The account of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 who pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter has been cited by critics to claim that Jesus was too harsh, or had faults, or that this account is itself inaccurate since it makes Jesus sound uncaring. So either Jesus was too harsh, had faults, and/or that the account may not be accurate or true. But is Jesus being harsh or showing a faulty nature? If not, then there is no reason to question the truthfulness of the story.


Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once. Matt. 15:21-28 (NAS, 1995)


The Contrast with the Pharisees

Jesus is in a Gentile region when a Canaanite woman cries out, asking Jesus to help her daughter, who is demon possessed. Jesus does not reply. Then the disciples ask Jesus to send her away because she is annoying them with her pleadings. Jesus responds  only by telling the disciples that he is there for “the lost sheep of Israel.”


While it is true that Jesus came as the promised Messiah for Israel, some think this remark makes Jesus sound uncaring. But Jesus is making a point, at least to the disciples, that the Pharisees are rejecting him as the promised Messiah. Prior to this passage, the Pharisees challenged Jesus about the ritual handwashing and Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, had sternly rebuked them as hypocrites and told the crowd that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out (Matt. 15:1-11).


Hearing this reprimand, the disciples ask Jesus if he realized he had offended the Pharisees, and Jesus answers:


“Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”


Jesus was not concerned about offending the Pharisees. Peter asks for an explanation of Jesus’ words about what defiles a man, and Jesus replies that it is not what is eaten with unwashed hands that defiles (ceremonial uncleanness, this is not about eating with dirty hands) but that out of the heart come “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders which defile (vv. 15-20).


The Gentile Woman’s Persistence

Jesus and his disciples leave there for the Tyre and Sidon area. Now the stage is set for the contrast of the Pharisees with the Syrophoenician woman.


The Canaanite woman, having no reply from Jesus, and despite the reaction from the disciples to send her away, comes to Jesus and once more begs him for help. Now Jesus says something that sounds insensitive or even callous. He tells her that “it is not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”


Commentaries point out that the word for “dogs” here probably references household pets; however, Jesus’ reply makes it sound like she is not worthy to receive his aid. But keep in mind that Jesus knows what will happen and is letting it play out. Jesus is stating a fact and giving the woman a chance to make her case. If these words cause her to turn  away, then it would expose her as not having faith in who Jesus really was.


But the woman persists by saying that even the dogs get crumbs from their master’s table, and Jesus then commends her by saying, “your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish,” and he heals her daughter.


Two important points come to mind:



The Gospel for the Gentiles

The Gentiles’ faith in Jesus is a theme in Matthew, starting with the Magi in Matthew 2. Critics have used the passage about the Syrophoenician woman to make points against Scripture or Jesus but do not take the context into account, or the fact that Jesus was always demonstrating truths about himself with his actions and words. He did not do things for show or in a vacuum, nor speak carelessly.


For example, back in Matthew 8 Jesus heals a centurion’s servant, saying of the centurion (a Gentile), “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel” — another rebuke to the Jewish leaders. Also in Matthew 8, Jesus casts demons out of two violent men in the Gentile area of the Gadarenes. So it is helpful to know the Gospel of Matthew in order to recognize these themes and view the accounts in context.


This account in Matthew 15 demonstrates to the disciples, to whoever witnessed this, and to us:



Rather than Jesus being unsympathetic, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and, in reality, was extending mercy to the Canaanite woman although he had come for Israel. The account in context with other accounts illustrates who Jesus is and that his compassion and revelation of who he is was extended to the Gentiles as well.



Commentary on the healing of the demon-possessed men in the Decapolis area in Matthew 8