(Mt. 15:22-28) Was Jesus cruel to this Canaanite woman?

CLAIM: When a Canaanite woman came to Jesus pleading for help, he told her that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). When she persisted, he said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v.26). He eventually healed her daughter, but why did he call her and her daughter “dogs”?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, this isn’t the usual (pejorative) word for “dog.” Lemke writes, “Greek kunaria, our word canine. The word is for “little, domesticated dog,” such as would be common under the dinner table… Jesus used a diminutive form (‘pet dog’) which is not used elsewhere in a pejorative sense. The diminutive form functions as a term of endearment in a household illustration.”[1]

Second, Jesus didn’t call her a dog, but was making an illustration using dogs in it. His point is that children should be fed first—not second. The scraps go to the dogs—not the other way around. This might be similar to using the illustration that spreading the gospel is like “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” When we say this, we are not calling anyone homeless! It’s merely a way of explaining our spiritual poverty and humility. Mark emphasizes this, when he writes that the children should get their food “first” (Mk. 7:27). The point is this: Don’t cut in line. There is a priority in who gets served first.

Third, Jesus had to be focused in his mission to the nation of Israel. If he was too diffuse in his mission, his work would be lost (see comments on Matthew 10:5-6). This is why he emphasizes his mission to Israel over his mission to the Gentiles. Lemke writes, “A person loves a household pet and desires to meet its needs, but he cannot prioritize the needs of his pet above those of his own children. Similarly, Jesus had a covenant obligation to prioritize the spiritual needs of Israel. The word ‘first’ shows that Jesus did not intend to neglect the spiritual needs of the Gentiles. He would address their needs after giving proper attention to the Jewish people. She acknowledges the priority of Israel but believes that just a leftover crumb of attention from Jesus is sufficient to meet her need. In response to her words, Jesus heals her daughter.”[2]

Fourth, Jesus was probably testing this woman to see if she would come to him humbly. According to Mark 7:26, she was wealthy, because she was from Syrophoenician race.[3] Therefore, this would have been a role reversal for her to ask help from a poor Jewish rabbi. Keener again says, “Teachers sometimes tested their disciples (Jn 6:6; Lev. Rab. 22:6), but he is certainly reluctant to grant her request and is providing an obstacle for her faith (compare Jn 2:4). Perhaps he is requiring her to understand his true mission and identity, lest she treat him as one of the many wandering magicians to whom Gentiles sometimes appealed for exorcisms. Yet he is surely also summoning her to recognize Israel’s priority in the divine plan, a recognition that for her will include an admission of her dependent status.”[4] Of course, this interpretation is only confirmed by the fact that Jesus did heal the woman’s daughter, because of her faith (Mt. 15:28).

[1] Lemke, S. W. (2007). The Academic Use of Gospel Harmonies. In Holman Christian Standard Bible: Harmony of the Gospels (p. 105). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[2] Lemke, S. W. (2007). The Academic Use of Gospel Harmonies. In Holman Christian Standard Bible: Harmony of the Gospels (p. 105). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[3] Keener writes, “For one of her social status (an elite ‘Greek’ citizen of Syro-Phoenician race, in Mark’s account) this was a dramatic reversal indeed.” Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. (Mt. 15:26).

[4] Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. (Mt. 15:26).