During his earthly ministry, Jesus said a lot of things that upset a lot of different people: Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, Romans, etc. Usually we’re not troubled by what he says about those groups. But many of us are troubled by what he says to a certain Canaanite woman. Here is the troubling passage:
Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:21-26).
It’s hard to imagine the Prince of Peace referring to Canaanites as dogs, but there it is. Or is it? In a previous article, I remarked how important it is to see the context of a passage in order to understand what is really happening. To understand what Jesus is and is not saying, we need to look at what happened before and after this.
What Was Jesus Doing There?
Before going to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was ministering around the Sea of Galilee. And immediately after his exchange with the Canaanite woman he returns to Galilee. The region of Tyre and Sidon was about twenty-five miles away. This was no day trip. Nor was Jesus headed to a particularly friendly place for Jews. He had to have some reason for going there, but the text doesn’t provide any. It just says, “Jesus went from [Galilee] and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” What might have occurred in Galilee that would inspire Jesus to go to such an out-of-the-way, and possibly inhospitable place?
A Lesson for His Disciples
While Jesus was preaching in Galilee, he faced criticism by the Pharisees, for his disciples had “broken the tradition of the elders” by not observing the ritual purity laws (see Matthew 15:2). In reply Jesus says, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one” (Matthew 15:11). When Peter asked Jesus to explain this Jesus replied:
Do you not realize that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile. (Matthew 15:17-20).
Jesus must have known that his disciples still didn’t get it. He needed to show them what he meant. It was time for a road trip.
Great Faith in an Unexpected Place
Jesus travels to the land of Tyre and Sidon for one purpose, to meet this Canaanite woman. His interaction with her will show the disciples what his words meant. Here is how the scene continues:
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15:27-28).
Here we have a Canaanite woman who is ritually impure according to Jewish custom. She would have been likened by some to a dog. But Jesus did not make this trip to call the Canaanite woman a dog. He likely spoke those words facetiously to show the disciples what true purity means. His disciples wanted to send this woman away even though her daughter had a serious affliction. Instead of asking Jesus to send her away, they should have asked him to help her. No, Christ did not come to condemn the Canaanite woman. He came to heal her daughter, and to teach his disciples an important lesson. Purity is a matter of the heart.
Jesus rarely gave out compliments concerning the faith of those he met. But here he praises her for her great faith. Jesus is showing his disciples that it is not empty rituals or a particular heritage that make us worthy in the eyes of God. What good is a ritual if we continue to speak and do evil? What God desires is a pure heart. Christ did not travel to this region to further a prejudice against Canaanites. He traveled there so the Canaanite woman could teach the disciples a lesson in humility, persistence in prayer, and faith.
Note: The answers provided in this article are drawn partly from the book The Gospel of Matthew (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri. The article was first published on thecatholicyearoffaith.com in 2013.