Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

99. The Canaanitish Woman (Matt. 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30)

Jesus took his disciples away north into the country near Tyre. There was acute need to get them away from all the deleterious influences to which they had lately been subject. Matthew's word means "he cleared out, he fled;" and Mark seems to imply "next day," after the violent disputation with the Pharisees. There was also need to further the apostles' spiritual education. Their understanding of their Master must be filled out. So Jesus was glad to let go the crowd in order to concentrate on saving the Twelve from collapse of faith (cp. Mt. 16:4,6).

It is not unlikely that the house to which they came in this north-western region was put at the Lord's disposal by one of his wealthy sympathisers, maybe one of those like the Capernaum nobleman who felt everlastingly grateful to Jesus for his miraculous help.

This is the first of a series of allusions in this part of the gospels to Jesus spending time in the more remote corners of Jewish territory and in the Gentile areas just beyond (compare Matthew 15 :39; 16 :13; 17 :1; Mk. 7 :31; 8:10). It was evidently his intention at this time to avoid the Jewish crowds who followed him so excitedly, but who were nevertheless so impervious to the essential character of his teaching.

A plea for help

Even in the neighbourhood of Tyre it was impossible to go unrecognized. A woman there immediately knew that this was Jesus of Nazareth, the one man who could help her daughter in her desperate plight. She is described as "a Canaanite", and as "a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by race." The first of these terms was long obsolete. It belonged properly to the races whom Israel were commanded to eliminate when they conquered the Land (Dt. 20 :17), but who had persisted right through the centuries, especially in those areas where in ancient days Jewish domination had never been well established. Perhaps Matthew has included the name so as to hint at the time when the people of Canaan and Tyre were numbered to David along with the tribes of Israel (2 Sam. 24 :7). The mention of Syrio links with the pointed allusion to Gentiles—Naaman and the widow of Sarepta, praised by Jesus for their faith (Lk 4 -.25-27). The latter had had her child restored to her by the man of God. Now there was to be a like act of grace to another Gentile mother in that area. The description "Greek" is equivalent to Gentile (Gal. 3 :28). Since she "came out from those borders" (RV), it almost seems as though she knew of the Lord's approach, and came to meet him.

Matthew's characteristic "Behold" emphasizes the unexpectedness of the recognition of Jesus and also the highly unusual attitude of the woman herself. This poor soul was made miserable by the calamitous condition of her little daughter who was "possessed by an unclean spirit". Judging from the one detail given, the affliction was probably epilepsy, but it is difficult to be sure.

Out on the road this woman came crying after them: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David." Like the man whose epileptic son was healed just after the Transfiguration (Mk. 9 :22), she suffered acutely in the suffering of her child, hence her cry: "Have mercy on me." That she should call Jesus "Lord" and "Son of David" showed her quality. Canaanite she might be, but she knew the Hope of Israel, believed it, and believed also that in this Jesus the great Promise to David would be fulfilled.

She was surely a "proselyte of the gate," that is, not a full convert to Judaism but at least one who accepted the main principles of the religion of Israel.


Her repeated cries appeared to fall on deaf ears. Jesus took no notice—or seemed to. After a while the disciples lost patience. Wasn't it obvious to her, as it very plainly was to them, that Jesus did not intend to help her. Then why couldn't she take "No" for an answer and go away? But she persisted, to the point of getting on their nerves as she followed them on the road. So they repeatedly asked Jesus to cope with the situation: "Send her away, for she crieth after us." If they meant (as many have so understood) that Jesus should do what she asked and so gain peace and quiet for them from her importunity, it was a strange way of expressing it. Yet, had they stopped to think, they would have been hard put to recall a single occasion when anyone in need had gone away from Jesus empty-handed.

However it seemed that this was such a time. After all, she was only a Gentile, and they knew Jesus was set on avoiding the publicity which his wonders of healing inevitably brought. When he replied: "I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," they knew that they were right. That light-hearted Puritan, Tom Fuller, called them "miserable mediators, interceding for her repulse." Did they stop to ask themselves what lost sheep he was busy rescuing at that very time? Except for themselves, practically all the people in that area were Gentiles.

Why should Jesus appear so heedless of this moving appeal? Burgon comments: "We have often found cause to wonder at the Saviour's words, but never till now at his silence."

The explanation often advanced, that the seeming indifference was a deliberate testing of the quality of the woman's faith, is anything but satisfactory. It can hardly be said to present Jesus in a good light. At least as plausible is the idea that Jesus did nothing at first because he was genuinely puzzled to know what was best to do. His natural inclination was to respond at once to this cry for help. His almost ungovernable compassion for people in need meant that only by dint of much internal conflict could he say "No". Yet if he were to go to the woman's home and exercise his healing power there, massive publicity was bound to follow, and the entire purpose of this retreat to the north would be brought to nought. It is a likely guess that Jesus, unable to resolve the dilemma which the woman presented him with, gave himself to silent prayer about it as he went on the road.

