Jesus Turns a Gentile Mother’s Desperation into Faith

Jesus seemed to be “rude” to a Gentile (pagan, non-Jew, or foreign) woman, someone outside his outreach to Israel. Here’s an exegesis (close reading) that explains his reasons, in a little more detail, in his own cultural context.

I hope this post clears up any concern that Jesus was rude. He was, however, asked to step outside his main mission. Would he do it? Why was he so hesitant?

All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. You are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.

This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT.

Let’s begin.

21 Then Jesus went out from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And look! A Canaanite woman from the vicinity came and cried out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Son of David! My daughter is badly demonized!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. His disciples approached and requested of him, saying, “Dismiss her! Because she is calling after us!” 24 In reply, he said to her, “I have not been sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed before him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 But in reply he said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the pet dogs.” 27 Then she said, “Yes, Lord, for even the pet dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!” 28 So in reply, Jesus said to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you want!” And her daughter was healed at that very moment.  (Matt. 15:21-28; see Mark 7:24-30)

Let’s take the comments verse by verse.

21:

Tyre and Sidon is in the far north, on the Mediterranean coast (Lebanon today). Apparently a Jewish community lived up there. (However, Mark 7:24 indicates he wanted to take a break.) On the other hand, Jesus is moving beyond the borders of Israel. He is leading his disciples to look beyond what he said back in Matt. 10:6, namely, the apostles should not go beyond the lost sheep of Israel. His mission is shifting, gradually

22:

Then a Canaanite woman, of an ancient pagan religion, in her desperation, broke down the social barriers. Matthew uses the word Canaanite to conjure the false religion of old. Now the miracle and mercy of Jesus will be even clearer.

“Look!” this updates the older “behold!” Matthew (and Mark and Luke ) often uses this term to introduce a new and surprising element to the story. “Watch! Pay attention! Something important is now happening in the story!” The Gospels were intended to be read out loud in the earliest Christian communities.

The Canaanite woman may not have known that his mission was to the lost sheep of Israel, not to those outside the covenant. But if she did know, then she didn’t care about it. Her daughter was demonized.

“Son of David” was a popular Messianic title. So she must have heard about his Messiahship, or she may have heard someone else call him by this name, earlier (and unrecorded). it reflects the future age when the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf would be unstopped and the lame would leap like a deer (Is. 35:5:5-6). But Jesus is ushering it in now. Later in his ministry he will correct the popular view and say that if the Messiah really was David’s son, then why does David call him Lord (Matt. 22:41-46)?

See my post on this title:

3. Titles of Jesus: The Son of David and the Messiah

23:

Jesus puts her off by remaining silent, the first time.

So she turns to the disciples and bothers them. She is shouting at them or calling out to them. One definition of the verb is screaming. I don’t think she was doing that, but she is raising her voice and a ruckus. She won’t stop. “Help me! Oh, please help me!” she may be saying to them.

24:

Jesus puts her off again, plainly spelling out his mission. She shouldn’t distract him from it. She was a Canaanite woman. She was not part of Israel.

25:

Her prayer was simple and straightforward. “Lord, help me!”

26:

Jesus puts her off for the third time. He speaks in a brief parable or illustration: children and little dogs.

As we shall see in Blomberg’s comment, The Greek word is kunarion (pronounced koo-nah-ree-on), and it literally means “little dog” (or plural, as here, “little dogs”). It is contrasted with wild dogs that roamed the streets. (Some scholars say that the suffix “-ion,” indicating “little” or “puppy,” lost its force in NT times, but I’m not so sure that these definitions get lost entirely.) So it is not a strong putdown, necessarily, because these pet dogs have access to the children’s table. Yet the term does draw a line between Jews and Gentiles. He said it to elicit from her hunger and desperation. Then she must go beyond those things and call out in faith. She broke down the artificial barrier. Will she step across it and persist?

“he said to her”: “to her” is not in the Greek, but the context warrants it. He could, however, have been talking to the disciples, and she overheard him. But she replied anyway. If so, this shows her desperation and hunger. But does she have faith?

