prepared by Fr. Abraham Mutholath
Though Jesus started his ministry with the lost sheep among Israelites, he did not deny the request of Gentiles for help. He made them express their faith in him as the “Son of David.” The disciples who were with Jesus also could learn from him on how to deal with the Gentiles. Before his ascension into heaven, Jesus entrusted the disciples to preach the good news to all the nations. Faith and persistence in prayer without losing hope are the qualities we note in the Canaanite woman’s request for help. Like the Canaanite woman, let us also keep our faith and prayer. And like Jesus, let us be compassionate to those who need our help.
THE BIBLE TEXT
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.
(21) Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. (22) 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.” (23) 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.” (24) He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (25) But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” (26) He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (27) She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” (28) 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.
(21) Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
While Jesus was continuing his ministry in Capernaum, his popularity among the nations and opposition from the Jewish leaders grew. After a dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees on the topic of cleanliness and defilement followed by addressing the crowd on the same topic, Jesus moved to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a pagan region. It was to avoid a premature attack on him at Capernaum and to be free for a while from the public and the Jewish authorities. It is probable that he had gone only to the borders of Tyre and Sidon because he had ordered his disciples, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Matthew 10:5).
Tyre and Sidon
Tyre and Sidon are 20 miles apart and are now located in Lebanon, north of Galilee. The inhabitants of Sidon must be the descendants of Sidon who was the firstborn son of Canaan, the grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:15). Now the city is in Lebanon and known as Saidain Arabic meaning “fishing.” Sidon was the northern border of the ancient Canaanites (Genesis 10:19). Tyre is 20 miles south of Sidon and was built on a rock island at the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The name Tyre came from the Semitic word “sr” meaning rock.
Tyre and Sidon were the principal cities of Phoenicia that lay on the coast of Galilee. Though Joshua had allotted these cities also to the tribe of Asher (Joshua 19:28-29) at the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites never conquered the people there(Judges 1:31-32). “So the Israelites settled among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.They took their daughters in marriage, and gave their own daughters to their sons in marriage, and served their gods.” (Judges 3:5-6).
Tyre had a great contribution in providing supplies and personnel for the construction of the palace of David in Jerusalem. “Hiram, king of Tyre, sent envoys to David along with cedar wood, and carpenters and masons, who built a house for David.” (2 Samuel 5:11).“The Sidonians and Tyrians brought great stores of cedar logs to David.” (1 Chronicles 22:4).
The Assyrians attacked the ten tribes of Israel around 740 BC and exiled them to different parts of their empire. The tribe of Asher was also among the lost 10 tribes of Israel. Jeremiah (27:3–11) and Ezekiel (26:7–14) had prophesied the surrender of Tyre and Sidon to Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Tyre for 13 years (585–572 BC).
After returning from Babylonian exile when the Jews started construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem (521-516 BC) under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they sought the help from Tyre and Sidon for construction materials for the Temple. “Then they hired stonecutters and carpenters, and sent food and drink and oil to the Sidonians and Tyrians that they might ship cedar trees from the Lebanon to the port of Joppa, as Cyrus, king of Persia, had authorized.” (Ezra 3:7).
(22) 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.”
Mark also narrates the same incident (Mark 7:24-30). According to him, the event happened in Tyre at a house where he was intending to take rest (Mark 7:24).
The expression shows the unexpected appearance of the Canaanite woman in front of Jesus.
A Canaanite woman
“Canaanite” was used in a wider sense for all who had been living in the promised land before the arrival of Israelites from Egypt (Genesis 10:18-19). Once Israelites occupied Canaan, the term Canaanite was limited to the Phoenicians who lived in the Tyre and Sidon region. The Asher tribe had let these Canaanites live there along with them. Matthew refers this lady as “a Canaanite woman,” because she was of Canaanite descent.
