There once was a Canaanite woman.
This woman makes a request of Christ that is filled with an incredible amount of submission, humility and faith. This is her story:
“Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.” (Mt. 15:21-28)
In verse 21, we read that “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” Why is this important contextually?
Well, anytime we read this word “withdrew” in the Gospels and in particular about Jesus, it carries with it a time of retreat for rest and renewal.
For example, in Matthew 14:13, Luke 5:16 and John 6:15, we find that Jesus “withdrew” to be alone and pray. This was always personal withdrawal to be with His Father. In Mark 3:7, Luke 9:10, John 11:54 and of course in Matthew 15, we read that Jesus often “withdrew” with His disciples.
These times of withdrawal were often in rural or wilderness settings. Furthermore, these times of withdrawal often had a two-fold purpose. First (1), for recuperation from a busy ministry schedule. Second (2), for reflection on the many things that the disciples were learning and experiencing.
Tyre & Sidon
“The region of Tyre and Sidon” was one such wilderness setting.
Note that the verse states “the region” and not the actual cities. Likely, the rural area between these two cities, far to the North and outside of Jesus’ typical regions of ministry.
Was this a random time of withdrawal or did Jesus bring the disciples here on purpose? I believe Jesus had a very important lesson in store for the disciples and in turn, for us.
The Woman’s Submission
In verse 22, enter the Canaanite woman. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Now if you haven’t read much of the Old Testament, it’s important to note that the People of Israel and the Canaanites; well they’ve had a bit of history.
In fact, way back in Deuteronomy 20, God actually orders the Israelites to completely destroy the entire Canaanite nation, along with the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (vs.17). God knew the amount of trouble that would ensue if the Israelites allowed these native tribes and their false gods to intermingle, which eventually started centuries of sin and heartache for God’s chosen people.
Nevertheless, this Canaanite woman has no other option. She submits herself to Jesus as Lord, than referring to His lineage to David; acknowledging his race and heritage.
Coming Back to Matthew 15
The disciples likely weren’t that excited about the trip North. Now they have to deal with this Canaanite. In verse 23, we see Jesus’ first response: Nothing. He ignores her.
This of course would make sense to the disciples; after all what Jewish Rabbi would ever deal with a Canaanite, never mind a Canaanite woman. So they ask Him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” Jesus replies simply with, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Jesus Speaks of His Earthly Ministry
However, we know (as did Jesus at the time), that His ministry would one day continue within these disciples, carrying His message to every nation, tribe and tongue (including but not limited to the Canaanites).
Alas, the disciples would have been very satisfied with Jesus’ answer. They likely hoped that this Canaanite woman would now leave them alone and go cry to someone else.
The Woman’s Humility
The Canaanite woman is in desperation. And desperation often leads to humility. This woman has nowhere else to turn. Jesus is her only hope. In verse 25, we read that in complete, humble submission, the woman falls to her knees before Christ and issues her plea for a second time; “Lord, help me!”
Now we don’t get a description of what the disciples are saying or doing, but their thoughts are likely, “Why won’t this woman give it up?” And Jesus gives His second response in verse 26. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
The disciples are likely quite satisfied with this statement. “That’s right. You tell her Jesus!”
Did Jesus Call Her a dog?
For those of you who are reading this for the first time, hearing Jesus calling a woman a dog may have really messed up your picture of Jesus in the blue sash, holding the little lamb. Don’t worry, take heart. This was more about a cultural term and a teachable moment, than Jesus actually calling this woman a dog.
The “children” that Jesus speaks of are God’s chosen people, the Children of Israel. The “bread” is Himself, which has so much metaphor and foreshadowing that we could do an entire study just on this one verse.
The “dogs” that Jesus mentions is not our current view of dogs as pets; but the opposite. At this time, “dogs” were expendable, interbred animals that have no real purpose. And so, “dogs” was also a common, racial slur that Jews of that day used when referring to Canaanites and other none-Jewish races.
Remember God’s Instruction
God told the People of Israel to wipe out these idolatrous nations. Historically, a lot of Israel’s problems stemmed from not following this command. Fast-forward to Jesus’ day and the Canaanites were a constant reminder of a time when they didn’t follow God. A reminder that life could have been different; life could have been better.
However, in this passage, we’re about to see that Jesus uses this derogatory term to test the woman’s humility and faith, and in turn teach the disciples a lesson.
The Woman’s Faith
In the Canaanite woman’s final plea, we see her humility and faith shine through. After being called a dog she replies, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (15:27)
“Fine, I’m a dog. I’m worthless in the eyes of your people. According to your Scriptures, my ancestors should be killed. I should have never been allowed to be born. But I’m here now, and I’m begging you. You are my Master and like a starved animal, I’m begging for one morsel from your table.”
In Jesus’ final response in verse 28, we see a sense of joyful compassion, like a father gazing down at his daughter with pride. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
Her Daughter Is Healed
We don’t know if her daughter was with her, back at home or wondering somewhere; but Scripture tells us that she was healed instantly. Can you imagine what the disciples are thinking? What they must have said to each other?
I can see it now. “Are you serious Jesus? Now you’re healing Canaanites? Us Jews have enough people who need healing; don’t waste your power on these dogs! Why would you do this?”
And so in that rural region of Tyre and Sidon, the teaching continues for the disciples.
Join the Conversation, Leave Your Thoughts
How do you maintain a prayer life full of submission, humility and faith? What do you focus on?