SET-1: Seasons of Elijah-Cross-Moses
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.
(Mt 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. He had probably 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” (Mt 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 (Gen 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 (Gen 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 “Sister” 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 (Josh 19:28-29) at the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites never conquered the people there (Judg 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” (Judg 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 Sam 5:11). “Besides logs of cedar beyond number, since the Sidonians and Tyrians had brought cedar logs to David in great quantities” (1 Chr 22:4). These were for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Assyrians attacked the ten tribes of Israel around 740 BC 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 BC).
After returning from the Babylonian exile when the Jews started construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem (521-516 BC) 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 (Mk 7:24-30). According to him, the event happened in Tyre at a house where he was intending to take rest (Mk 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 (Gen 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” (Mk 7:26). The Assyrians (722 BC) and Babylonians (586 BC) exiled the Israelites and scattered them among other nations. Alexander the Great’s invasion (333-321 BC) 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 of 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 a purple dye industry by extracting fluid from a Mediterranean mollusc, the murex. Purple was a commodity for the 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 feelings. 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 (Mt 10:5). Instead of silence, they thought, the master should just rebuke her and pack her off so that they would be rid of her.
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 fulfil 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 fulfilment of His promise of redemption to humanity. This promise made with the first parents (Gen 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” (Jn 1:6). After his resurrection, Jesus appeared and told his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn 20:21). So, Jesus came with God’s mission to fulfil His promise to humanity from the beginning of creation.
Jeremiah presented Israel as a “lost sheep” misled by their shepherds (Jer 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’” (Ezek 34:11). Jesus, the Son of God, came as a shepherd to his sheep, Israel (Jn 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 maidservants. 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 from him, a Jew. However, as a mother, she was ardent to get 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 (Ex 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 it to the Gentiles.
The Jews were insiders of the house like children, and the Gentiles were like puppies brought up outside the house. Jesus did not use the word for street dogs, but 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 (Mt 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” (Mt 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 favour 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 (Mt 8:5-13). She was a child of faith, though not of the flesh of Abraham (Rom 4:16). According to Mark, “When the woman went home, she found her child lying in bed and the demon gone” (Mk 7:30).
1. The Canaanite woman was asking Jesus’ healing for her child. Parents should keep praying for their children to be safe from the evil influences in their lives. Jesus will not forsake a parent’s cry for the child.
2. Jesus’ silence at first to the Canaanite woman was discouraging for her. However, she persisted in her prayer. This Canaanite woman is a typical example of keeping faith and prayer even when God does not answer our prayers according to our timing. Jesus declined no one who asked for his help. He was testing her faith and cured her daughter after the test.
3. The disciples got annoyed at the constant request of the Canaanite woman for help. So, they said to Jesus: “Send her away: see how she is shouting after us.” The willingness to help just to get rid of the needy person is not a pleasant disposition. Our service should come from our heart, as Jesus had in all cases.
4. The Canaanite woman was a child of God, not by the flesh of Abraham but by his faith. Many Jews could not get the grace from Jesus because they lacked the level of faith that Abraham had. As covenantal people through baptism, we must also practise our faith.
5. The Centurion and the Canaanite woman who were Gentiles could gain healing for their beloved ones because of their faith and persistence in prayer. Even though we deserve nothing on merits, faith and prayer can achieve God’s favour.
6. Jesus was compassionate to all, regardless of whether they were Jews or Gentiles. Let us also be considerate to all, regardless of who they are.