*This is a featured article by guest author Jake Waehner, Graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College*
Matthew 15:21-28 (ESV)21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
IntroductionAny story where Jesus seemingly brushes off and even insults a person who comes to him for help is bound to incite debate. The faith of the Canaanite woman is one of the few examples in the Gospels where this happens, and it raises a myriad of questions. Why did Jesus act so rudely to this woman? Did this lowly Gentile woman change his opinion of her in their conversation? Did Jesus learn from this woman, or was he just testing her? Why did the author of the Gospel of Matthew include this in their work, especially as what many scholars assert is the climax of the work? This passage often causes dissonance between the story’s possible interpretation and the reader’s pre-conceived notions of Jesus. How can one settle the dissonance between the pre-conceived notion of Jesus’ kind and compassionate nature and the jarring conversation between him and the Canaanite?
The story of the Canaanite woman is meant to challenge the historical and societal views of the time. It is made clear in the passage, as well as throughout the Old Testament, that the Canaanite people were seen as the outsiders of society. In addition to this, women were also oppressed in this highly patriarchal society. This passage is significant in that it is a succinct description of how Jesus pushed against the oppressive societal norms of the time.
This passage is meant to emphasize the need for a boundless Christian community that would eventually grow into a worldwide society. The dialog between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is one that pushes against the oppressive nature of society in first century Israel. When it was written in the first century, it was meant to bring the church back to a culture of equality and acceptance of all nations, as well as of both men and women. Today, the story of the Canaanite woman can be seen as the same call to action against an oppressive society. This call applies not only to women and racial minorities, but also to groups such as the homosexual and transgendered communities, groups of people that might not have the same rights as the highest class of people.
Structural AnalysisThere is some debate concerning the genre of the pericope which could affect how the passage is interpreted. It is first important to understand that “the overall plan of the story follows a “U-shaped plot,” which is characterized by a state of equilibrium at the start, followed by a disruption—adversity or misunderstanding,” followed by “some other action that turns things for the better.”1 This plot is common in literature, and while it might not affect how the story is interpreted, it is necessary to understand that it is written in an oral story-telling fashion. This passage could also be considered a lament song in narrative form; it has a plea from the woman to open the dialogue (15:22), followed by praise by Jesus (15:28).2 It is framed by denial of the plea (15:23) followed by the eventual fulfillment of said original plea (15:28). This interpretation places emphasis on the solution of the woman's problem. However, the placement of the story in the climactic center of the Gospel would imply that it means more than the immediate implications of the meeting of the Canaanite woman and Jesus.
The story of the Canaanite woman is unique and is therefore difficult to place into one genre. The story of the Canaanite woman could also be considered a "controversy dialogue", but in those, Jesus generally comes out victorious, so this story is still an anomaly.3 The issues at hand in this passage are undoubtedly controversial, but what is important is that the woman, who is part of more than one oppressed groups, enters the conversation oppressed and leaves it justified.
Historical BackgroundIn this passage, it is important to consider how society had changed from the time that the events described had taken place and when the Gospel of Matthew was actually written.
During the time of Jesus' ministry, women played a prominent role, accompanying Jesus on his journeys, providing financial and other support, and being present on his final trip to Jerusalem and at his crucifixion. Even in Paul's time (50 to 60 CE.), women had roles as pastors, teachers, and prophets. But, by the time Matthew's Gospel was written some 30 years later, the situation was changing; near the end of the first century, women began to face serious challenges from those opposed to their having status or holding positions of power.4This progression is outlined throughout the New Testament, from Jesus’ female disciples, to Phoebe the deacon in Acts and the Pauline epistles, as well as in the passages about female oppression in I Timothy. So when Matthew’s Gospel was written, it is possible that the author was attempting to push society towards equality just like Jesus did in the original events.
When attempting to apply the significance of this passage to today, it is important to consider how controversial the actions of the Canaanite woman were. “She places herself outside the patriarchal structures of being unclean, silent, passive and a wife in a male-head family. This woman is not framed by culture or doctrine.”5 Since she has already broken free from the societal norms of her own time, it is much easier to apply the passage to other oppressed groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community and racial minorities.
ContextThis passage can be seen as the focal point in the book of Matthew. Chapters 9 through 20 form a large chiasm, in which the story of the Canaanite woman is the center; the structure is as follows:
A Two blind men (9:27-31)
Β Sign of Jonah (12:38-42)
C Feeding of 5,000 (14:13-21)
D Canaanite woman ( 15:22-28)
C’ Feeding of 4,000 (15:32-38)
B' Sign of Jonah (16:1-4)
A' Two blind men (20:29-34)[ Baffes, "Jesus and,” 15.]