27:

Now she answers ironically, which puzzles commentators. First, she acknowledges that his statement has a certain logic to it. “Yes, sir!” “Yes, lord!” But then her affirmation takes an ironic twist, as if she says, “But consider that crumbs slip through children’s little fingers and fall to the floor! Children don’t take the greatest care, do they, my lord? Did you think of that? All I’m asking for are the crumbs, not the whole loaf or a nice piece! You can feed both the children and a lap dog like me!”

28:

Wow! Jesus must have smiled. He got it out of her! She demonstrated great faith by her riposte (retort) to his third denial. He really was a soft touch, much like a father who gives in to the pleading of his special child. “That girl has me wrapped around her little finger!”

It is possible to detect, by the Spirit, faith surging in someone. Paul saw faith in a man crippled from birth, such that he could be healed, and he was (Acts 14:9). I believe Jesus saw extraordinary faith in this woman and brought it out of her by momentarily challenging her and delaying her instant answer.

The woman moved from desperation to faith. She conquered him with her faith. And her faith was demonstrated by her words. Never underestimate the power of spoken words to reveal your faith. Ask God out loud in your prayers.

Recall this expanded translation of Matt. 7:7: “Continually ask, and it shall be given to you. Continually seek, and you shall find. Continually knock on the door, and it shall be opened to you.”

She got her answer to prayer at that very moment.

“Woman!” This is not an insult, as it is to our ears, two thousand years later. It is equivalent to “ma’am” or “madam.” However, I take it also to connote, “Wow, Canaanite woman! You stun me! I’m taken aback!”

So why was Jesus apparently, seemingly, so harsh and standoffish? We cannot catch the scene fully when we read the words. We have to picture a lively dialogue.

Commentator France insightfully writes of v. 28:

Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in the cheek, and it may be that Jesus’s demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not to be his last word on the subject. Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument, Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase “devil’s advocate” may not be appropriate to the context! (p. 591)

In other words, Jesus was playing the role of “a wise teacher who allows, and indeed incites, his pupil to mount a victorious argument against the foil of his own reluctance” (France, 591, n. 13).

We must not look at this text on the surface. Jesus was simply playing the role of a reluctant teacher to test the hunger of the woman in need, to bring out and elicit more of her hunger that he saw in her words. She succeeded.

And Blomberg says in his comment on this verse:

Jews frequently insulted Gentiles by calling them “dogs,”—the wild, homeless scavengers that roamed freely in Palestine. But the diminutive form here (kynarion rather than kyōn) suggests a more affectionate term for domestic pets, particularly since these dogs eat under the children’s table. Even at best, Jesus’ remarks still strike the modern reader as condescending. Jesus apparently wants to demonstrate and stretch this woman’s faith. The “children” must then refer to Israel and the “bread” to the blessings of God on the Jews, particularly through Jesus’ healing ministry. The woman disputes none of Jesus’ terms but argues that, even granting his viewpoint, he should still help her (v. 27). The Gentiles should receive at least residual blessings from God’s favor on the Jews. In fact, the Old Testament from Gen 12:1–3 onwards promised far more than residue. The woman reveals a tenacious faith even as a Gentile (v. 28). Jesus explicitly commends this faith, closely paralleling the narrative of 8:5–13 (as does also his instantaneous healing from a distance).

How do I come to know God better through this story?

This story moves me. It seems that he went up north just for her, because no other miracle is recorded in Tyre and Sidon, in Matthew’s Gospel.

This was a true story of how Jesus temporarily withheld an answer to a woman who was not part of his mission, just to draw out from her the faith that he must have perceived in her.

Faith ≠ Desperation

Faith > Desperation

Desperation

Faith!

These verses are a good conclusion to the startling pericope:

12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, (Jer. 29:12-14, ESV)

The lesson for us: when we seek the Lord with all our heart, we will be found by him (v. 13). After we demonstrate our hunger, he will give us his good purpose and plans (Jer. 29:11). Our relationship with God in heaven cannot be casual or complacent, so we get what we want by just snapping our fingers. No shortcuts with God, as if he is our cosmic butler. Seek him hard, everyone. Submit to and conform to his will. He loves you and wants the best for you.

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