The answer came in the outworking of events. When they got back to their headquarters, the woman, desperate and undaunted, followed them into the house. There, with a puppy, one of the household pets, close by her, she knelt at the Lord's feet and repeated her petition: "Lord, help me." Nothing could be more simple, nothing more eloquent or moving.

Jesus framed his reply to fit the circumstances. With his mind obviously on the familiar fact that Jews so often referred to Gentiles as "dogs", he countered: "Let the children first be filled: it is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it unto the dogs (Gk. kunaria: puppies)." The "children" he had in mind were, of course, not the children of Israel, but the twelve. Might not his responding to her plea be the means of robbing them of the weeks of instruction and spiritual rehabilitation which this northern holiday was intended to provide? And if word got round about him going to a Gentile house to heal a Gentile child, would there not be a massive build-up of Jewish prejudice against him? Among his own people the minds of thousands would be closed to all further appeal.


"Let the children first be fed." Here was clear implication that in due time Jesus hoped to gather Gentiles also within the scope of his gracious ministry. Whether the woman went so far, or not, in her understanding is difficult to say. But, in any case, to her, in urgent need, it was beside the point. She clamoured for the immediate aid which she was sure Jesus could give. With marvellous readiness of mind for one so distraught, she saw her opportunity and pressed it home: "Yes, Lord, yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs."

Again, Fuller comments neatly on this pertinacity: "Indeed she showed one of the best qualities of a dog, in keeping her hold where once she had well fastened, not giving over or letting go until she had gotten what she desired." She held on, doubtless, because she detected signs of irresolution in the face of Jesus.

What marvellous insight and faith were wrapped up in her short rejoinder. With a word she accepted the inferior spiritual status of Gentiles as "dogs" compared with the true household of God. And the mighty miracle which she pleaded for was but a "crumb", hardly worth noticing! Then what was the main repast provided for God's own? What but the forgiveness of sins and all the gracious blessings of Messiah, the Son of David?

Her amazing confession of faith involved even more than this. In his half-playful allusion to the dogs, Jesus had also mentioned the children as having prior claims. In her reply the woman dexterously changed the word into one which also very commonly meant "servants" (just as in French "garcon" means "boy" and also "waiter"). This means that she saw Jesus as the master of the household, his disciples as the children, the rest of the Jewish nation as servants, and herself as a Gentile "puppy" scavenging for crumbs on the floor. What a contrast with the obtuseness of the twelve! (e.g. in Mt. 16:7)!

This faith and persistence and spiritual insight provided the greatest stimulus Jesus had had for a long time. What she had done for him was far greater than what she asked. "O woman, great is thy faith. For this saying go thy way, and be it unto thee even as thou wilt. The devil is gone out of they daughter." And here again, as always in such instances, Jesus chose his words so as to imply that the cure was permanent. There was nothing to fear for the future.

Healed from a distance

And the woman went, believing, and there was no disappointment. Instead of the stertorous breathing of a contorted little body, and the fierce angry unnatural hue of the poor sufferer's face, there was one of the loveliest sights in all God's creation-a child peacefully asleep, relaxed and untroubled. The devil was gone (cp. Jn.4:46ff).

Thus this Gentile woman joined the honourable order of those who refused to be put off, and were blessed for their persistence: the paralytic and his loyal friends (Mk.2:4),, the leper (1:40), blind Bartimaeus (10:48), and wrestling Jacob (Gen.32:26).

There is here an impressive study in unanswered prayer: First, there were persistent requests-No! Then the disciples interceded-again, No! A further direct appeal —and still, No! Then faith seized its opportunity for persuasive expression-and the answer now is Yes! But suppose she had taken that triple refusal for an answer!

But how did the apostles know the outcome of their master's assurance about the little girl’s recovery? Did one of them escort the woman home? Or did she promptly return to pour out her gratitude?

Many hundreds of years before, the prophecy had been spoken: "Blessed be the Lord God of Shem (the Name); Canaan shall be his servant" (Gen. 9:26). Now those ancient words found a wonderful new meaning in the devotion of a thankful woman.

This was the third time that Jesus chose to work a miracle from a distance. There was the servant of the Roman centurion, and the son of the noblemen in Galilee of the Gentiles; and now this little daughter of a woman of Canaan Later, there was also the Samaritan leper. They all foreshadowed a wonderful truth-how from a distance Jesus was to bring healing to Gentiles in desperate need.

Notes: Mt. 15:21-28

Behold. Thus in a word Matthew tells how extraordinary it was that the woman should know Jesus was there, and —knowing —that she should appeal to him.

Son of David. A Messianic title used of Jesus only in 9:27; 20:30; 21:9.
Great is thy faith. Besides the paralytic and Bartimaeus, already mentioned, a like commendation was reserved for the woman who touched the Lord's robe in the crowd (9:22), the two blind men (9:29), the Samaritan leper (Lk. 17:19), and - differently—the woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Lk. 7:50).

Previous Index Next