On...why was Jesus so mean and insulting to the Canaanite woman?
On Sun Oct 20 10:17:24 1996 [so and so] wrote:
I've thought many times how do You explain the conduct
of Jesus depicted in St. Matthew 15:22 - 28?
Thanks for the question...
Let's look at the passage first:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre
and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying
out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly
from demon-possession." 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples
came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after
us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." 25
The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. 26 He replied,
"It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
27 "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from
their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith!
Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Important details are added from the parallel passage in Mark 7.24-29:
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of
Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could
not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him,
a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and
fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She
begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27 "First let the
children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take
the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." 28 "Yes, Lord," she replied,
"but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 Then
he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter."
At first blush, Jesus' reply to this needy woman seems harsh and insensitive
(this bothered me for years and years), but as we get into the details
of this exchange, the wisdom and tenderness of our Lord's work will become
First, let's look at some background material-- historical, literary,
Now let's look at the flow of the text:
Historically, Jesus is taking his disciples aside for some very needed
rest. So, William Lane (NICNT:in.loc.):" The purpose of Jesus' withdrawal
to Tyre was to secure the rest which had been interrupted both in the wilderness
(Ch. 6:30-34) and in the district of Gennesaret (Ch. 6:53-56). The house
provided a place of retreat for Jesus with his disciples."
Jesus went into the vicinity of Tyre--not the city. He was trying to escape
notice, and get some badly needed rest for His disciples. The woman would
have had to travel to find Him.
From a literary standpoint, this section is wonderfully placed--the wonderful
woman serves as a foil against both the Jewish leaders and the disciples
(in both Gospels). So, D.A. Carson, EBC:Mt, in. loc.:
Of greater interest is the placing of this pericope in
both gospels. It not only records Jesus' withdrawal from the opposition
of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (cf. 14.13) but contrasts their
approach to the Messiah with that of this woman. They belong to the covenant
people but take offense at the conduct of Jesus' disciples, challenge his
authority, and are so defective in understanding the Scriptures that they
show themselves not to be plants the heavenly Father has planted. But this
woman is a pagan, a descendent of ancient enemies, and with no claim on
the God of the covenant. Yet in the end she approaches the Jewish Messiah
and with great faith asks only for grace; and her request is granted.
and Lane (op.cit.):
the faith of the Syrophoenician woman contrasts dramatically
with the determined unbelief of the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem
while her witty reply to Jesus indicates a degree of understanding which
puts the disciples to shame.
Theologically, Jesus was sent (as Messiah) to the Jew only. The biblical
intent was that the Nation of Israel would accept the Messiah, receive
the Spirit, and turn-around and evangelize/minister to the whole world
(as they will some day--Romans 11.15). The Gentiles were included in the
covenant promises to Abraham, but the blessings to them would come "through
Abraham" (Gen 12.3). Cf. Jesus remarks in John 4: "Salvation is from the
Jews." So, His PUBLIC ministry was semi-confined to the nation of Israel.
[In fact, this scene is the only known traveling of the adult Jesus outside
of Palestine--and it was to hide!]
But, AS A JEW HIMSELF (not as the Jewish Messiah), Jesus had a responsibility
to non-Jews. As a private citizen, He was to show kindness to foreigners
(Lev 19.33ff; Ex 22.21; Dt 10.18ff). Israel was supposed to be a 'kingdom
of priests'--to mediate to non-Israel the blessings of God (Ex 19.6). Jonah
is an OT book whose central theme is Jewish evangelism of gentiles (Assyria).
Jesus illustrated this in his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John
4) and the Gentile Centurion of Luke 7--and here. The crowds that listened
to Jesus--for example, hearing the Beatitudes-- included foreigners (Mk
3.8; Lk 6.17), and He had a specific ministry to the Jews among the Gentiles
in Galilee (Mt 4.15), so His fame would have not been bound to national
Pedagogically, we have to remember that Jesus (as were traditional rabbi's
of the day) was fond of using questions, challenges, and puzzles to engage
a student in the learning/growing process (e.g. Mt 13.51; 15.34; Mt 16.13;
17.25; 19.17; 20.22; 20.32--esp. 22.41; Mk 3.4; Lk 10.36; Lk 20.17; John
Notice that there is not the slightest indication that the woman felt insulted,
discouraged, or even frustrated in this narrative--and also notice that
this woman's incredible faith is immortalized forever in the NT (cf. Mk
Jesus hides in a house with his disciples, presumably in the countryside,
to get the rest Jesus had promised his disciples in Mark 6.31.