Its place in the structural center of Matthew's Gospel is important to consider, as it conveys the narrative of the Canaanite woman as an instrumental part of the overlying story. The story of the Canaanite woman illustrates a central idea in Christ's ministry: all people are welcome in it, and even the most oppressed people, namely women and the Canaanites as a whole, are shown as having value.
Jesus Withdraws, the Canaanite Woman Approaches (21-22a)In the opening of the pericope, Jesus and the disciples are headed towards the district of Tyre and Sidon. “The established pattern of the mission given to the disciples by Jesus in Matt 10:5-6, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles," helps us to locate Jesus out of Tyre and Sidon. This leads us to read in 15:22 that the Canaanite woman is the one crossing the borderlands.”7 “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” implies a command to stay in Israel. The Greek word eis, used as “to” could be translated as “towards”; “Jesus withdrew towards the district of Tyre and Sidon” (15:21). This simple change in translation, which would seem to make more sense given the command in Matthew 10:5-6, makes the Canaanite woman the one who is outside of her homeland of Tyre, as Jesus has not yet arrived there.
It would follow, since Jesus has withdrawn, that either they are between Tyre and Sidon and Israel, in an intermediate are or they actually have left Israel and Jesus’s instruction limited them to Israel not because he did not want to minister to the Gentiles, but because the disciples needed a boundary to work with.8-9 Regardless, this is significant because Jesus has literally pushed the boundaries of where he ministers. Jesus, by doing something as simple as leaving his homeland, pushes society towards new values. “The fact that the woman meets Jesus in his own territory implies that she is accepting the temporal priority of the Jews, a priority that is reinforced in Matthew when the woman is called a Canaanite, and when she calls Jesus "son of David."”10 This shows that the woman understood the status quo going into the conversation, but the end result signifies that she left the conversation on equal footing with the Jews.
There is a parallel passage of this story in the Markan Gospel, but the woman is identified as "Syrophoenician" and not "Canaanite." Other than this, there is virtually no difference between the two passages, though this is the only time the term “Canaanite” is used in the Gospels.11 This is a huge difference and shows just how unique the passage in Matthew is. The Canaanites were hated by Israel, which gives the story in Matthew an overtone of social justice and equality as its intended point, and while the Gentiles were seen as less than the Jews in Israel, they had more overall social standing than the Canaanites; this change illustrates the deeply rooted conflict between the Jews and the Canaanites: "... you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you ... Do not follow their practices. Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them" (Lev 18:3, 30).12 There are not a lot of groups more hated than the Canaanites in first century Israel, and when coupled with her gender, this woman is probably the lowest of the low on the social hierarchy.
The Disciples Want to Send Away a Woman in Need (22b-23)The next part of the pericope is where the controversy builds. When the Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus to help her and her daughter, the Jewish disciples knee-jerk reaction is to send her away; this is the typical relationship between the Jews and the Canaanites in first century Israel. This reaction is so innate that even when Jesus is silent, the disciples answer for him. It must have taken a great amount of bravery for an outsider like the Canaanite woman to approach Jesus; so much so that Jesus initially had no words for her (15:23).13 The first thought one might have when reading the passage for the is that the disciples wanted Jesus to heal her quickly so she would leave them alone. However the Greek word apoluein, meaning to release or dismiss, is ambiguous: do the disciples want Jesus to heal her daughter and thereby release her or send her away without healing?14 “Jesus' initial response to the woman's request is to ignore her completely. Perhaps on the narrative level he is taken aback to hear a Gentile woman address him in this way.”15 When one considers how surprising this must have been in that time, Jesus’s response takes on an air of stunned silence, which may be appropriate. What is more surprising though, is Jesus’s response when he finally does speak in verse 24.
Jesus and the Woman Push Each Other (24-27)There is a role reversal between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this section that sheds some light on how it should be interpreted: Jesus takes on the role of the learner, whereas the woman is the one doing the teaching.16 Contextually, the woman’s Gentile culture would have exposed her to logic and rhetoric; this adds to the story in that Jesus would have known that her background would facilitate debate. In this way, she comes to a man she has never met so that she can beg for his help, then this man insults her. However, the woman uses this insult and turns it around to work for her, and emerges from the debate victorious. This is indicative of Cynic philosophy, which was common both in Greek and early Christian circles.17
Jesus’ seemingly harsh response seems less abrasive when looked at in this way. However, he still calls the Canaanite woman a “dog”, which would be a scathing insult in the first century. “It is unreasonable to believe that if Jesus intended to be harsh he would have used the word kynarion – ‘little dogs’, meaning, not the scavengers that roam the streets, but house dogs.”18 From a literary point of view, this also echoes an earlier section in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
Matthew 15:25 contains a number of important words and phrases that point to the Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus. “If she has already shown her understanding of Jesus' true nature in the ascription of a messianic title, she now goes a step further and takes up a position, which for Matthew frequently represents worship.”19 Additionally, the Greek word proskuneo, translated here in verse 25 as “knelt before him”, connotes worship or reverent faith; this is a term commonly used in the Gospel of Matthew.20 “Her cry, kurios, boetheo moi, is not identical to that of Peter in the sea-walking farce, but nevertheless carries the same overtones.”21 She does not know Jesus but understands who he is as well as Peter, who has been following him for a long time. These phrases seem to imply that the Canaanite woman knew who Jesus was and had faith in him, which is more than can be said for many of the Jewish people that Jesus had come into contact with.
