The focus of Jesus' ministry is upon "the House of Israel", but in his encounter with a Canaanite woman Matthew reminds us that the issue of a person being ceremonially clean or unclean, of being a Jew or a Gentile, is ultimately superseded by God's overflowing grace appropriated through faith. It was the quality of the woman's faith that released Jesus' saving power, not her religious credentials.
v21. Following the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus withdraws from the crowds and increasingly ministers to his disciples. The crowds are obviously stirred-up by his miracles and some people had even tried to make him their king. This news, no doubt, got Herod going, as well as further enraging the religious establishment. So, Jesus moves North into pagan territory, out of harm's way.
v22. Matthew sets the direction of the episode by giving this Syrophoenician woman her ancient ancestry. She comes from a nation set for destruction by God under the hand of Israel, a nation bitterly opposed to the people of Israel and their God. Yet, she knowingly comes to Israel's messiah for blessing, very aware of Jesus' messianic credentials. For her, Jesus is the "Son of David." She also recognizes Jesus' capacity to heal, for demon possession is the most difficult of healings since it requires one greater than Satan to break his hold.
v23-24. Jesus doesn't respond to the woman and so the disciples, obviously aggravated by her persistence, ask Jesus to deal with her request so that they can be on their way. Jesus then explains that his mission (under the authority of God) is to call out the faithful remnant of Israel. This doesn't deny a future mission to the Gentiles, only that for the present, "salvation is from the Jews", Jn.4:23-26.
v25. The woman cries to Jesus for her child as only a mother can.
v26. Although Jesus' reply seems terribly harsh, it is not as strong as it is usually translated. The word "puppies" carries the thought better than "dogs". Still, Jesus is making the point that, for the present, God's blessings are for his covenant people Israel.
v27. The woman's response is a little unclear, but it is likely that she argues against what Jesus has just said. In his dinner-time story, Jesus says "it is not right to take the children's bread and feed it to the household pets." In response she says, "Yes it is, because even the pets get to eat the scraps that fall from the master's table." She doesn't claim that justice demands that she has as much right as Israel to God's covenant mercies. She doesn't argue that God's sovereign will, his divine election of Israel, is unfair. She simply expresses her confidence that "even if she is not entitled to sit down as a guest at Messiah's table, ..... yet at least she may be allowed to receive a crumb of the uncovenanted mercies of God", R. Tasker.
v28. The actual words of Jesus in the original Greek demonstrate emotional force, "O woman". The point is simple enough, "the faith that simply seeks mercy is honored", D. Carson.
Our passage for study has held an important place in the life of the Christian church. The Clementine homilies, which were composed in the late 2nd century, went so far as to name the woman Justa and her daughter as Berenice. The names were obviously invented. The story was used to authenticate the Gentile nature of the early church. The Jews reject God's blessings in Christ and so the Gentiles get to eat the crumbs.
Modern Redaction Criticism tends to run the line that this story emerged out of Matthew's Jewish Christian circles and so served to encourage Gentile evangelism, while affirming the priority of Jewish Christianity over Gentile Christianity. This is probably a bit wide of the mark.
The story certainly does show where the future lies. As Israel continues to reject God's mercy in Christ, that mercy will inevitably move toward faithful Gentiles. It also shows that God's kindness, his mercy, is freely given for the asking. Grace is not given because of status, either family association (because a person is a descendant of Abraham), or goodness (because a person is obedient to the Law). Grace is given through the instrument of faith. The woman believed that Jesus was God's messiah and that he could and would dispense God's mercy for the asking.
This story serves to further establish the truth of God's gracious gift of salvation freely offered and appropriated through faith in Christ. The healing of the Canaanite women's daughter fixes the substance of the gospel, reminding us that salvation is ours for the asking.
1. Why does Jesus initially ignore the pleas of this "Canaanite" woman?
2. Discuss the rather harsh nature of Jesus' response to her.
3. We may define "grace" as "God's covenant mercy" - forgiveness bestowed on members of the covenant where a just condemnation would be more appropriate. Discuss how this story reveals the truth of God's sovereign grace.