When I was much younger and first read the story in Matthew where Jesus refers to a Canaanite woman as a dog, I was horrified. I read it over several times and was rather shocked that our loving Lord had resorted to insulting someone! I actually pictured myself being told that by Christ and it just did not make sense. I just can’t picture insults flying from His mouth.
So I decided to dig a little.
The scene in Matthew 15 opens with Jesus entering the Gentile area of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman desperately came up to him begging him to heal her daughter who was demon possessed. The conversation went like this:
She said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”
But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
But he answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Then she came and worshiped him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
But he answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Only the Jews called Jesus the Son of David – was she pretending by calling him the Son of David to obtain healing or did she really believe he was the Son of David? Surely or why waste your time asking? She truly acknowledged that he was the Jewish King. First sign of faith.
Also, we are all aware that the Greek word for dog in that passage is “kynarion” which means puppy or little dog. So the harshness is softened somewhat.
So was it really an insult? She does not seem to be quite phased by this supposed insult, like we are, does she? Instead she pretty much agrees with Jesus by replying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Was she so desperate for her daughter’s healing that she just agreed with Jesus to persuade him to heal her daughter? No. She just called him Master in an indirect way! Second sign of faith.
Surprisingly, the more I meditated on this passage, the less shock value I got from the dog statement and became more aware of what was actually going on behind the scenes here. Jesus is brilliant!
Looking at the context of Canaan at that time, it was evil and child sacrifices were in full swing. It was no secret to anyone the filth they were running on. No wonder the Jews commonly referred to the Gentiles as dogs – but I see Jesus’ soft side here. The sins of Canaan were contemptible but, to me, the fact that he chose to use the diminutive word of puppies, and not wild dogs, indicated his love for her still. Who does not love a pup? We are all his pups, are we not? None of us are without sin, but he handles us gently, with love and endearment.
This woman seemed to have agreed with Jesus on the sins of Canaan by agreeing with his statement. She acknowledged them, took ownership of them. Yet, still believed that he would heal her daughter despite shortcomings.
We see that Jesus initially ignored her request, “But He answered her not a word.” (v23). Seems rude? I don’t think so. I have heard other Christians say before “Oh, some Christians just can’t handle that Jesus WAS probably being rude and insulting!” Well, yes, that’s me. I can’t accept it. Because that’s sin. Jesus was sinless (1 Peter 2:22). What would cause someone to blatantly ignore another- only sinful feelings cause that type of behaviour – arrogance, irritation, pride.
I think Jesus wanted to teach the disciples a lesson, so we could draw from it.
Picture Jesus – walking, disciples behind him, him seemingly ignoring her desperate request, but instead knowingly waiting for the disciples to say just exactly what he wants everyone to hear- the disciples were openly irritated by this woman by telling Jesus to get rid of her, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” (v23).
The verse after that starts with the word “but”. “But he answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” Instead of sending her away he explains himself to her. Why? Waiting to expose the thoughts and religion of the hearts of people who rejected not only him, but everyone who did not fall into their circle. I think he wanted them to complain out loud.
He made it clear that his purpose was to first focus on salvation for the Jews (v24). So the benefits of the covenant with the Jews were not available to this Canaanite woman. The kingdom was offered to the Jews. The children need to be fed at the table first.
But her response seems what Jesus was looking for: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” He replies saying, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour’ (v28).
How did she get her answer so quickly? And so joyously at that! Jesus responded excitedly, “O woman!” Because she knew that even though she was not entitled to full kingdom benefits, the benefit of just believing on Jesus for mercy, as small as a crumb, was enough to heal her daughter! Jesus loved that! Here he was trying to get Israel to believe he was indeed the Messiah, but they kept challenging him for a sign. Yet, here was this Gentile woman who knew without a doubt who he really was and what he could do. She could see what the Jews could not! His astounding grace and mercy. She may have come from a place of sin, yet her heart could see passed all the rules and laws and she clearly saw Jesus as the royalty he is. She knew how to approach his throne of grace! He loved how she believed in him even though she knew his mission was to Israel first.
Maybe I am way off, but what I see here is that Jesus kept this conversation going because he wanted to show the disciples, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, and us, this kind of faith. That, yes, we are all sinful, but we may boldly approach the throne of grace.
A little prophetic too, isn’t it? A great moment appearing to be insulting, yet showing how Jesus was to eventually bring salvation to the entire world.
May we never be prevented from approaching our Jesus because “we may not be good enough.” How much more available to us who are his children? Approach him boldly and let it be to you as you desire!