21 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 demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
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 the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
A friend of mine, who serves as a children’s minister, is an excellent writer and has been published a number of times. She was recently invited to do a writing project, a devotional/theological reflection for one of her denominational periodicals. She was excited to take on the extra work, because we pastors can use the extra income from time to time. So when the editor asked her about doing this project, she said “Yes! As long as it isn’t about the Canaanite woman.” The editor then told her that the study would be on the Canaanite woman.
Our text for today is not one of my favorites from which to preach. I should note right away that there are a number of different interpretations and approaches to this text and my hope today is to look at three of these interpretations. Some make this text a little more palatable, others simply make it more palatable in a different way or to a different group of people. Regardless, I still have a hard time getting over a few things in this text, and we will get to that shortly. Let’s first look at the story again.
We are told that Jesus is traveling through Tyre and Sidon, a very Gentile region of the world with a small Jewish population. While he is there Jesus does the things that Jesus does: healing, teaching, and casting out demons. It is not surprising that a woman comes up to him and asks him to heal her daughter, who is said to have been possessed by a demon and suffering terribly. But this woman is not a Jew. She is a Canaanite. The Canaanites were descendants of Canaan, the grandson of Noah. We find the story in Genesis chapter 9, where Noah wakes up from a night of drinking and says, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” And you thought that your family was complicated. The Canaanites were also the people that the Israelites were to completely wipe out when they took control of the Promised Land. Jesus was an Israelite, this woman was a Canaanite. So there is a history of conflict and issues among these families which continued into Jesus’ day.
So this Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter and what is Jesus’ response? He ignores her. He pretends to not see her, not hear her, and the disciples try to send her away. It is only after the disciples try to get rid of her that Jesus makes the statement, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (v. 24). Jesus is saying that she is an outsider and because of that, he isn’t going to help her.
But it gets worse. After another plea from the woman, Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v. 26).
Yeah, Jesus just compared this woman to a dog. You may really like dogs, but this is not a compliment. 1st century dogs were not the clean, well-groomed, “man’s-best-friend” creature that we know today. They were scavengers ate food scraps and dead animals that they found along the side of the road.
Jesus calls her “sub-human.”
But the woman does not get defensive. She actually plays into this derogatory remark. She says, “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27).
We are told that Jesus is moved by her faith. Most people would have given up, gone away, and continued to watch their daughter suffer. But Jesus heals the girl right then and there.
Interpretation number 1: Many people will say that Jesus was testing this woman by ignoring her and then calling her a name. He wanted to know just how strong her faith was and if she would be like everyone else and simply give up when things got a little tough. And she passes the test with flying colors. Jesus’ response in verse 28 makes this abundantly clear: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
It makes a little more sense when you look at the text again to think that perhaps Jesus was testing her the entire time. Just look at how she addresses Jesus throughout this text. In verse 22 she says, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then in verse 25, “Lord, help me!” Finally in verse 27, “Yes it is, Lord.”
Her calling Jesus “lord” is not an expression of her belief in Jesus’ deity. But it is a recognition of his power and authority. But she also called him “Son of David.” She recognizes his royal ancestry and therefore his claim to the throne of Israel. But even more so, her calling Jesus “Son of David” was a recognition of his messianic identity. It isn’t until the next chapter that we find Peter calling Jesus the Messiah.
Perhaps this ignoring the woman and calling her a dog was Jesus’ way of testing whether or not she really believed he was the Messiah.
That’s the easiest interpretation to accept. But it isn’t the only interesting one. Let’s look at interpretation number 2:
We as Christians proclaim that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Being fully human, the Bible tells us, means that Jesus experienced everything that we experience. Pain, check. Temptation, you bet. Sadness, fear, anger, absolutely. If Jesus was fully human and experienced everything that we experience, then he probably also experienced what it means to learn and grow.
Before you go writing this perspective off as heretical, let me remind you of the twelve-year-old Jesus we find in Luke chapter 2. After his famous visit to the temple where Jesus wowed the rabbis for three days, we find this in verse 52: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
So the Bible tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom. It would be funny if Jesus was born into an all-knowing mind, even if he was in the body of a baby. I picture an infant saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
No, it is obvious that Jesus gained wisdom and knowledge throughout his lifetime. And some would say that Jesus continued to gain wisdom and knowledge throughout his ministry. Therefore, some would propose that what we see in today’s passage is Jesus learning that his mission on earth is bigger than just a mission to the Israelites.
