His interaction with a Canaanite woman takes Jesus to the north and west of Israel’s ancient boundaries. The region of Tyre and Sidon was never within the promised land, even at Israel’s Solomonic height. King Hiram of Tyre was a friend of Solomon’s and contributed cedars of Lebanon and laborers for the building of the temple. From that it may be inferred that he was a God-fearing Gentile, but nothing is said of how wide-spread his devotion to the Lord ever became in Tyre or Sidon.
The fact that the woman is called a “Canaanite” further emphasizes her foreign status. The Canaanites in their various ways worshiped idols and polluted the land to such a degree that the conquest of Israel was both due to the promise God gave to Abraham and also as a punishment for the sins of the Canaanites. The conversation, if we want to call it that, between Jesus and the woman further brings out the reality that she is a woman of unclean lips who dwells among a people of unclean lips. In this way it will be seen that she is the flip side of the immediately prior teaching of Christ about what truly defiles a man, namely what it is that makes a person clean.
There are many references in the Gospels about word getting around about who Jesus was and what he did. The obvious conclusion, then, is that the woman had heard about him and therefore was coming to him. In this she is not unlike like Rahab who had heard of God’s power at the Red Sea and was given faith. In faith, Rahab hid the two spies, and in faith, the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help her daughter’s great need.
Jesus’ silence toward the Canaanite woman furthers the dissonance. The universally comforting promises of Christ to “come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” do not come with a similar promise about the timing of that rest. “Draw near to God, and at the proper time he will lift you up.” Experience bears out the fact that Jesus, like His Father, can be simultaneously imminent and distant. He is present and hears her pleas, but “answers her not a word.”
The tension between universal and particular is furthered as Jesus discusses boundaries. Still silent to the woman, Jesus speaks to the disciples and tells them he was not sent except for the lost sheep of Israel. Their request had been that he dismiss her, possibly meaning to grant her request so that she subsequently leaves them alone. His response indicates that they must have inferred that he help, or else why the statement about only being sent for Israel?
The more pressing question is whether he means it or not? The woman calling him son of David may factor in here. David’s son brings to view the later prophecies of the Christ which oftentimes have a primary focus on Israel’s restoration from exile. “Behold, the days are coming declares the Lord when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely …. In his days Judah shall be saved and Israel will dwell securely” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them: he shall feed them and be their prince” (Ezekiel 34:23). Taken in isolation, references such as these may lead one to conclude that the Christ is the hope of Israel only. But this is an overly narrow view of the messiah as some of the key prophecies, especially in Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12:3, speak of his mission for all of Adam’s descendants and all nations being blessed in him.
Why then does Jesus speak of an Israel-centric mission? Is such a thought wrong? Is he speaking tongue-in-cheek? Attempts to discern sarcasm in the Scriptures are usually a sign of grasping at straws, so it is better to assume he meant what he said and find the rationale in Scripture itself.
St. Paul says that he magnifies his ministry to the Gentiles in order somehow to make his fellow Jews jealous and thus save some. In this, he is only imitating his Lord who magnifies his ministry to Israel in order somehow to make this Gentile woman jealous and thus save her. The magnification of the messiah’s Israel-centered ministry does not exclude Gentiles, but actually draws them to Him. He becomes a light to the nations. As even the most Israel-centric prophecies foresaw: “Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezekiel 37:28).
The context of our reading further emphasizes this point. Jesus’ journey to Tyre and Sidon comes on the heels of a controversy with the Jewish leaders about what makes a man unclean. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus did not observe the traditions of the fathers related to ritual washings. Their thinking was that he and his disciples were therefore unclean to eat. Jesus clearly refutes the error of their thinking to show that it is not what is outside a man that defiles him, but rather what comes from the heart.
What has this to do with the Canaanite woman? In many ways she is the opposite of the Pharisees. She is not only a Gentile, but a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies. If anyone would have been ritually unclean, it would be her. And yet, from the fullness of her heart her mouth speaks. She approaches the Lord with unwashed hands, and in all likelihood with no knowledge of the traditions of the elders. In that sense, it would not be “right” to give her the bread of the children. Humanly speaking, she is like a dog, an animal that is canonically understood to be synonymous with uncleanliness.
But by faith in the Lord Jesus, she is worthy and well-prepared to receive his blessing. Not only does she receive the crumbs that fall from the children’s table, but the affirmation of the Lord: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you believe.” The Pharisees earned the rebuke of the Lord as he quoted Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” By way of contrast, in the Canaanite woman, Isaiah’s other prophesy of the Gentiles also comes to pass: “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”