Though Jesus started his ministry with the lost sheep among the Israelites, he did not deny the request of the Gentiles for help. He made them express their faith in him as the “Son of David.” Jesus’ disciples could learn from him on how to deal with the Gentiles. Before his ascension into heaven, Jesus entrusted the disciples to preach the good news to all the nations. Faith and persistence in prayer without losing hope are the qualities we note in the Canaanite woman’s request for help. Like the Canaanite woman, let us also keep our faith and prayer. And like Jesus, let us be compassionate to those who need our help.
(Matthew 15:21) Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. (22) Now a Canaanite woman came from that area and began to cry out, “Lord, Son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is greatly tormented by a demon.” (23) But Jesus did not answer her, not even a word. So his disciples approached him and said, “Send her away: see how she is shouting after us.” (24) Then Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” (25) But the woman was already kneeling before Jesus and said, “Lord, help me!” (26) Jesus answered, “It is not right to take the bread from the children and throw it to the little dogs.” (27) The woman replied, “It is true, sir, but even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” (28) Then Jesus said, “Woman, how great is your faith! It will be as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
(Matthew 15:21) Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
While Jesus was continuing his ministry in Capernaum, his popularity among the nations and opposition from the Jewish leaders grew. After a dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees on cleanliness and defilement followed by addressing the crowd on the same topic, Jesus moved to Tyre and Sidon, a pagan region. It was to avoid a premature attack on him at Capernaum and to be free for a while from the public and the Jewish authorities. It is probable that he had gone only to the borders of Tyre and Sidon because he had ordered his disciples, “Do not go into Gentile territory and do not enter a Samaritan town.” (Matthew 10:5).
Tyre and Sidon
Tyre and Sidon are 20 miles apart and are now in Lebanon, north of Galilee. The inhabitants of Sidon must be the descendants of Sidon who was the firstborn son of Canaan, the grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:15). Now the city is in Lebanon and known as Saida in Arabic, meaning “fishing.” Sidon was the northern border of the ancient Canaanites (Genesis 10:19).
Tyre is 20 miles south of Sidon on a rock island at the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The name Tyre came from the Semitic word “sr” meaning rock.
Tyre and Sidon were the principal cities of Phoenicia that lay on the coast of Galilee. Though Joshua had allotted these cities also to the tribe of Asher (Joshua 19:28-29) at the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites never conquered the people there (Judges 1:31-32). “So the Israelites lived in the midst of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. The Israelites married the daughters of these people, gave their own daughters in marriage to the sons of these people and served their gods.” (Judges 3:5-6).
Tyre contributed supplies and personnel for the construction of David’s palace in Jerusalem. “Hiram, king of Tyre, sent messengers to David with cedar trees, carpenters and masons to build a house for David.” (2 Samuel 5:11). “Besides logs of cedar beyond number, since the Sidonians and Tyrians had brought cedar logs to David in great quantities.” (1 Chronicles 22:4). These were for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Assyrians attacked the ten tribes of Israel around 740 B.C. and exiled them to various parts of their empire. The tribe of Asher was also among the lost 10 tribes of Israel. Jeremiah (27:3–11) and Ezekiel (26:7–14) had prophesied the surrender of Tyre and Sidon to Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Tyre for 13 years (585–572 B.C.).
After returning from Babylonian exile when the Jews started construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem (521-516 B.C.) under the leadership of Zerubbabel, they sought the help from Tyre and Sidon for construction materials and personnel for the Temple. “They gave money to the masons and the carpenters. They also gave food, wine and oil to the Sidonians and Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to Joppa by sea, according to the authorization of Cyrus, king of Persia.” (Ezra 3:7).
(22) Now a Canaanite woman came from that area and began to cry out, “Lord, Son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is greatly tormented by a demon.”
Mark also narrates the same incident (Mark 7:24-30). According to him, the event happened in Tyre at a house where he was intending to take rest (Mark 7:24).
The expression shows the unexpected appearance of the Canaanite woman in front of Jesus.
A Canaanite woman
The Bible uses “Canaanite” in a wider sense for all who had been living in the promised land before Israelites arrived from Egypt (Genesis 10:18-19). Once they occupied Canaan, the term Canaanite got limited to the Phoenicians who lived in the Tyre and Sidon region. The Asher tribe had allowed these Canaanites to live there along with them. Matthew refers to this lady as “a Canaanite woman,” because she was of Canaanite descent.
Mark presents the Canaanite woman as “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.” (Mark 7:26). The Assyrians (722 B.C.) and Babylonians (586 B.C.) exiled the Israelites and scattered them among other nations. Alexander the Great’s invasion (333-321 B.C.) brought the Greek people, their language, and culture among the Israelites. Thus, the Jews and Greeks were living side by side in the Roman empire. The Greeks were Gentiles, though not all Gentiles were Greeks. This Canaanite woman who approached Jesus was a Canaanite descent with Greek religion, culture, and language.
Mark presents the woman as “Syrophoenician by birth.” The Greeks gave the land of Canaan another name Phoenicia, which in Greek means purple. The people in this region had developed purple dye industry by extracting a fluid from a Mediterranean mollusk, the murex. Purple was a commodity for royal dress. They shipped this valuable dye to all over the Mediterranean world. The Phoenicians who lived in the Syrian province of Tyre and Sidon were known as Syrophoenicians to distinguish them from the Phoenicians who lived in North African Lybophoenicia or Carthage. Thus, Matthew’s usage of “Canaanite” and Mark’s calling of “Greek” and “Syrophoenician” are referring to the same lady.
Lord, Son of David!
