LEARNING BASIC BIBLE STUDY METHODS
An Inductive Guide to the Study of the Bible,
Using the Gospel of Matthew
THE FAITH OF A CANAANITE WOMAN
(Note: This is the 23rd lesson in this series on learning how to study the Bible. To work through the series in order to see the principles covered already, start with the Introduction and then proceed through the lessons in sequence. These are all reserved in the archives.)
In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we begin to see signs of the tide turning against Jesus by the leaders of the country, and accordingly Jesus turning more to the Gentiles. In chapter fourteen John the Baptist was beheaded, a clear sign of the opposition to the movement. But Jesus fed the five thousand, showing that He could meet the needs of Israel; and then He walked on the water, showing that He is the Lord of creation. In chapter fifteen Jesus challenged the teachings of the elders because those teachings had been elevated to the status of Scripture. Then, following that confrontation, Jesus went out of the country to the region of Tyre and Sidon and met a Canaanite woman. Then, as he came back to the region of Galilee, he fed the four thousand, a sign that he could meet the needs of the nations. Then, as we shall see, in chapter sixteen Jesus will give His first prediction of His death.
So this lesson will focus on the meeting with the Canaanite woman.
Reading the Text
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 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.” He answered, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.”
24 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 master’s table.”
27 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Observations on the Text
This little story is essentially built around the conversation between the woman and Jesus. We begin with the note that Jesus withdrew far up the coast to the region of Tyre and Sidon. One would have to say that He was not simply trying to get away from difficult events in Israel, and neither was this a chance meeting. The Lord was going to this Canaanite area, to this Canaanite woman.
But the conversation gives the impression that Jesus was not willing to answer her request because she was a Canaanite. This will become a major part of the study, for there is obviously something powerful at work in the ethnic dimension of the conversation. What is clear is that the woman was not going to give up, but kept pleading, even from her Canaanite background, so that Christ recognized her great faith. The contrast is truly striking: in Israel Jesus was trying to convince people He was the Messiah, and was being challenged to prove it with a sign. But here in Gentile territory he met a woman who was convinced He was the Messiah and He could not discourage her efforts. His apparent attempt to put her off was therefore a test, and her great faith must have been gratifying to the Savior.
So in this study we will once again focus on the conversation, because that is the substance of the story. But this is one passage where the reader will have to read up on the ethnic controversy, the Old Testament background of conflict between the kings of Israel and the Canaanites. This will give some insight into the imagery of “dogs” used in the conversation. The story, though, is truly about the persistent faith of this Canaanite woman.
The study could be divided up in a number of ways, because it is not a complicated passages. I will simply make the circumstances the first point (v.21), the conversation the second part (vv. 22-28a), and the outcome as the third point (v. 28b).
The account is also found in Mark 7:24-30. Mark gives us a little more information in some areas. Jesus came to the region and entered into a house and did not want anyone to know it. The woman heard about it and came looking for him. Mark explains that she was Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. This would be typical of the northern country, for it was ruled by Greeks for the period immediately before the time of Jesus. People in the region would be of mixed nationalities.
Mark does not include the disciples’ suggestion to send her away, or Jesus’ statement that he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Scholars have suggested that that statement was added later to Matthew, as guidance to Matthew’s Jewish church in its relation to Gentiles, but that makes no sense. Besides, we do not know much of Matthew’s church. The story is better interpreted as part of the development of redemptive history, moving from the late OT concepts to the full Christian idea of Gentiles and Jews in the kingdom. Besides, the Gospel of Matthew had already included such a statement by Jesus in Matthew 10:6. And Matthew’s Jewish audience would have been interested to know that Jesus did a miracle for a Canaanite woman, in Gentile land. Mark was writing to a different audience than Matthew, a Gentile audience, and that statement would need a lot of explanation to them. Jesus had healed Gentiles before, but always in Jewish territory.
Analysis of the Text
I. The Circumstances: Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon (v. 21). There are two things you have to explain here: the withdrawing, and the location.
