Today’s Lenten devotional by N.T. Wright (Week 3, Wednesday), focusing on Matthew 15:21-28, describes one of those passages in Scripture that is difficult to grasp in isolation. What’s really going on here? What does the text tell us about the values of Jesus Christ? Why didn’t He just heal the Canaanite woman when she asked? Is Jesus calling this woman a ‘dog’? Did this woman talk Jesus into changing His mind?
And He came down with them and stood on a level place with a crowd of His disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and be healed of their diseases, as well as those who were tormented with unclean spirits. And they were healed. And the whole multitude sought to touch Him, for power went out from Him and healed them all.
Luke 6:17-19 (NKJV)
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession.” 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 their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Matthew 15:21-28 (NIV84)
From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden. For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.
Mark 7:24-30 (NKJV)
Without worrying too much about translation nuances from the original Greek, or first century idioms, let’s cherry pick through the accounts of Matthew and Peter (remember, Peter is the apostolic source of Mark’s text), and put together our own paraphrase.
Jesus is tired, probably even weary. Notice Matthew wrote that Jesus ‘withdrew’. Tyre and Sidon are on the Mediterranean coast—He needed some rest from the mobs that were constantly badgering Him for healing. He tried to avoid being noticed by entering a house, but the crowds followed Him. A non-Jewish woman came out of the crowd, and the disciples couldn’t turn her away. She addressed Jesus as “Lord, Son of David,” and threw herself at His feet. She wanted a spiritual healing for her daughter, and she wanted it bad—bad enough to humble herself in front of everyone. At first, Jesus does not answer her. But she persists. He tells the disciples that He is on a specific mission to the “lost sheep of Israel,” referred to in Old Testament Scripture (Ezekiel 34:23-24, Micah 5:4-5). In presenting Himself as the shepherd for the Hebrew people, Jesus claimed to be the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy (Mark 6:34, John 10:11-16, Hebrews 13:20, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 7:17). He tests her by saying that what God has intended for His people should not be thrown to the dogs. (Dogs was a term Jews used to refer to non-Jews.) But she again humbles herself, and says that even non-Jews need what Jesus has to offer. Jesus commends and rewards her faith.
Like much of Scripture, this text is more of a lesson than a story. If we read it as a story we risk missing the lesson. As a story, Jesus is tired, and a woman gets what she wants by being persistent. Got it. But as a lesson—for the disciples and for us—we need to appreciate how much God cares for all of us. Not just those with a place at the table, but those who recognize their unworthiness, who humble themselves, and who depend upon Jesus Christ.
So be persistent, have faith, and ask—it’s all good. But by all means don’t miss the lesson.