The Shocking Words of Christ

Perplexing Passages

Editors’ note: 

This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously in this series:

It is often said—and rightly so—that Jesus is the hero of every text of Scripture. Yet when we first encounter him in Matthew 15:26, Jesus looks anything but heroic. Instead, it appears that he is failing to be missional, and being entirely rude in the process. Consider the context:[1]

  • Jesus, in “the district of Tyre and Sidon” (Matt. 15:21), is approached by “a Canaanite woman” (v. 22)—a perfect opportunity for cross-cultural gospel witness.
  • The woman implores Jesus to heal her daughter, who is “severely oppressed” by a demon (v. 22). Who could refuse such a request?
  • The distraught mother addresses Jesus with titles that demonstrates respect, awareness of his Jewish heritage, and trust in his power: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David” (v. 22). Jesus’s response is stony silence; he does not speak “a word” to her (v. 23).
  • When the disciples ask Jesus to send the woman away, he says, in essence, “I’m here only for needy Israelites.” He seeks the lost sheep of Israel (v. 24) but won’t even bother telling a Gentile to get lost.
  • When the woman persists in her request, Jesus utters our verse: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26)—animals with overwhelmingly negative associations in Scripture and in Jewish culture.[2]

If a Christian leader were to speak such words today, we would recommend that he do remedial work in apologetics and pastoral care, and we might begin to question his fitness for ministry. What, then, should we make of Jesus’s reply to the Canaanite woman?

Charting Out the Options

Interpretations fall into three categories. The first seeks to mitigate the harshness of verse 26. For example, some see the verse as a simple restatement of Jesus’s point that the focus of his ministry is on Israel. Others suggest that Matthew’s diminutive term kunarioi, “little dogs,” has positive, perhaps even affectionate, overtones. This approach ultimately fails, however. Jesus’s responses intensify as the story unfolds, moving from silence, to an emphasis (spoken to the disciples) on the appropriate beneficiaries of his ministry, to an explicit denial (spoken directly to the woman) that kunarioi should be among those beneficiaries. And Matthew’s description of the woman as a “Canaanite” evokes ancient animosity between Israel and her Gentile neighbors. Given such a context, any reference to dogs is off-putting, even on the most sympathetic reading.

A second approach takes Jesus’s language to reveal his deep-seated sexism and racism, with the woman’s courageous faith confronting Jesus’s failing.[3] In addition to Matthew’s clear teaching that Jesus is God incarnate (Matt. 1:23; 28:18-20), three factors argue against such an interpretation. First, the attentive reader remembers that Jesus’s genealogy includes two Canaanite women, Rahab and Ruth (Matt. 1:5).[4] This indicates that God’s purposes—and therefore Jesus’s attitude—transcend the biases of ancient Israelite culture. Second, Matthew does not hesitate to tell us that many are offended by Jesus (Matt. 13:57; 15:12; 17:27), with some even accusing him of evil (9:3, 9:34; 12:24). Yet there is no hint in our text that the woman feels she has been sinned against. Instead, she agrees with Jesus (“Yes, Lord”), answering his reference to “little dogs” with her own reference to “little crumbs” (psichiōn, the diminutive form of psix). Third, it is clear that the woman has complete trust in Jesus’s strength. In her mind, even a “little crumb” of Jesus’s power would suffice to restore her daughter. Such an attitude indicates that the woman did not view Jesus as a sinner, and precludes Matthew’s readers from drawing such a conclusion.

Invitation to Deeper Faith

A final approach to our text sees it as a wise Master’s means of forming faith in his disciples—including the Canaanite woman. This makes sense of the text on multiple levels:

  1. First, Jesus’s jarring reply to the woman invites her to demonstrate the depth of her faith.[5] Whereas other would-be disciples fail to respond to Jesus’s challenges (Matt. 8:19-22) or turn away completely (19:16-22), even difficult words from Jesus cannot discourage this woman.[6] Thus Jesus highly commends her in verse 28: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
  2. Second, Jesus’s harsh words to the woman are intended to instruct others in the nature of persevering faith. In the accounts that immediately precede and follow our text, Jesus’s apostles demonstrate their lack of spiritual perception (Matt. 15:18-19, 33), highlighting the contrast between their “little faith” (8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20) and the woman’s great faith. This suggests that Jesus intends his interaction with the woman to teach the apostles—and all who follow him—what it means to have a faith that overcomes all barriers. Such faith perseveres and will not fall away in times of testing (10:22; 13:21).[7]
  3. Third, Jesus’s words to the Canaanite woman practically illustrate what it means to take up a cross and follow him (Matt. 10:38; 16:24). Simply put, if we are not ready to bear the offense of being called dogs, we are not yet prepared for the shame of cross-bearing. As the woman seems to understand, any disciple who is “like [her] teacher” must be prepared to endure insult (10:24-25; 5:11).
  4. Finally, by demonstrating the woman’s readiness to respond in true faith to the demands of discipleship, Jesus’s words prepare his followers—later generations as well as the apostles—for a worldwide mission in which faith, not ethnicity, is the critical factor. It is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs; nor is it good to forget that God can raise up many children whose faith resembles that of father Abraham (Matt. 3:9; 8:11; Rom. 4:1-17).

At first glance, we are startled by Jesus’s lack of sensitivity in Matthew 15:26. After deeper reflection, the text confronts us with our lack of sensitivity—to the strength of a desperate mother’s persevering faith, to the demands of discipleship, and to the depths of mercy that make Jesus ready to bless anyone who comes to him in true faith.

[1] Note the parallel text in Mark 7:24-30.

[2] See Deut. 23:18; 2 Sam. 16:9; Ps. 22:16; 59:6, 14; Prov. 26:11; 2 Pet. 2:22.

[3] See the studies referred to in Charles H. Talbert, Matthew, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 190.

[4] There is debate about whether Tamar (Matt. 1:3) is also a Canaanite.

[5] See John Chrysostom’s 52nd homily on Matthew: “Not in insult then were His words spoken, but calling her forth, and revealing the treasure laid up in her” (Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 10 [1888; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004], 323).

[6] Talbert notes that according to Ruth Rabbah 2.16, a rabbi must accept as a disciple anyone who persists after being turned back three times (Matthew, 190).

[7] According to Calvin, the woman “thinks the door is closed on her,” but Jesus’s intent is “to make her try in faith to get through the cracks in the wood” (A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Volume II, tr. T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Commentaries 2 [1972; reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 171).