Jesus became famous from Capernaum to distant places, including the Gentile nations. Even the Gentiles came to know that the “Son of David,” the Messiah, had arrived. The Jews believed that the Messiah would be a “Son of David,” from King David’s lineage. By acknowledging Jesus as the son of David, the Canaanite woman expressed her faith in Jesus as the Messiah. While many elite Jews had denied the Messiahship of Jesus, many poor Jews and Gentiles believed in him.
Have pity on me! My daughter is greatly tormented by a demon.
The woman, though seeking Jesus’ help to cast out a demon from her daughter, was asking for pity on herself. Her daughter’s suffering was her own. This woman had heard of the miracles and demon expulsion Jesus did in Galilee and Judea. Her only hope was in Jesus.
(23) But Jesus did not answer her, not even a word. So his disciples approached him and said, “Send her away: see how she is shouting after us.”
Jesus did not answer her, not even a word.
The silence of Jesus was not a denial of help, but a test of the woman’s faith. Sometimes, we also feel this silence for our prayers for help. That can be a test period of our faith in God.
“Send her away: see how she is shouting after us.”
The disciples’ mentality was to get rid of the Canaanite woman because she was a nuisance for them, and their master came there to take a break from his busy life in Galilee. They did not care about her feeling. The disciples might have thought the master did not want to help her because she was a Gentile. Jesus had instructed them to minister only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:5). Instead of a silence, they thought, the master should give a negative answer and send her away, so she will not keep bothering them.
The silence of Jesus could also be a test on the view and response of his disciples, who were his trainees. Jesus wanted to teach his disciples that they would later minister to the Gentiles with love and compassion.
(24) Then Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.”
By these words Jesus was not rejecting the request of a Gentile. He wanted to show that he came to fulfill God’s promise to the chosen people, to show his priority, and to test the woman’s faith. Jesus then healed her daughter, affirming that his mission is also for the Gentiles.
I was sent
God sent Jesus into the world as the fulfillment of His promise of redemption to humanity. This promise made with the first parents (Genesis 3:15) continued throughout the salvation history. The Bible speaks of the prophets whom God sent to speak on His behalf. John the Evangelist reports of John the Baptist, “There came a man, sent by God; his name was John.” (John 1:6). After his resurrection, Jesus appeared and told to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20:21). So, Jesus came with God’s mission to fulfill His promise to humanity from the beginning of creation.
Jeremiah presented Israel as a “lost sheep” misled by their shepherds (Jeremiah 50:6). Ezekiel spoke of the selfish shepherds of Israel, and God promised that He himself would rescue his sheep. “Indeed the Lord God says this: ‘I myself will care for my sheep and watch over them.’” (Ezekiel 34:11). Jesus, the Son of God, came as a shepherd to his sheep, Israel (John 10:11-16).
The people of Israel
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, and son of Isaac had an alternate name, Israel. He had 12 sons from his two wives and two maid servants. The descendants of these twelve sons formed the 12 tribes of Israel. All these tribes formed the house of Israel. Before the public ministry of Jesus, Assyrians and Babylonians had dispersed the house of Israel among the nations. After the Babylonian exile, the Jews who were the descendants of Judah, through whom God promised the Messiah to David, had settled in Judea and Galilee. Jesus said to the Canaanite woman that God sent him to these lost sheep of the people of Israel.
(25) But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
The woman came.
When Jesus and his disciples were discussing, the Canaanite woman was standing apart from them. She approached Jesus again with her enthusiastic request.
Did him homage.
The last attempt of the woman was by an act of prostrate homage. That means she fell flat on the ground expressing her humility, submission, and adoration.
“Lord, help me.”
This time she did not call Jesus “Son of David.” Based on Jesus’ response, she might have felt that, as a gentile, she was unworthy to call him that and claim healing as a gentile. However, as a mother, she was ardent to get the help for her daughter.
(26) Jesus answered, “It is not right to take the bread from the children and throw it to the little dogs.”
What was Jesus’ intention when he used the analogy of children and dogs in the place of Israelites and Greeks? The Israelites were the people with whom God made a covenant. So, they were God’s first-born children (Exodus 4:22). Gentiles had only a second place in front of God because they were after pagan gods. Jesus started his redemption of humanity starting with Jews and then extended to the Gentiles.
The Jews were insiders of the house like children, and the Gentiles were like favorite puppies brought up outside the house and not sharing equal rights with children. Jesus did not use the word for street dogs, but for pet dogs. The Jews had the practice of calling Gentiles dogs. However, the tone Jesus used was not of contempt or racism but was a lovable puppy with a smiling gesture.
Jesus’ intention was not to humiliate the Canaanite woman, because later he praised her for her excellent faith. He was expressing his priorities in preaching the gospel. Jesus must offer salvation first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles or Greeks. He had already healed a gentile centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). However, he extended his mission to the people all over the world before his ascension by asking the disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples from all nations.” (Matthew 28:19).
(27) The woman replied, “It is true, sir, but even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”
The Canaanite woman accepted Jesus’ reply in a positive sense. While acknowledging herself as a “dog,” she looked for the privilege of a puppy. She did not request to curtail any privilege of the children to favor her. She believed that even a dog’s part of grace from Jesus would be enough to heal her daughter.
(28) Then Jesus said, “Woman, how great is your faith! It will be as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
The woman had expressed her faith in Jesus like the Centurion who was also a gentile (Matthew 8:5-13). She was a child of faith, though not of the flesh of Abraham (Romans 4:16). According to Mark, “When the woman went home, she found her child lying in bed and the demon gone.” (Mark 7:30).