Tyre and Sidon were the two main Phoenician cities just north of Mount Carmel on the coast. In the Old Testament times this was all the region of the Phoenicians, better known as Canaanitish tribes. The word does not refer to one specific ethnic group, but an amalgamation of different groups (usually a list of twelve or more people known as the Canaanites) living in the land of Canaan. The word “Canaan” is the ancient name of the whole land before Abram arrived. The word itself may be related to the purple dye of the shellfish, or the merchant class that traded in the material. Because of its seaports and corresponding trade the Canaanite empire became a dominant power in the third millennium B.C. It had weakened tremendously by the time of the conquest, but still provided a formidable military challenge for Joshua and then later the Judges. But the Canaanites were also thoroughly pagan and corrupt. Their presence in the land was a strong threat to the purity of Israel’s religion and morality. So there is a long history of spiritual and military conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites. David and his royal successors managed to control them; Solomon even did business with them when he was building he temple. But over the years the Canaanites were defeated and most of them fled the land. The bulk of those who fled settled in North Africa in Carthage, and met their doom in 146 B.C., which essentially ended the curse on Canaan and any threat from Canaanites. There were still people of various ethnic origins living in the area of today’s Lebanon and Syria, and they would be called Canaanites (like our term Americans). And Jesus met one of them here.
But why did Jesus go to the region? He withdrew from the conflict with the Pharisees and elders about thirty to fifty miles north into Gentile country. He had “withdrawn” before (2:12, 22; 4:12, 12:15, 14:13). Jesus was trying to control the timing of things. He did not want people to make Him king, and He did not want the confrontation with His enemies to come to a head too soon. So frequently He withdrew, or told people not to say anything about the miracle, or a number of other unexpected acts. It appears that Jesus withdrew for a time, both to let the conflict settle a bit, and to turn attention to Gentiles in this act. The timing is most significant--the Jewish leaders were rejecting Him, and Gentile woman who hardly knows Him was seeking mercy.
Some suggest that Jesus only went to the border, but did not enter Gentile land. There is no basis for that, and no reason. He had been in Gentile lands, and while that may have been a defilement in the minds of the Pharisees, it was not so in biblical tradition. It is clear that He left Galilee and entered a Gentile region (v. 21; Mark 7:31).
II. The Conversation: Jesus draws faith out of the Canaanite woman (22-28a).The way that Jesus deals with this woman has been given some very strange interpretations. One scholar suggested that Jesus had been a racist and this woman converted him from that narrow view. That is just silly. If he had been a Jewish racist, and therefore a sinner, he would not have come to Tyre and Sidon. No, what Jesus is doing is typical of the way He dealt with people--He would put stumblingblocks, as it were, in their way to see if they had faith to step over them. For example, when someone called Him “good,” He said, “Why are you calling me good, there is no one good but God.” How they responded to that would show what they thought of Him (He was not denying that He was good, or God).
The woman came crying out to Jesus, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Her words are significant, given Matthew’s description of her as a Canaanite. She is well aware of the ancient rivalry between the Jews and the Canaanites. She believes He is the promised Messiah; but if that is true, then He is to her a Jewish king, “Son of David.” As such, He is sovereign over her and her land, and all she can do is cry for mercy. Her words open the old wounds. But she was desperate for her daughter, and so would cry out for mercy from the visiting Jewish king.
It is the setting and her words that prompt the disciples, and then Jesus, to respond the way they do. At first Jesus was silent, no doubt to see if she would persevere--and she did, following Him down the street crying out. The disciples said, “Send her away.” Now this could mean a couple of different things. They could mean, “Send her away because she is a nuisance.” Or they could mean, “Send her away by healing her because she won’t go away.” This last interpretation makes the best sense, because Jesus’ answer in verse 24 speaks to it and not the other. In other words, “I am only sent to the lost sheep of Israel” would explain why he was not healing her, and would not explain a request to dismiss her without healing her.
His answer, reflecting what He has already said in 10:6, focuses on His primary mission in the world, as reflected by Matthew. He was the promised Jewish Messiah who came to His own (John 1 tells us), but when His own rejected Him, He turned to the Gentiles. The “lost sheep of the house of Israel” does not mean there were lost sheep in Israel, but that all Israel was lost (Isaiah 53: all we like sheep have gone astray). His own mission was primarily to Israel; the mission of the Gentiles will be to go into all the world. But events like this will inform the disciples that Jesus set the precedent.
Jesus wanted the disciples and the woman to understand fully that His ministry in the brief time He had on earth was very focused. He was the Son of David, the Messiah. That fact did not admit this Canaanite woman to the benefits of the covenant made with the Jews. The kingdom had to be fully offered to them first, in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom. (The passage is like John 4:22 where it was recognized that “salvation is from the Jews.”) So all the woman could do is ask for mercy, general mercy as a non-Israelite.
