Only Matthew (15:21-28) and Mark (7:24-30) record the Lord’s intriguing encounter with a Gentile woman beyond the northwest border of Galilee. It was about a year before the end of his public ministry, and Jesus appears to have been growing weary with the constant bombardment of frantic people demanding his time and attention. They were so anxious to see him, hear him, touch him, and witness his miracles that on multiple occasions he didn’t even have time to eat (cf. Mark 1:45; 3:20; 6:31). Needing a break, he heads north with the twelve to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21), “but he could not be hidden” (Mark 7:24 NKJV).
The Unexpected Encounter
A desperate mother sought him out, described by Matthew as a woman of “Canaan” (Matt. 15:22a) – the only occurrence of this archaic geographical term in the New Testament. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience1 familiar with the Old Testament, wherein this designation is employed 87 times with reference to the land promised to Abraham’s descendants. Apparently this woman’s ancestry was linked to the remnant of Canaanites left in the upper region when the Israelites settled there (Judges 1:27-36).
Mark, on the other hand, refers to her as “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26a). Mark is writing to a Roman audience2 who would have been more familiar with provincial designations. Linguistically and culturally she was Greek, living in the territory of Phoenicia in the southwest corner of the Roman province of Syria, where the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon were located.
The Unexpected Response
Falling at his feet, she “kept asking” (Mark 7:25, 26) as she “cried out” to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed” (Matt. 15:22b). No less than six times in Matthew’s Gospel we see Jesus moved with compassion when encountering helpless people in need of his assistance, but not here. Uncharacteristically this woman receives four negative responses. (1) “But he answered her not a word” (Matt. 15:23a). (2) The disciples urged him, “Send her away, for she cries out after us” (v. 23b). (3) “But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (v. 24). (4) “But He answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs’” (v. 26).
On the surface it would appear that Jesus is being rude, dismissive, uncaring, and even insulting. Is it because she’s a Gentile? a woman? a Gentile woman? Before we jump to unnecessary conclusions and read too much into this atypical exchange, we need to consider that Jesus always had good reasons for what he did and said. Could it be that he is testing her faith? Is there a lesson he’s trying to teach?
Digging Beneath the Surface
From a present-day, post-modern, politically-correct perspective, it is popular to think that mercy and compassion are shown by making someone’s life easier. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. This is a relatively quick, easy, non-committal fix to the problem from which you can walk away feeling good about yourself for having done a noble deed. However, the next day he’s hungry again. Feeding him for a lifetime requires much more time, energy, resources, and even the man’s own effort in learning how to fish. The easier option is not always the most merciful or compassionate one.
Jesus may not have taken it “easy” on this woman, but the way he chooses to handle the situation is no less merciful than other ministry opportunities. His initial silence gives her the chance to demonstrate her resolve, and the disciples’ overt dismissal further confirms her tenacity. When the Lord says that he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the implication is that Greek-Syro-Phoenician-Canaanites are outside his targeted group. Nonetheless, we have the advantage of knowing his ultimate purpose of including Gentiles (John 10:16; Matt. 28:19), and he had to start somewhere. In taking on human flesh, he was born into a Jewish family, raised in a Jewish environment, and naturally began his ministry among the Jewish people, albeit with some notable exceptions (Matt. 8:5; 15:22; John 4:40; 12:20).
Perhaps most disconcerting is the apparent insinuation that the Lord regards this woman as a “dog.” How could this not be offensive?! Let’s remove our 21st-century, westernized spectacles for a moment and remember where Jesus is and to whom he is speaking. If he had been in Galilee or Judea conversing with a Jewish person, his statement would almost certainly be insulting. There was only one word for “dog” in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, referring to an unclean animal (Lev. 11:27); a dirty, mangy, flea-ridden scavenger (Ex. 22:31; 1 Kgs. 14:11; 16:4; 21:19; Psa. 22:16; Isa. 56:11; etc.). Yet Jesus is not in Jewish territory, and he is not speaking to a Jew.