Mark presents the Canaanite woman as “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.” (Mark 7:26). Because of the Assyrian (722 BC) and Babylonian (586 B.C) exiles, the Israelites were scattered among other nations. The invasion of Alexander the Great (333-321 B.C.) brought Greek people, their language and culture among the Israelites. Thus, the Jews and Greeks were living side by side in the Roman empire. The Greeks were Gentiles though not all Gentiles were Greeks. This Canaanite woman who approached Jesus was a Canaanite descent with Greek religion, culture, and language.
Mark presents the woman as “Syrophoenician by birth.” The Greeks gave the land of Canaan another name Phoenicia which in Greek means purple. The people in this region had developed purple dye industry by extracting a fluid from a Mediterranean mollusk, the murex. Purple was a commodity for royal dress. They shipped this valuable dye to all over the Mediterranean world.The Phoenicians who lived in the Syrian province of Tyre and Sidon were known as Syrophoenicians to distinguish them from the Phoenicians who lived in North African Lybophoenicia or Carthage. Thus, Matthew’s usage of “Canaanite” and Mark’s calling of “Greek” and “Syrophoenician” are referring to the same lady.
Lord, Son of David!
The fame of Jesus had spread from Capernaum to distant places and Gentile nations. Even the Gentiles came to know that the “Son of David”, the Messiah had arrived. The Jews believed that the Messiah would be a “Son of David,” a descent from the lineage of King David. God had made a covenant with David that his son will rule all nations for eternity (1 Chronicles 17:11-14). Since Solomon, the son and successor of David could not rule for eternity, people were expecting another son of David who would rule them in peace for eternity. By acknowledging Jesus as the son of David, the Canaanite woman was expressing her faith in Jesus as the Messiah. While many elite Jews had denied the Messiahship of Jesus, many poor Jews and Gentiles believed in him.
“Have pity on me, … My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
The woman, though seeking the help of Jesus to cast out demon from her daughter, was asking for pity on herself. Her daughter’s suffering was her own. This woman had heard of the miracles and casting out demons Jesus did in Galilee and Judea. Jesus was her only hope.
(23) 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 did not say a word in answer to her
The silence of Jesus was not a denial of help but a test of the woman’s faith. Sometimes, we also feel this silence for our prayers for help. That can be a test period of our faith in God.
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
The mentality of the disciples was to get rid of the Canaanite woman because she was a nuisance for them and their master who came there to take a break from the busy life in Galilee. They did not try to understand her feeling or show any empathy for her. They might have thought that master did not want to help her because he had previously instructed them to minister only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:5). Instead of a silence, they thought, why don’t the master give a clear negative answer. They did not intercede for the woman for the healing of her daughter. Their only request was to send her away so that she won’t keep bothering them.
May be the silence of Jesus was also to test the mentality and response of his disciples who were in training with him. Jesus might want to teach his disciples that they would later be ministering to the Gentiles with love and compassion.
(24) He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
By these words Jesus was not rejecting the request of a Gentile. It was to show that he came as a fulfillment of God’s promise to the chosen people, a presentation of his priorities and a test of the faith of the woman. Jesus then healed her daughter affirming that his mission is also for the Gentiles.
I was sent
God sent Jesus into the world as the fulfillment of His promise to humanity to redeem the world. This promise made with the first parents (Genesis 3:15) was continued throughout the salvation history. Bible speaks of prophets whom God sent to speak on behalf of Him. John the Evangelist reports of John the Baptist, “A man named John was sent from God.” (John 1:6). After his resurrection, Jesus appeared and told to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21). So, Jesus came with a mission from God to fulfill His promise to humanity from the beginning of creation.
Jeremiah presented Israel as a “lost sheep” misled by their shepherds (Jeremiah 50:6). Ezekiel spoke of the selfish shepherds of Israel and God promised that He himself would rescue his sheep. “I will search for my sheep myself, and I will look after them.”(Ezekiel 34:11). Jesus, the Son of God, came as a shepherd to his sheep, Israel (John 10:11-16).