News of Jesus' proximity reaches the woman, who immediately drops what
she is doing and seeks out the house in which Jesus is staying (Mk 7.25)
She is apparently outside of the house, where she cries out to Him, using
the messianic title "Son of David"
Jesus doesn't answer the woman from inside the house (Mt 15.23), nor speaks
to the disciples about the matter (they are SUPPOSED to be resting).
They decide to approach Jesus about her, and ask him to grant her request
and send her away (Mt 15.23)
Jesus makes a theological comment, to the disciples (ONLY), about Him being
sent "publicly" only to the house of Israel, but this remark (or its tone--which
cannot be conveyed by the text) SOMEHOW encourages them to let the woman
inside the house!
The woman, only now with full access to Jesus (Mt 15.25), makes her appeal
in humility. (The standard understanding of the nature of demonic exorcism--involving
physical proximity, cf. Mt 17.14ff-- would have made her request into a
'please come to my house, and drive out the demon'. Cf. Also Jairus in
Jesus uses a mini-parable or household image about children getting temporal
priority at feeding time over their play-pet "puppies" (He actually doesn't
even say 'no' to the woman--only something like "something else must be
Seeing exactly the subtle hint that Jesus has provided in the image, she
agrees with Jesus (the adversative 'but' in many English translations is
simply NOT in the text at all--the kai gar is everywhere else in
the NT translated "for even"!), and points out that sometimes the puppies
get little morsels BEFORE their regular feeding time, by simply hanging
around the dinner table and catching the parts not used by the kids.
Jesus is deeply moved by such a powerful faith--He addresses her in Matthew
with "O, Woman!"--a Greek construction (in Hellenistic Greek, not Classical)
indicating deep emotional response (Carson, EBC, Matthew, p.356).
Jesus compliments her on her great faith, and explains that the demon has
already left her daughter--(and that, by implication, there is no need
for Him and the disciples to travel to her home.)
She leaves (apparently trusting Him with that powerful faith--like the
Centurion in Luke 7) and finds her daughter cured.
Now, let's make some observations about this flow:
Summary: This passage proves to be a masterful teaching session by the
Lord. It does not contain the traditionally-assumed insults to the woman,
nor the insensitive rejection of her anxious request. Instead, it shows
a sensitivity to her urgent need AND the disciples' needs. Through the
skillful selection of a warm, household image, Jesus creates a situation
that leads the woman to a more informed faith, a more precise hope, and
the disciples to a greater appreciation of their role and of their privilege.
And this situation, recorded in scripture, challenges US to recognize His
power and His willingness to meet our needs, although we MAY have to learn
something in the process too...:>)
First, Jesus has made an implicit commitment to allow the disciples to
rest. If Jesus were to go with this woman, the crowds would be thronging
them, and they would be right back where they were in the last 2-3 chapters.
Jesus has to "draw the line" somewhere. There is a time to rest and a time
Jesus' comment to the disciples about 'the lost sheep of Israel' does two
things: (1) it 'sets them up' pedagogically on a different track for His
dialogue with the woman; and (2) SOMEHOW, encourages them to let the woman
into His presence.
This latter point could be accomplished in a number of ways, many
of which are not able to be conveyed in the text. We know, for example,
of several cases of irony/sarcasm in Jesus' words that can only be learned
from the setting (cf. Luke 13.33: In any case, I must keep going today
and tomorrow and the next day -- for surely no prophet can die outside
Jerusalem! or John 16.31: "You believe at last!" Jesus answered.
) For all we know, this verse might have been said with a 'tired irony'--something
like the modern--"I was sent only to the Lost Sheep of Israel--yeah, right!".
In any event, his words or his tone or his gestures encouraged them to
'let her in'.
The woman now makes a request "(come to my house and) perform an exorcism"
which conflicts with Jesus' current 'mission' to provide rest for his disciples.
But instead of saying "No," he turns the event into a three-pronged teaching
and development session--for her, for his disciples, for us--WITHOUT compromising
His commitment to his disciples' rest, or His compassion for this woman's
He responds with a mini-parable or image of supper-time, little children,
and their inside pets. This image is so well chosen, that it will deliver
two 'payloads' to two different audiences.