I’m going to get a bit theological on you here, but try to follow along. There is good reason to think that Jesus could potentially learn throughout his ministry because he seems to have a full understanding of his messianic identity by the time he is crucified. But theologians will ask if Jesus could have known he was fully divine, fully God, and truly experienced everything that we experience. If you know that you are God in human flesh, are you really tempted? If you know that you are fully God in human flesh, are you really going to experience doubt? Can one doubt their own existence?
The way we describe this is by saying that when God came to earth as Jesus, in order to experience full humanity, God had to self-limit his own knowledge. Therefore, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Jesus learned from this Canaanite woman, that his understanding of his mission expanded to include more than just the lost sheep of Israel. We don’t know when Jesus fully comprehended his messianic identity, but it is clear that he does learn from birth until death.
I think that both of those interpretations are helpful, though I can’t say that either one is completely convincing. Also, I would say that they are not mutually exclusive. Jesus could have been testing the woman and perhaps he learned a little something about his calling to all nations in the process. But I think that if we really want to wrap our minds around what is happening here, we need a third interpretation.
One of the things that I am always encouraging you to remember is that when we read a passage of scripture that we must read it in its context. Chapter and verse numbers are helpful, but they were not a part of the original text. When we read a chapter of the Bible, we sometimes treat it as we might treat the end of a chapter in a novel. In a novel a chapter comes to an end and the author moves on to another idea or story. But since the books of the Bible were written as one story, we can’t assume that the chapter and verse divisions necessarily mark the end of a thought or story.
Our text for today begins in the middle of chapter 15. But let’s go back and re-visit chapter 14 for a bit of the context. All of chapter 14 takes place along the Sea of Galilee, a very Jewish territory. Jesus feeds the 5,000 and heals the sick in this chapter. We also have last week’s text, which includes Jesus and Peter walking on the water. In verse 31 we find Jesus saying to his very Jewish friend, Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
We then move to chapter 15, where the first half of the chapter discusses the Jewish tradition of ceremonial washings; what is and is not clean. Like my children, the disciples are accused of not washing their hands before they eat. This wasn’t just an issue of sanitation, but of ritual purity.
In the first 20 verses of chapter 15 Jesus seems to be critiquing the way the religious people are interpreting the rituals of clean and unclean laws. Verses 17-20 offer a good synopsis: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
We then come to today’s passage about the Canaanite woman. You can’t get less kosher than a Canaanite woman coming to Jesus, a Jewish man, and asking him for a favor. The Canaanites were a cursed people. As a woman she was seen as a second-tiered human being. And she did not keep the purity Laws.
She was as unclean as they come.
One chapter after Jesus asks his very Jewish friend Peter, “Why did you doubt?” he tells an unclean, Canaanite woman, “Great is your faith!”
And what does Jesus go on to do in that region of Tyre and Sidon; in that very Gentile, pagan, Canaanite region of Tyre and Sidon? He cures the sick and feeds four thousand.
When laid out graphically, these stories form a chiasm, with the stories of Jesus redefining clean and unclean and in the center. The stories of Peter’s lack of faith and strong faith of the Canaanite woman are parallels; one as a positive example, one as a negative example.
When we step back and look at the big picture, I think we can make the argument that Jesus was testing the Canaanite woman and that Jesus was learning more about his mission as he went. But more importantly, looking at the big picture allows us to see God’s plan working its way out. 500 years earlier Isaiah had prophesied that one day every knee would bow, and every tongue confess faith in the Lord. People of every race, ethnicity, religion, and background will come to him.
As our children prepare to go back to school, may this story serve as a reminder to all of us that God’s grace is big enough for all people. When cliques form, mean girls mock clothes, jocks give wedgies, and nerds are shoved in lockers, may the Christian children of the world stand up for those who are considered outsiders. May we all learn, just as Jesus learned, God’s love is big enough for all.