Did Jesus Mistreat a Gentile Woman?

Posted on April 1, 2022

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By David Ettinger

Note: This post is about the “Canaanite Woman.” You can read her account here.

Rude Behavior?
Ultimately, the story of the Canaanite Woman is a satisfying one, as Jesus healed the daughter of this dear and determined Gentile who came to Him with a dire need.

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However, there are some oddities associated with this episode, the most conspicuous being Jesus’ seemingly rude treatment of a mother in distress. Why did Jesus appear to make this woman beg extra-strenuously compared to others He ministered to?

Before we examine this issue, let’s look at the background of the episode.

Why Was He There?
First, there is the unlikelihood of Jesus’ even being up in the Tyre-Sidon region. As One who came to minister to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), Jesus’ visit to pagan Lebanon was unusual. About 30 miles northeast of Galilee, Tyre was overwhelmingly Gentile, its citizens the descendants of Baal worshipers, Jezebel the most infamous. Tyre also represents the furthest location away from Israel in which Jesus ministered and the only time he ministered away from the “proper” environs of Israel.

So, why was Jesus there?

Most likely, to get some rest! Mark tells us that Jesus, “entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret” (15:24). Because of His miracles, Jesus was inundated daily by those seeking His mercy, and rest was always fleeting. It is likely that Jesus was looking for a quiet place to “lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) away from the maddening crowds of Galilee and to spend some much-needed teaching time with His disciples.

And perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus made this trip up north to minister to the Canaanite woman.

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A Serious Need
Second, let’s look at the woman’s need. One can only imagine the depth of her grief. Demon-possession was deadly serious, literally. One of the purposes of demon-possession was to kill the possessed victim (Matthew 17:15); therefore, the life of the woman’s daughter was certainly in peril. Even if the demon was just looking for a place to “live” and therefore didn’t want to kill its host, the girl’s life would have been miserable as result of the havoc the demon inflicted on her.[1]

Now, let’s look at the meeting between the woman and Jesus. One of the most fascinating aspects of their exchange is that she, a Gentile, referred to Jesus as, “Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22). The term “Son of David” is a reference to Jesus’ Messianic claims; therefore, somehow she believed that Jesus could well have been Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. She may not have comprehended all the ramifications of this, but in her desperation, she recognized the only person who could relieve her daughter’s suffering.

However, when she cried out to Jesus, He didn’t even bothering answering her! Why?

The answer is that, theologically speaking, the time was not right. In other words, Jesus had come to offer His own people – the Jews – the kingdom of God as promised centuries earlier through King David.[2] It was not yet His mission to bring blessings to the Gentiles before first offering Himself to the people of Israel.

However, the woman’s need was dire and she was in no mood to argue theology – a dispute she could not win anyway. Instead, she conceded the point. When Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), she accepted this and was not offended. Desperate, she pleaded again for her daughter’s healing.

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A Brilliant Reply
Though the coldhearted disciples were willing to send her away,[3] Jesus was not. He told her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). Jesus’ objective was not to be insulting, but to use an illustration she could understand. Jesus presented the imagery of a family gathered at mealtime, and the dogs – accepted  and welcomed “guests” – under the table awaiting the crumbs that fall to the ground.

The Canaanite woman brilliantly replied, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). It was like saying, “I understand that as a Gentile I have no right to Israel’s blessings, but if all You have for me is crumbs, than I gratefully accept them.”

Her astute reply melted Jesus’ heart, and He instantly granted her request. Jesus praised the Canaanite woman for her faith, the ultimate message being that the way to Christ is through faith, not family heritage, “religion,” or nationality.

It is a message which has rung true ever since!

[1] Matthew 8:28, 9:33, 12:22, Luke 9:42

[2] 2 Samuel 7:1-16

[3] Matthew 15:23