she had traveled to Jerusalem asking for help, but he had come to her city.
Somehow, she got past the security detail (the disciples). Both Gospels report that she either knelt or fell at his feet. Despite her earnest desire and humility, Jesus rebuffed her:
"It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs" (Mat 15:26).
"Dogs," like "pigs," had a strongly negative meaning for Jews. This epithet shows his great reluctance to respond to her. Even so, she was not put off.
"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table" (Mat 15:27).
This extraordinary statement was at once self-effacing and a counterthrust to his dismissal. She raised the bar of the entire encounter, which till now had been exclusively about her race. Her focus was not on her disqualification, which she admitted, but on his ability – all she wanted was a crumb. Her remark roused something in Jesus, for he instantly praised her faith and granted her request:
"Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour (Mat 15:28).
This whole incident is very curious in that it is a rare example of Jesus’ unwillingness to help those who came to him. (Another example is the man with the epileptic son, although that was due more to frustration at his disciples' lack of faith (Mat 17:17).) Contrast this with his treatment of the centurion (above), and with his tolerant attitude to Samaritans. He didn’t call them "dogs"!
But like the centurion, the Canaanite woman posed a problem for the Jews. How did a woman like this, a pagan with no knowledge of the true God, perhaps not even the spiritual capacity for knowing Him, come to have such an experiential grasp of faith? How did she know that Jesus' power was greater than the one tormenting her daughter? How did she know that God was not a territorial god, that His power would work as well in Tyre as in Capernaum, as well for a Canaanite as for a Jew? Traditional Judaism had no answers to these questions. Indeed, the issues raised by the teaching and ministry of Jesus had now surpassed the Jewish monopoly on religious truth.
The irony is that no other mighty works were done in Tyre or Sidon. The only teaching or miracle that the Bible records in this region is Jesus' encounter with this Canaanite mother. It is a reminder of the power of faith directed to Jesus, apart from all personal worthiness, family background or sufficient instruction.