Summary: Whay did Jesus seem to treat this woman so roughly?
The Crumbs Under the Table
This passage about the Canaanite woman and the way Jesus seems to treat her has been the source of many a discussion. Some are even offended at Jesus over this. Others try to smooth over what Jesus said and try to make it easier to understand. Why did Jesus seem to be so dismissive of a Gentile woman. Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
When we look at this passage in its context in Matthew, we should note that it immediately follows a confrontation Jesus had had with the Pharisees. The disciples had reported to Jesus that the Pharisees had taken great offense to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus had responded by saying that they were the blind leading other blind men into the ditch. He also said that the Pharisees were not His people but a weed in the garden which was to be plucked up. He then went on to explain to the disciples the parable which had offended the Pharisees that ritual defilement came from the inside and not the outside.
Immediately after the confrontation with the Pharisees, he departed for Sidon. Sidon was quite a distance in Gentile country. Did Jesus and his disciples resort there to escape from the Pharisees? This would at first seem like a good question to ask, except we read in the Gospels that Jesus was totally in control of the situation. But like Elijah who departed to Israel after offending King Ahab, Jesus too resorts to the city of Sidon in Lebanon. The account in the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus entered a house there. An interesting question is whether this was a Gentile house like the house of the widow who took care of Elijah in 1 Kings 17. If Jesus entered into a Gentile house, then it would be a slap in the face to the Pharisees interpretation of clean and unclean.
Matthew does not mention the house, but it is interesting to note that he uses the word “Canaanite” to describe the woman. This is the only time in the New Testament where “Canaanite” appears. This should provide us a clear link to the history of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, we learn of a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab in Joshua 2. She was to be exterminated with the rest of her nation. As a prostitute, she was the unclean of the unclean. But she demonstrated her faith in Yahweh by sheltering the spies and was heard when she pled for mercy. Her faith saved her, and she was added to the people of Israelite. And Matthew’s genealogy at the beginning of the gospel mentions her by name in the genealogy of Jesus.
The link to Elijah has also been mentioned. Jesus in his home synagogue greatly offended his former Jewish neighbors there as well by mentioning the Gentile widow who cared for Elijah at Zarapath in the region of Sidon as well as the Shumanite woman who cared for Elisha. So there was precedent in the Old Testament for that which Jesus was about to do,
Jesus was traveling with his disciples on the road when a woman came up from behind them pleading for Jesus to have mercy. She calls Him the Son of David. Even in this remote region, the fame of Jesus had spread. This cursed Canaanite woman believed that Jesus could help her daughter who was being tormented by an aggressively evil demon. The text says that she repeated this request to the point of annoyance. The disciples wanted shed of her and asked Jesus to dismiss her. They essentially took the position of the unjust judge who rendered a favorable verdict to a persistent woman. This of course is not a proper attitude to have. The disciples did not care for the woman. If it took healing to get rid of her crying, sobeit. If He didn’t heal her, that was fine also.
It is interesting that Jesus answers, but that the text does not say whom he addressed the answer to. It is probable that He was answering the disciples at this point. But I have the idea that He deliberately said this to be overheard by the woman as well. The usual translation of this answer is something like “I have not been sent except to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” At first, this sounds incredibly harsh and exclusive of her. However, this could also be in the form of a question “Was I indeed sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?” The question to be asked at this point is “Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Certainly it was not the Pharisees. They were lost, but Jesus dismisses them as not being of His Father’s planting. In other words, they were not his sheep at all. They were excluded from the ministry and compassion of Jesus.