In the Greco-Roman world, in contrast to the Jewish aversion, dogs were common pets. And in the koinē Greek language there are two words for “dog”: kuōn (the dirty, mangy, flea-infested scavenger; thus derogatory, Matt. 7:6; Phil. 3:2), and kunarion (a house dog, pet, or puppy; thus endearing). The latter is used in our current text (Matt. 15:26, 27; Mark 7:27, 28). Jesus is talking to a Greek woman of Syro-Phoenician birth, for whom this comparison would not be culturally offensive. Moreover, there is no Aramaic equivalent to the Greek kunarion, which suggests that the Lord is conversing with this woman in her native tongue and mindful of local conventions – far from being unconcerned, disdainful, or insensitive.
A further point of clarification is that Jesus is speaking proverbially. The allusion to a “little dog” is no more literal than the metaphoric use of “children,” “bread,” or “table.” None of these images should be stretched beyond its original intent. Earlier in the conversation the people of Israel are likened to “sheep” (Matt. 15:24). Although sheep are among the dumbest and most helpless animals on earth, I am unaware of any Jewish person ever taking offense at this comparison.
Making Sense of It All
If the Lord were testing this woman’s faith, she passed with flying colors! “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” (Matt. 15:28). Nevertheless, this thought-provoking conversation was surely more than a mere test of one person’s faith. Jesus was teaching a lesson, and not just to this frantic mother, but especially to his on-looking disciples who regularly struggled with their faith.
Notice he describes this woman as having “great” faith. Only one other time in the Gospel narratives does Jesus refer to a person of “great faith,” which interestingly is not an immediate disciple or even an ethnic Jew, but another Gentile (Matt. 8:10). In comparison, the Lord repeatedly rebuked his own followers because of their “little faith” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; Luke 7:9; 12:28) and on one occasion, “no faith” (Mark 4:40).
What was it about this woman’s faith that made it “great”? Here are some observations that might be helpful in our journey of faith:
§ A Great Faith is a Bold Faith. This woman took initiative, “came” to Jesus and “cried out” to him (Matt. 15:22a). Any apprehensions she may have had as a woman, a Gentile, or a stranger were overshadowed by a faith that compelled her to act without reservation. She confronted her fears and cultural taboos with a robust faith that drove her to Christ.
§ A Great Faith is an Informed Faith. She addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David …” (Matt. 15:22b). How did she know this about him? She didn’t live in any of the areas where Jesus had been preaching and was not included in his targeted audience (v. 24). She had apparently heard about his ministry from others (cf. Mark 3:7-8). Faith is not a blind leap in the dark void of supporting evidence. Biblical faith is firmly established on what God has revealed through Christ (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 1:1-2; 11:1).
§ A Great Faith is a Selfless Faith. She did not approach Jesus for herself. She came for her daughter’s sake (Matt. 15:22c). An immature faith is always asking, “What can the Lord do for me,” or “What can I get out of the church?” A great faith does not seek its own interests but learns to focus beyond self (1 Cor. 10:24, 33; 13:5; 2 Cor. 5:15).
§ A Great Faith is a Devout Faith. She fell at Jesus’ feet (Mark 7:25), addressed him as “Lord” no less than three times, and worshiped him (Matt. 15:22, 25, 27). Pride, irreverence, and stubborn independence are the opposite of great faith.
§ A Great Faith is a Persistent Faith. She refused to quit. She “kept asking” (Mark 7:26), and even after four negative responses, she persisted (Matt. 15:25, 27). Those with lesser faith would have been offended or dejected and turned away (cf. Matt. 15:12). One who easily gives up on the Lord and his church is not a person of great faith.
§ A Great Faith is an Active Faith. She “came” to Jesus, “cried out” to him, “fell at his feet,” “worshiped” him, and didn’t stop pleading (Matt. 15:22, 25, 27; Mark 7:25, 26). “Then” Jesus grants her request (Matt. 15:28). Faith that is not active, observable, and steadfast is weak or dying, if not already dead (Jas. 2:14-26), and is far from the level of faith we ought to have.
Long before the 11th chapter of Hebrews was written, great faith was exemplified by a most unlikely soul. She was a lowly woman in a patriarchal society, a Syro-Phoenician beyond the geographical focus of the Lord’s public ministry, and a Gentile outside his targeted audience. But she overcame every obstacle that stood in her way, demonstrating a commendable faith that is worthy of emulation. May we learn from her example as our faith develops and increases.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See Matthew's Audience.
2 See Mark's Audience.
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