Good Question...

On...why was Jesus so mean and insulting to the Canaanite woman?

(last updated Oct 2006, with link to gooddoggy.html)

On Sun Oct 20 10:17:24 1996 XXX 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 apparent.

First, let's look at some background material-- historical, literary, theological, pedagogical.

Now let's look at the flow of the text:

  1. 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.

  2. 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)

  3. She is apparently outside of the house, where she cries/yells out to Him, using the messianic title "Son of David"

  4. Jesus doesn't yell an answer back to the woman from inside the house (Mt 15.23), nor does he speak to the disciples about the matter (they are SUPPOSED to be resting).

  5. They decide to approach Jesus about her, and ask him to grant her request and send her away (Mt 15.23)[Notice that this is the kind of behavior God wanted the Jews to have--to intercede for Gentiles (although it might likely be motivated more by their desire for 'quiet')! Was Jesus silent at first, to provoke the disciples to do this ministry?]

  6. 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!

  7. 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 Mark 5.22ff..

  8. 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 done first").

  9. 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.

  10. 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).

  11. 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.)

  12. She leaves (apparently trusting Him with that powerful faith--like the Centurion in Luke 7) and finds her daughter cured.

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 14.9!).

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. Jesus has stayed true to His priority at the time (His disciple's needs), but was willing to interrupt that (briefly) to minister to a needy, faith-filled heart and to use that in leading His disciples to the greater rest that comes from greater faith in God. 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...:>)

Such a Savior!

glenn miller, 10/22/96

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