The next encounter of Jesus we are studying is with the Canaanite woman. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area of the country. It’s significant to note at the very beginning that this is the only time in his entire life that he left Jewish territory for a Gentile land. Now that in itself doesn’t surprise us, but it does underscore an important theme in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s is a very Jewish Gospel, in fact the most Jewish of all the Gospels. Most commentators think that it was written for Jews to persuade them that Jesus is the Messiah. Nevertheless, in certain ways it has a broader range of interest than any of the others. In his Gospel Matthew begins, for example, with the coming of the magi, those distant kings, to Jerusalem to ask, “Where is he who was born King of the Jews?” This indicates that Matthew wants people to understand that Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Savior of the world. We’ve also seen Jesus’ concern for Gentiles through the choice of the stories that Matthew gives us. As we have already seen, he’s told us about Jesus’ compliment of the Gentile centurion for his faith. And there is more of this Gentile interest in a variety of ways.
So what surprises us about this story is not the fact that here Jesus is in a Gentile region and that he ministers to a Gentile woman. What really is surprising is the way Jesus handles it. You can’t read that story without being puzzled as to why Jesus responded to her the way he did. This woman came to him and began to call out for mercy, as many people did at other times. She had a daughter who was possessed by a demon, and she wanted her daughter to be healed. She loved her daughter very much, quite obviously, and believed that Jesus could heal her. She asked him persistently, so much so that the disciples are bothered by it and responded that Jesus should send her away. Just like in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, they wanted to handle the situation by dismissing someone who needed Jesus’ help. And the interesting thing is that Jesus does not rebuke the disciples for wanting to get rid of her, but, rather, we hear Jesus ignoring the woman and her cries.
She keeps making her request known, and verse 23 tells us that Jesus did not answer a word. She continues in her entreaty such that the disciples are annoyed by it. Then Jesus answers her in verse 24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” That’s the first thing he tells her. Still she won’t give up, which causes Jesus to respond by saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (v. 26).
Now imagine, the Lord Jesus Christ, the meek, gentle, loving Jesus Christ talking to this woman in that fashion. What in the world is going on here? Why in the world does Jesus speak to the woman like that? He calls her a dog. Now I know that commentators say that the word he uses does not refer to those wild dogs wandering the streets, but to the little dogs children keep as pets. And I also know that Jesus was not saying it in a mean or rough manner the way some Jews would have when they called Gentiles “dogs.” But if I were on the receiving end I wouldn’t want to be called even that. Some commentators are quite bothered by what Jesus said to her. One said it was “an atrocious saying,” “incredible insolence,” and “the worst case of chauvinism that he has ever seen or heard.”
How do we handle something like this? Let me suggest that it’s particularly surprising when you contrast it with a story of Jesus’ dealings with the centurion that I mentioned just a moment ago. That man was a Gentile, too. He was a Roman soldier. He belonged to the occupying army, but Jesus did not speak to him in that fashion. When the word came that he needed help because of his servant, Jesus’ response was that of intending to go at once. Yet here he’s apparently giving this woman a very hard time.
Well there are a number of explanations, some of which I think have no validity at all, and others which are perhaps helpful but not altogether satisfying. I guess the least significant or helpful explanation of Jesus’ comment is that he simply changed his mind. Jesus started out trying to ignore her and eventually she was so persistent in her cries that he said, “Oh, alright, I’d better do something. Unless I heal this woman’s daughter she is going to follow us all the way back to Galilee.” And so although he didn’t want to do it in the beginning, he ended up doing it. How could the Lord Jesus Christ operate like that? Is that the sort of thing that describes Jesus as we know him from other stories? Does Jesus appear as one who is inconsistent in his attitude, and who wavers in his decisions