(Many students of the Bible for one reason or another are afraid of this race issue; but the people of the times were very much aware of it. And Jesus came as a Jew, as the promised king of the Jews, whose kingdom would eventually extend to all the world, as it had in bits and pieces in the Old Testament. But it began with Israel).
Well, this woman would not be put off, and so knelt before Him and begged, “Lord, help me.” Jesus pushed her a little further, reminding her of the historic distinction between the cursed Canaanites and the blessed Israelites. In the short saying the Jews are the “children” and the Gentiles are the “dogs.” The children get fed first.
But the woman’s answer is marvelous: even the “dogs” eat the crumbs that the children drop. She acquiesces to the role of a “dog” in relation to Israel (she knows the Messiah came to Israel first); she may not be able to sit down at the Messiah’s table and eat with the “children,” but she should be allowed to pick up some of the crumbs they drop. She wants some of the uncovenanted mercy of God, His general saving grace to all people.
The word for dogs here refers to small dogs, perhaps children’s pets who are harmless and somewhat helpless. She accepts Israel’s historical privilege over the Gentiles, especially the powerful ancient Canaanites; but she is no threat to that in her request for grace that is freely given to the Gentiles. Besides, she will take what the Jews do not want. And that attitude played out again and again in Paul’s missionary journey when he turned to Gentiles because the Jews did not want their Messiah, but the Gentiles did.
III. The Conclusion: Jesus rewards her faith by healing her daughter (28b). Jesus honors the faith that seeks mercy. She had no resentment, no anger about her situation; she only knew that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who came to heal people, and for some reason He was in her town. She sought mercy from Him. And this time Jesus responded with emotion (“O woman” has emotional force). Her faith was rewarded. And she became one of the early Gentiles to enter the kingdom.
Conclusion and Application
The basic theme of the passage is that Christ went into Gentile territory and did this miracle for a Gentile woman who had greater faith than the Jews who were rejecting and challenging Jesus’ claims. It teaches us about the grace of our Lord, about faith of people who are in need, and about the coming advance of the kingdom to the Gentiles who will be sent into all the world. They would know that it was the Lord’s desire that all come to salvation.
So the conversation has to be understood in its historical setting to capture fully what Jesus is doing here. He is not playing games with the woman--He did not go all the way to her region to avoid her! But the crisis between Jesus and the Jews was soon to intensify, and Jesus is making it clear that the grace of God will be given to all who believe, even though His mission called for Him to present Himself to Israel as the Son of David. It was as if He was saying to the disciples and to her, “You do know I am the Jewish Messiah don’t you?”
It is amazing how the Church over the centuries has tried to conceal that point, presenting Jesus as non-Jewish in paintings and art, and even as Aryan in theological writings (as amazing as that may seem). The Church has done such an effective job in this that many Jewish people today have to be reminded that Jesus is their Messiah, a Jew (the Church has adopted a “triumphalist” or “replacement” attitude toward the Jews which has not been a healthy or correct approach). Here, the disciples wanted Jesus to satisfy her need; and Jesus wanted to heal her daughter (He came all the way to her region) but He wanted her to express her faith in spite of whatever racial tensions there were. Ad since she knew that He was the Lord, the Messiah, and asked for mercy, He healed her daughter. Jesus’ ministry may have focused on Israel first (as Paul’s did, “to the Jew first”), but He extended mercy to all who would believe in Him.
This passage should have become instructive for the disciples, but they still had to meet and decide if the Gospel had in truth gone to the Gentiles, and if so what laws should Gentiles come under (Acts 15). But there was no denying that Jesus went to the Gentiles and extended His grace.
And so the instruction is for us as well, that we are to take the message of grace to the world, to whoever is seeking mercy and will believe. If there is resistance and refusal, we may continue to pray for them (as Jesus prayed for Jerusalem), but we turn to people who want it, whom the Spirit of God has prepared to receive the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord. Unfortunately, the Church spends the greatest amount of time, money and energy continuing its work at home, when the greatest responses to the Gospel today are in the third world. Our cities have churches and ministries on almost every corner; but in other countries there are people seeking God’s grace and the need is not being met.