Remember, the disciples were 'set up' with the theological statement
about 'to the Jew only/first.' They will 'process' the words of Jesus with
the equivalencies of "children-Jews"//"puppies-Gentiles". They will hear
Him speak about how God has a special place for the Jew in the salvation
of the world.
The woman, on the other hand, has probably neither heard this remark,
NOR has the theological sophistication to make this connection. She is
not an Israelite, and although she uses the Son of David title for Jesus,
probably has little or no understanding of the theological subtleties required
to process the words in the same way as the disciples. But she has already
had some interaction with the disciples, and they have probably told her
that they are there to rest, not minister. So SHE will hear the words of
Jesus and make the equivalencies of "children-disciples"//puppies-me".
She will understand Jesus to be saying that she WILL GET FED, but that
He must take care of His disciples FIRST. There is not a 'NO' in Jesus'
words at all--just an implicit "WAIT."
This "WAIT vs. NO" scenario is what prompts the woman to persevere.
Either the image or the tone of Jesus encourages her to make her quick-witted
The image Jesus has chosen is an image of endearment, not insult. The picture
of supper-time, with little kids at the table, and their pet "puppies"
(the Greek word for 'dog' here is not the standard, 'outside' dog--which
MIGHT BE an insult--, but is the diminutive word, meaning 'household pets,
little dogs') at their feet, maybe tugging on their robes for food or play.
The puppies, dear to the children and probably so too to the master (cf.
2 Sam 12.3f: but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb
he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children.
It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was
like a daughter to him.), were to be fed AFTER the children (notice:
not DENIED food--there was no "NO" in Jesus image--only "WAIT"). But the
temporal order is clear--Jesus must take care of His disciples FIRST, and
if meeting her need involved interrupting their rest and GOING SOMEWHERE,
then it was going to have to wait.
Implicit in Jesus' image, however, is a very obvious 'hint' to the woman
as to how next to proceed. His word choices are interesting. He COULD HAVE
SAID "it is not fitting to take the children's food and give it to the
(outside) dogs", but instead said "it is not fitting to take the children's
food and TOSS it to the (inside) pets." The image, using the different
Greek form for "inside puppy-pets" rather than that of the "outside dog"
(cf. Luke 16.21), makes the "toss/inside puppy-pets" stand out in the saying.
If the woman had ever had any inside pet-related experiences, she would
have instantly visualized the obvious--the little pets NEVER sit still
away from the table--they are always (esp. the puppies) 'hounding' the
children, with the often result of a morsel here or there BEFORE their
real mealtime. The hint is there; and the quick-witted woman instantly
seizes upon it.
And the woman apparently took no insult, nor was discouraged at all. Instead,
realizing the dynamics of the image, she instantly saw the built-in "way
out"--she didn't want to interrupt the meal--she only wanted a simultaneous
'bite'. She quickly agrees with Jesus ("You are absolutely right Lord,
I do not want to interrupt that...") and develops a latent feature in the
image ("...in fact, I want you to do that so abundantly so that some of
it 'falls off the table' to me the puppy--that way I can eat my little
bite at the same time")! This amazing statement amounts to believing (1)
that Jesus can do the two things at once--bless His disciples with rest,
while He heals her daughter; and (2) that the miracle she needs is simple
'crumb-size' work for the Son of David! This is 'action at a distance'
(without the physical presence of Jesus), an implicit version of the Centurion's
faith in Luke 7:
"Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have
you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy
to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For
I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this
one, `Go,' and he goes; and that one, `Come,' and he comes. I say to my
servant, `Do this,' and he does it." 9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed
at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, I
have not found such great faith even in Israel."
And, accordingly, earns the same praise and deep response from Jesus.
The woman, upon getting the 'your request in granted', maintains her great
faith, and leaves without needing Jesus to return with her. Her faith has
proven strong, but she has also learned something--that there will still
be a BIG FEEDING time for the "puppies"--in the future. This notion of
the future time for blessing of the gentiles is ALSO present in that image,
and this would have been instructional both for her personal faith, and
for the theological education of the disciples--they needed to know about
the later mission to the gentiles that would occur (cf. John 10.16: 16
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.
They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one
Thus the Teaching Master, in a masterful stroke, instructs the woman, heals
her daughter, avoids the spotlight, grants rest to his disciples (while
teaching them), and creates a masterful example to us all!
Such a Savior!
glenn miller, 10/22/96
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