House of Israel
Abraham’s grandson Jacob who was born to Isaac was also called Israel. He had 12 sons through his two wives and two maid servants. The descendants of these twelve sons formed the 12 tribes of Israel. All these tribes were collectively known as the house of Israel. By the time of the public ministry of Jesus, the house of Israel was dispersed among nations because of Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. Jews, the descendants of Judah through whom God promised the Messiah to David, were concentrated in Judea and Galilee. Jesus said to the Canaanite woman that God sent him primarily to these lost sheep of the house of Israel.
(25) But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
The woman came
When Jesus and his disciples were discussing, the Canaanite woman was standing apart from them. She approached Jesus again with her passionate request.
Did him homage
The final attempt of the woman was by an act of prostrate homage. That means she fell flat on the groundas an expression of her humility, submission, and adoration.
“Lord, help me.”
This time she did not call Jesus “Son of David.” Overhearing from Jesus’ response to the disciples, she might have felt that, as a Gentile, she was ineligible to call him that and claim healing based on her race. However, as a mother, she was ardent to get the help for her daughter.
(26) He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
What was the intention of Jesus when he used the analogy of children and dogs in the place of Israelites and Greeks? The Israelites were the people with whom God made covenant. So, they were considered as God’s first-born children (Exodus 4:22). Gentiles had only a second place in front of God. Jesus started his redemption of humanity starting with Jews and then extended to the Gentiles. The Jews were insiders of the house like children and the Gentiles were like favorite puppies brought up outside the house and not sharing equal rights with children. The word Jesus used for dogs was not what was used for street dogs but for pet dogs. The Jews had the practice of calling Gentiles dogs. However, the tone Jesus used was not of contempt or racism butwas a lovable puppy with a smiling gesture. The intention of Jesus was not to humiliate her because later he praised her for her great faith. He was expressing his priorities in preaching the gospel. Jesus had to offer salvation first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles or Greeks. He had already healed a Gentile centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). However, he extended that to people of all the world before his ascension by asking the disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19).
(27) She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
The Canaanite woman accepted the reply of Jesus in a positive sense. While acknowledging herself as a “dog,” she sought for the privilege of a puppy in a house. She did not request to curtail any of the privileges of the children to favor her. She believed that even a dog’s portion of grace from Jesus would be enough to heal her daughter.
(28) 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.
The woman had expressed her faith in Jesus like the Centurionwho was also a Gentile (Matthew 8:5-13). She was a child of faith, though not of the flesh of Abraham (Romans 4:16). According to Mark, “When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.” (Mark 7:30).
- The Canaanite woman was asking mercy of Jesus for her child. Parents should keep praying for their children to be safe from the evil influences in their lives. Jesus will not forsake the cry of a parent for the child entrusted to the care of the parents.
- The silence of Jesus at first to the Canaanite woman was discouraging for her. However, she persisted on her prayer. This Canaanite woman is a typical example for keeping faith and prayer even when our prayers are not answered according to our timing. Jesus was testing her faith because Jesus never declined anyone seeking his help. He cured her daughter after the test.
- The disciples got annoyed at the constant request of the Canaanite woman for help. So, they said to Jesus: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” The willingness to help just to get rid of the needy person is not a good disposition. Our service should come from our heart as Jesus did in all the helps, he had offered.
- The Canaanite woman was a child of God not by the flesh of Abraham but by the faith of Abraham. Many Jews could not get the grace from Jesus because of their lack of faith that Abraham had. We who are baptized and thus made covenant with Jesus are also bound to keep and practice our faith.
- The Centurion and the Canaanite woman who were Gentiles could gain healing for their beloved ones because of their faith and persistence in prayer. Even when we do not deserve anything by our merit, faith and prayer can gain benefit from God.
- Jesus was compassionate andcharitable to all regardless of whether they were Jews or Gentiles. Let us also be considerate of all, regardless of who they are.