It is implied, then, that Jesus and the Canaanite woman had an understanding of each other. Therefore, it became possible for Jesus to make these incendiary statements so he could work with her to redefine the roles of both foreign peoples and women. "She did not accept the limits set for her by a patriarchal culture and society. She resisted the patriarchal norms, which discriminated against her and labeled her as an outcast and an outsider."22 This section sets up the scene for the eventual redefinition of how these groups of people were to be treated in society while also setting up a precedent and a moral example for others to follow.
Jesus Rewards Her Faith at Once (28)This verse contains the fruits of the Canaanite woman’s efforts. “The woman's quick reply to Jesus finally elicits from him the response for which she has been seeking. . . her willingness to take on the part of being humble in the face of prejudice and downright rudeness eventually brings its reward.”23 In this verse, the Greek word megas, meaning “great”, is emphasized, so it is sometimes italicized in the Bible for emphasis.24 This only adds to the Canaanite woman’s already special status as one praised by Jesus. The fact that she is so highly lauded by Jesus is important because she both a Canaanite and a woman. By making this story the focal point of Matthew’s Gospel, it is shown that the significance of this story is greater than what is seen in the story itself. The ending of this passage especially shows that all people, including the marginalized and hated, deserve love and compassion, and that one can learn from them.
The daughter is only spoken of twice in the passage (verses 22 and 28), though she could be considered the most important character.25 In a literary context, she acts as an agent of fate, bringing Jesus and the Canaanite woman together. In this way, the passage becomes more than just a story of just healing. Symbolically, the daughter could be seen as something much more than a child in need of healing. While she is indeed healed, this passage marks the beginning of a process of healing between the upper class, the patriarchy, or the Jewish people as a whole, and the lower-class outsiders and the oppressed. The Canaanite woman’s daughter can be seen as representative of the repaired relationship, or at least the beginning of said repairing, between these groups in this way.
ConclusionThe story of the Canaanite woman is a story of the beginning of a progressive social change. The inclusion of the Canaanite woman makes room for the incorporation of all groups who were once considered unclean, which included the disabled and LGBTQ+ people. Additionally, readers get a reenactment of how one can make a positive change to society in the future.
“The author of Matthew intentionally portrayed Jesus in the story of the Canaanite woman as the learner (rather than teacher) so that he could demonstrate first-hand the transformation that needed to take place in the disciples and in the Jewish leaders.”26 Jesus plays the part of the oppressor (verses 24 and 26) so that the Canaanite woman could push back against the injustice that she and a plethora of others like her experienced (verses 25 and 27). In this way, Jesus has provided his followers with a way to push society toward equality for all people, one that is without oppression and hatred. Jesus showed that the best way to show someone anything is by literally showing them. “Rather than giving an explanation of a concept, the wisdom teacher invites disciples into an experience of the reality or truth itself.”27
“The message in Matthew is a call for us to examine our centrist views. . . believing that whoever "we" are is the norm and everyone else is "other." The story of the Canaanite woman helps us recognize that we are not as different from each other as we would like to believe we are.”28 The Canaanite woman shows the reader that those who are marginalized and considered to be outside of the norm in society are still valuable and part of God’s people. The fallacious beliefs of dualism– that some things are holy and that other are bad, must be done away with. The people who are not accepted by Christian society are not the only ones who have bodies filled with the spirit; this includes not only women and racial minorities such as the Canaanites, but also those who are marginalized today, like the LGBTQ+ community or the disabled. “Theology should challenge metaphysic and dualistic thought. The bodies of women and homosexual persons should be taken as sites of revelation in the creation of theology.”29 There are still things about God and his grace that humanity does not understand, and it is possible that LGBTQ+ people is included in this category; there is more to learn about them and their place in the church. The Canaanite woman’s praise and reward from Jesus opens the door for all people to be loved.
