Summary: The Canaanite woman is the first woman that Jesus ministered to outside of the nation of Israel. The humble woman's story is hugely radical because Jesus' ministry to the entire world starts with her!
When preparing sermons, sometimes I chose a passage because it is one of my favorites. Other times, I chose a passage because it is a commonly used or quoted passage, and I feel like it's good for all of us to delve into those readings more deeply. Sometimes I chose a Scripture reading because it speaks to current events or issues. There are times when I chose a passage because it offers a challenge or a reminder about what it means to be a Christian and to follow Christ in our lives. And sometimes when preparing sermons, I chose a reading because it doesn't seem to make any sense, I have no idea what it means, and I feel like researching the passage for a sermon will help me, help us all, come to a better understanding of what the passage is about. As you can probably guess, that was the case today. But through my study, I came to see that as confusing as this reading is, it is one of the most significant moments in Jesus' ministry. So let's take a look at it.
This passage is really baffling, isn't it? I mean, Jesus' commentary on what defiles is pretty straight-forward, but his behavior toward the Canannite woman is just...strange! To begin with, the woman cries out to Jesus, and he ignores her! Just a few days ago, Jesus was trying to get some peace and quiet, and when the crowds started crying out to him, he just put that all aside and went to heal the people. Now, he's going about his work, but when this woman cries out to Jesus, Matthew tells us, "Jesus did not answer a word." Clearly, he intentionally disregarded this woman. But obviously, that didn't deter the woman at all, and before we know it, she has thrown herself before him, still asking for his help. "This will get him," we think. But Jesus' response was still cold, as he basically likened the woman to a dog. Yes, you heard that right, a dog.
Why would Jesus do this? This is God in-the-flesh! This is the man who puts loving God and loving others above all else. This is the one who came to seek and to save the lost. He teaches us to offer all of ourselves and all of our resources in service to God and to our neighbor! So why did Jesus not do that for this woman? Why did he initially ignore her and call her a dog when she clearly had a legitimate need?
I think Jesus was trying to make a point, and to understand that point, we need to take a look at what Jesus said to the Pharisees just before this encounter with the Canaanite woman. The Pharisees had come to Jesus with a question. They wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples didn't follow the ritual purity laws, specifically, why they didn't wash their hands when they ate their food. Now, don't get me wrong, washing your hands before you eat is an important practice. We know that, and Jesus knew it too. The Pharisees seemed to think, though, that Jesus and his followers weren't following the ritual. So Jesus takes the question as an opportunity to school the Pharisees a bit on what it really means to be clean or unclean. Here, Jesus is really addressing the question, how can the human heart be made pure?
"What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'" God wants us to be pure, but purity does not come from things like hand-washing as the Pharisees believe. This is just surface-level. Being right with God has nothing to do with trying to follow a bunch of external laws. But it has everything to do with what is inside us. And Jesus himself is the only remedy for the wickedness and uncleanness that infects us all. As the remedy, Jesus needs to be applied to the disease, deep down inside each of our human personalities, so that we can be changed from the inside out!
So just having finished speaking to His disciples about what makes a person “clean” or “unclean” Jesus moves forward and gives them a picture lesson, using a real person—the Canaanite woman! And what better place to come in contact with a so-called unclean person than to leave Jewish territory and enter Gentile territory. Gentiles were any people who were not Jewish. We, for example, are Gentiles from birth. The Jews of Jesus’ day would have deemed us “unclean,” with no chance of being redeemed or saved. As a matter of fact, it would have been a dangerous thing to head into Gentile territory. For example, if a Jew were to even eat Gentile food that would cause that Jew to become “unclean.” That’s why the disciples always carried their own food with them if they happened to go through Gentile territory.