The Mysterious Case of the Canaanite Woman

Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:28)

We’ve reached the conclusion of this brief drama that has seen a Gentile woman beg Jesus to free her daughter from demonic oppression, the disciples try to just get rid of her, and Jesus not only twice deny the woman’s request but also refer to the Jews as his children and this woman as a dog. Yet the woman still had not given up, pressing Jesus for a 3rd time in the dialogue to grant her request: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Mt 15:27)

So what are we to make of this? Did Jesus really not want to free this woman’s daughter? Did he really think Gentiles were dogs? Was the woman really able to change the mind of an immutable God?

The answer to all those questions is “No!” I think Jesus had a three-fold purpose in behaving the way he did in this passage:

1. Jesus was trying to show the disciples the folly of their prejudices.

In Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus had a confrontation with the Pharisees. If you’ve read the gospel accounts or have paid attention as we’ve gone through Matthew, you know that the Pharisees aren’t usually portrayed in the most positive light. They were (for the most part, though not entirely [Nicodemus for example was not]) legalistic, accusatory toward Jesus, and focused on promoting their own external righteousness at the expense of those “less holy” who actually had more faith. Yet when Jesus confronts the Pharisees, the disciples take their side and asked Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Mt 15:12)

Now in Matthew 15:21-28, you see a woman who stands in sharp contrast to the Pharisees: she’s humble, she recognizes Jesus as the Son of David, she is coming to him recognizing she is not worthy. She is in need. Yet the only smidgen of concern the disciples can muster for her is simply to get rid of her so she will stop bothering them. I think by referring to her as a dog, Jesus was simply saying what the disciples were thinking.

But whereas Jesus had called the Pharisees hypocrites several verses prior, he tells this Gentile woman, “great is your faith!” I wonder if Jesus’ words to Peter on the Sea of Galilee (“O you of little faith”) echoed in the disciples ears when they heard this.
Often we, like the disciples, feel greater sympathy toward those who are religious and self-righteous than we do toward those who are humble and in need. May this remind us where our sympathies and compassion should be focused.

2. Jesus was foreshadowing the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles.

The Jews thought of the Gentiles as dogs and would even cross the street to avoid the possibility of being near one. You see this inherent prejudice in the disciples’ lack of concern for the woman and desire that she just go away. It’s amazing to think that Jesus’ plan all along was to take some of these same men and use them to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

This passage parallels that of the Gentile centurion in Matthew 8. In both, Jesus grants their request and commends their faith, in contrast to the lack of faith he repeatedly points out in the Jews, including the disciples and the Pharisees. This passage also takes place in “the district of Tyre and Sidon,” (Mt 15:21) and in Matthew 11:21, Jesus had declared, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

Jesus was speaking very seriously when he told the Gentile woman that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24). His primary focus during his first coming was on the Jews. But his plan all along was to have the Jews finally fulfill their calling to be a blessing to all nations. The incidences of the centurion and the Gentile woman serve as a notice that all peoples would be included in the Kingdom.

3. Jesus was drawing out the woman’s faith.

I don’t think Jesus was intent on denying the woman’s request before being won over by her persistence. I do think that Jesus was trying to force her to be persistent (while at the same time teaching the disciples a lesson). Jesus twice denied the woman’s request, but she kept on asking. The fact that Jesus ultimately granted it tells us that she was not wrong to do so. It seems contradictory, but it is possible to be persistent in a request without challenging God’s sovereignty. In fact, by giving up and becoming embittered by a denied request, we can challenge the sovereignty of God more so than if we kept asking.

The key is the attitude behind our asking. As I’ve already mentioned, I think the Gentile woman came to Jesus in humility, recognizing both her need and Jesus’ ability to meet that need. Her repeated requests, made from that attitude, were eventually rewarded. Now, we need to understand that we won’t always get what we want when we are persistent (see 2 Corinthians 12:8-9), but persistence itself is not wrong.

Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:

1. Am I harboring any prejudices towards those who seem less “religious” or less “righteous” than me? Do I recognize that often I am more like the Pharisees than the Gentile woman?

2. Am I thankful that, as a Gentile, I was included in God’s plan of salvation?

3. Am I persistent in my requests to God or do I quickly give up, become bitter, and in doing so challenge God’s sovereignty and God’s timing? Do I approach him humbly, recognizing my need and his ability to meet that need or do I approach him as the disciples did, expecting him to behave the way I want him to?

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