Like the LGBTQ+ community, the Canaanites were seen as unclean and as part of a lower class. This is a dualistic concept in which it is thought that religious, "righteous" people are the norm of society while anyone who does not fit this mold is unholy. In this passage, Jesus does more than redefine who is part of this higher echelon of society; he abolishes this hierarchy as a whole. It was not the Canaanite woman's race or gender that made her unclean, but it was the absence of compassion from the religious that left her on the outside. In the same way, "it is also not the homosexual person's sexual relationship [or gender identity] that makes him and her impure, but lack of love and the condemnation that comes from the hearts of those who condemn and oppress them and from the structures that sustain it."30 Just as it is today, homosexual people were considered unclean and were seen as not fitting into God’s plan for the world,31 and the other members of the LGBTQ+ community were unheard of at the time. The story of the Canaanite woman provides sufficient evidence against this position because she would have been considered as part of the same unclean and extraneous group.
When viewed this way, the story of the Canaanite woman becomes a call for a society that is accepting of all groups of people, including those considered impure. Additionally, the woman shows the audience how to push against societal norms. This passage then becomes a goal to abolish this dualistic class system and form a society in which all people are treated with compassion and love.
Works CitedBaffes, Melanie S. "Jesus and the Canaanite woman: a story of reversal." Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa 35/2 (2011): 12-23.
Guardiola-Sáenz, Leticia A. "Borderless Women and Borderless Texts: A Cultural Reading of Matthew 15:21-28." Semeia 78/1 (1997): 69-81.
Gibbs, Jeffery A. Matthew 11:2-20:34. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010.
Hart, Lawrence D., OPA. “The Canaanite Woman: Meeting Jesus as Sage and Lord: Matthew 15:21-28 & Mark 7:24-30.” The Expository Times 122/1 (2010): 20-25.
Nortjé-Meyer, Lilly. "The homosexual body without apology: a positive link between the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and homosexual interpretation of biblical texts." Religion & Theology 9/1-2 (2002): 118-134.
Scott, J Martin C. "Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case for Jesus' Manners." Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 63 (1996): 21-44.
Senior, Donald. Matthew. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Wainwright, Elaine M. “Not Without My Daughter: Gender and Demon Possession in Matthew 15:21-28.” In A Feminist Companion to Matthew. Ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2004. Pp. 126-137.
 Melanie S. Baffes, "Jesus and the Canaanite woman: a story of reversal," Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa 35/2 (2011): 12-23, 18.
 Baffes, “Jesus and,” 16.
 J. Martin C. Scott, "Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case for Jesus' Manners," Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 63 (1996): 25.
 Baffes, “Jesus and,” 14.
 Lilly Nortjé-Meyer, "The homosexual body without apology: a positive link between the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and homosexual interpretation of biblical texts," Religion & Theology 9/1-2 (2002): 130.
 Baffes, "Jesus and,” 15.
 Leticia A. Guardiola-Sáenz, "Borderless Women and Borderless Texts: A Cultural Reading of Matthew 15:21-28," Semeia 78/1 (1997): 74.
 Elaine M. Wainwright, “Not Without My Daughter: Gender and Demon Possession in Matthew 15:21-28,” in A Feminist Companion to Matthew (Ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff; Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2004), 132.
 Scott, “Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case,” 38.
 Guardiola-Sáenz, “Borderless,” 75.
 Baffes, “Jesus and,” 16.
 Nortjé-Meyer, “The homosexual body,” 130.
 Guardiola-Sáenz, “Borderless,” 77.
 Donald Senior, Matthew (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 181.
 Scott, “Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case,” 37.
 Baffes, “Jesus and,” 17.
 Scott, “Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case,” 24.
 Lawrence D. Hart, OPA, “The Canaanite Woman: Meeting Jesus as Sage and Lord: Matthew 15:21-28 & Mark 7:24-30,” The Expository Times 122/1 (2010): 24.
 Scott, “Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case,” 38.
 Senior, Matthew, 182.
 Scott, “Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case,” 38.
 Nortjé-Meyer, “The homosexual body,” 131.
 Scott, “Matthew 15:21-28: A Test-Case,” 41.
 Jeffery A. Gibbs, Matthew 11:2-20:34 (Concordia Commentary; St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House), 2010.
 Wainwright, “Not Without,” 132.
 Baffes, “Jesus and,” 18.
 Hart, “The Canaanite Woman: Meeting Jesus,” 22.
 Baffes, “Jesus and,” 20-21.
 Nortjé-Meyer, “The homosexual body,” 133.
 Nortjé-Meyer, “The homosexual body,” 131.
 Nortjé-Meyer, “The homosexual body,” 131.