In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus turns His back on a needy, pleading mother and “answered her not a word.” He even employs a common racial slur when she is finally addressed: She is a “dog,” like the rest of the Canaanites. Where does a preacher find the Gospel for dogs in this pericope?
Preachers should make it clear: The Gospel is not found in the woman. This text is not about her faith. It is about the power of the Gospel of Jesus to engender faith. But the text is also concerned with turning the worldviews of the disciple’s upside down. Instead of personifying a “gospel of persistence,” she embodies human lostness and alienation in her person and situation due to sin. She was an outsider; one of “them.” As a Canaanite or, as Saint Mark denominates her, a Syrophoenician woman (7:24-31), she occupied land which rightly belonged to the Israelites as part of their inheritance and, so, was loathed by the Jews for their idolatry. Born an outsider and idolator, by nature she would have been considered by the Jewish people to be an enemy of the living God; sin personified. This is so much so, the rabbis referred to Canaanites as “dogs,” unclean animals, filthy, garbage-picking scavengers, and she was desperate. She had no one to help her. Her daughter was “severely oppressed by a demon” (Matthew 15:21). The text gives us nothing more. There is no insight into symptoms or length of possession, but the intensity of the circumstances is unmistakable. Everything stacks against her in this moment. Her origin, nature, religion, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and even her female sex would have been considered a disadvantage. For all intents and purposes, she is what it looks like to be dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). Alone and helpless, she is unable to help even the one she loves most. This mother had nowhere else to turn. There was none to save.
Jesus is all she has left.
Rumors swirled that the miracle-worker would pass through the region, a small district of Tyre and Sidon. Even then there was hardly a shred of hope. Jesus was a rabbi, and no respectable Israelite would speak to a Canaanite dog if they met in person.
But this Canaanite woman dares to come face-to-face with Jesus. Normally, Canaanites would not approach an Israelite unless it was to fight. Yet, in her desperation she does, and she is a woman. Women did not approach men unbidden in ancient Semitic cultures, much less a rabbi. Worse still, she “cries out” to Him. Women were not to address men in public... ever. But she tramples these social and cultural norms because Jesus is her last resort. She has reason to do so, not only because she is desperate for help, but also because early in Jesus’ ministry people from Sidon and Tyre heard about the things Jesus said. They saw what He did. Many came to see Him (Mark 3:8) and be healed by Him (Luke 6:17). She, then, has a deeper insight into knowing who Jesus is. He is not just a rabbi and not just a prophet. His Word has power. His presence changes things. His touch renders the unclean clean. But she also knows who she is in relation to Him. So, casting social and cultural norms to the wind, she appeals to Jewish faith. She does her best to navigate insurmountable barriers by crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”
“Son of David” is Jewish-speak. It is messianic language. “Son of David” is what the Israelites were looking for in their promised Messiah. Her plea is for “mercy.” Her appeal is to messianic compassion: “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” He has helped the Jews. Help me, one who epitomizes the covenant outsider, who is not entitled to anything, and one who has no claim to any favor. Grant me what I do not deserve. Give me, the graceless, divine grace.
What would you expect Jesus to do? We expect Jesus to heal this woman’s daughter. Other non-Jews received healings, and these miracle-events illustratively preached the Gospel each time. Certainly, Jesus will jump on this opportunity, right? Wrong…at least for the moment. Jesus says nothing to her. He does not even acknowledge her presence. Instead of compassion, He turns His face from her. Jesus, like in the episode with the blind man of John 9, will use this occasion to disabuse His disciples of their wrongful Kingdom perspectives in order to maximize their understanding of the Gospel.
Jesus will use this occasion to disabuse His disciples of their wrongful Kingdom perspectives in order to maximize their understanding of the Gospel.
Having been rebuffed by Jesus, and wild with desperation, she appeals to His disciples. She does not merely entreat them; she burdens them with her pleading. So much so, that they in turn petition Jesus, because the disciples, too, are Israelite men. And instead of interceding for her, they beg Jesus to get rid of her, “to cast her from them,” in the same way she entreats Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter. Subtly, then, Matthew intimates the disciples see this dog as tantamount to a devil herself and, in turn, take on the complexion of those possessed by mallows spirits. To be sure, she is a Canaanite, and in the eyes of the religious Jews she has already been cancelled by God as a possible recipient of mercy. But also, the disciples themselves need a form of exorcism by the Gospel to be rid of their heartlessness for one who otherwise is as helpless as themselves without Christ to save.
Jeffrey Gibbs makes an interesting observation about the disposition of the disciples:
[Jesus’] disciples, however, step forward and begin to ask Him to “send her away” (àπόλυσον, 15:23). The disciples had said the same thing to Jesus about the hungry crowds: “Dismiss/send away” [àπόλυσον] the crowds” (14:15). In that context, it was clear that since it was late and there was no obvious way of finding food, the disciples were asking Jesus to send the crowd away without doing anything for them.
Curiously, Jesus turns not to the woman, but the disciples as if to correct them. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yet, it seems as if Jesus just affirmed the disciples’ prejudice: Israel gets priority. She gets nothing.
Ah, but here is the bit of the Gospel which unlocks this text. True, the Christ of God has not been “except to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus, as the Messiah, the true King of God’s people, redefines Israel in and around Himself. He is Israel in one person, fulfilling Israel’s destiny. Therefore, those who own Him as God’s Messiah stand as one incorporated into Israel. Circumcision is of the heart by the Holy Spirit working through the Word. It is not about ancestral connection or ethnic heritage anymore. The Canaanite woman has heard the word about Jesus. The word has drawn her to Jesus. Jesus was the sum and substance of the word, and the word is this: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22). “Lord, Son of David” confesses Jesus as Messiah, the Shepherd Redeemer of Ezekiel 34:11-31. Thus, the final words of that great passage are pure gospel to those once considered dogs:
And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke and deliver them from the hand of those who enslave them. They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beast of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid... And they shall know that I am the LORD their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are My people, declares the Lord God. And you are My sheep, human sheep of My pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.
Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” Faith was engendered within her through the proclaimed word from the people of Tyre and Sidon that this was the year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61:2), that the words and miracles of Jesus evidenced God with us was the good news of God for us.
Now, only a word from the One who is the Word will do. In this moment, Jesus teaches the disciples: Israel is redefined around Me. True Israel stands in the faith of Abraham before he was circumcised, when he was justified by his confession of faith in the only true and living God. She evidenced herself as an Israelite by her rightful confession of Jesus as “Lord, Son of David,” the only One with power and authority to speak a word which reverses her impossible situation, compounded by every disadvantage: Grace for the graceless. The disciples should have seen this coming, too. In the preceding text, Matthew 15:10-20, Jesus teaches them what really defiles a person and, conversely, what really justifies a person: “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Here, in a graphic encounter with the most prejudice-worthy person imaginable, a Syrophoenician woman, a veritable dog, Jesus takes the teaching one step further. Ethnicity does not defile a person and neither does it vindicate them (a poignant lesson for today!). The disciples need this gospel, too, or they will hardly have a gospel to proclaim.
In this moment, Jesus teaches the disciples: Israel is redefined around Me.
Returning to the scene, the woman will not take silence for an answer. She dashes ahead and throws herself to the ground before Jesus, literally touching her forehead to the dust in deep humility and obeisance. There she speaks straight from her broken heart: “Lord, help me.” The imaginary tax collector of Luke 18:13-18 comes to life in a Canaanite woman on a public street in front of onlookers, face-to-face with the disciples themselves.
And Jesus responds. This time He speaks to her directly. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” No, He is not kicking her or giving her the back of His hand. In fact, His use of the Greek κυναρίοις (“dog”) sets the stage for the level of her elevation within the Kingdom of God for the sake of the disciples and future preachers like us. Remember, Matthew was principally written for the ministerium. Here Jesus evidences His heart for the lost and how we are to esteem each person as a potential recipient of divine grace. In Christ’s Kingdom there are only the baptized and those He desires to be baptized. The gift of faith is the great equalizer within the Kingdom of God, elevating “dogs” to the status of “firstborn sons” who inherit all.
Her faith is evidenced again not merely by her confession of Jesus as Messiah with the words “Son of David,” but in her acceptance of her unworthiness, her sinful uncleanness. “Yes, Lord.” It is true. I am all that, she says. And from that place, which seems to our eyes and ears to be utter humiliation and disgrace, she finds latitude for divine mercy. “Yes, Lord. A dog I may be, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This is the confession of faith which the Gospel engenders. Faith holds to Christ when the stark reality of the Law (you are a dog, an unclean sinner!) mirrors the ugly truth about us. Otherwise, it would warrant God turning His back on humanity and leaving us condemned in our unrighteousness. Faith seeks what the dog does not deserve: Mercy, crumbs dropping from the Master’s table. She seeks His messianic prerogative to supervene the Law with grace motivated by compassion. Let the One who is Israel fulfill the Law on my behalf and in your mercy grant me grace, where race, wealth, sex, and even supposed privilege has absolutely nothing to do with it. Indeed, God with us is God for us: The Gospel for dogs.
Jesus speaks to her again, but now she is revealed as a daughter of Israel according to Christ’s definition and evidenced by “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matthew 15:18). The Gospel of God’s Messiah has given her a new heart of faith (Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). “O woman,” He says (using a polite form of address, the same word He uses with His own mother, the virgin Mary, and evocative of Eve!), “great is your faith!” Great indeed! Jesus once chided Peter for his “little faith” because Peter stopped believing he could walk on water by the power of Jesus’ Word. But this woman, even this kind of woman (stacked with every social prejudice), receives great faith. And if she can receive this type of faith, such that warrants the public approbation of the Messiah, well then, anyone can. This would prove to be a hard-learned lesson, one needing repeated emphasis as Peter’s own persistent prejudice would prove, requiring an open rebuke from Paul. But if it were not for episodes like this, would Thomas have ventured to India or Peter himself into the heart of pagan Rome?
Great faith would be worked into each of the disciples who become apostles, save for Judas, and episodes like this preached it and illustrated it. Let it sink in deep. In this moment, it is the outsider, the Canaanite “dog” who is in possession of great faith, not the Israelite and not the disciple. It is this despised Canaanite, a woman. It is all by grace. The motivation is compassion, which means “to suffer with.” Jesus knows, feels, and is moved by her suffering, and it engenders Him to act in mercy. This is the kind of Savior we have for us today, notwithstanding socio-economic class, race, ethnicity, or sex. Each person’s need is as great as hers, and it is met by an even greater gospel.
“And from that very hour, her daughter was healed.” The demons are no match for Jesus, not even the devilish prejudices of the disciples. In a way, they are exorcised, too, that they may become preachers of the Word. The Lord says, “Let it be done as you desire.” That is all it takes from the lips of Jesus. The darkness and demonic realm have no choice but to obey Him even from a distance. Jesus had come to do battle with the Devil, with the darkness of Sin, with death. He came to deal the decisive blow on the cross. And even here, the power of His cross is already evident. A simple word from a distance is all it takes, even from the lips of the preacher in the pulpit.
The Israelites never occupied the territory, which in Old Testament times was dominated by the Phoenicians and in Jesus’ day by the Romans. Refer to Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew 11:2-20:34, Concordia Commentary Series. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010. 785.
Luke 18:13 reads, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” whereas the nearly universal “Jesus Prayer” (closely associated with Eastern Christianity) uses these words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”