The Canaanite Woman: the reply

CannaniteHeadlinesHow are we to Understand Jesus’ Response? The disciples’ request, Send her away for she keeps calling out after us need not be understood as disapproval of her request, but simply a desire for peace and quiet (cf. 19:13?). In fact, if Jesus would just grant the petition, they all can rest. Many scholars hold this content makes Jesus’ emphatic objection (v.24) more cogent. But rather than take the path of least resistance, there is a principle to be highlighted. The principle is the same as that of 10:5–6, of a mission  restricted to Israel (during Jesus’ earthly ministry): “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The statement here is Jesus’ explanation to the disciples of his unexpectedly unwelcoming response to a woman in need; she herself need not have heard it, as it is only in v.25 that she approaches Jesus closely.

In her close approach she gives Jesus homage and again refers to him as Lord. While one can assume this is only the posture/language of the petitioner, in Matthew such language always refers to worship before God. Given this, how should one take the repartee between Jesus and the woman? There are three basic suggestions:

  1. One suggestion for understanding Jesus’ response is that he is testing her faith (Lord, Son of David) and her resolve (a key characteristic for all disciples).
  2. Another suggestion is its polar opposite, he is making it clear to her that she and her concerns are not part of his mission – but her clever reply, acknowledging the primacy of mission to Israel, raises the possibility of mission beyond Israel for those who accept God’s sovereignty in how He chooses his own people.
  3. Another variation depends upon the understanding that Jesus is still in Jewish territory and that the Canaanite woman has come as though fulfilling the Isaian vision of the Gentiles streaming to the Temple Mount ( Isa 2:2-4): the Gentiles are to approach God through Israel.

All three responses allow for Jesus’ final words (v.28) and the healing desired.

Yet we are troubled by Jesus uttering: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” It has been suggested that since the Greek term kynaria, a diminutive, i.e., puppy, is an affectionate reference to dogs as pets, that Jesus is not being harsh. While that appeals to our modern sentimentality and manners, it has trouble because of the lack of any such idea in Judaism, or of a known diminutive form to express it in Aramaic. The more likely scenario is that Jesus is expressing the contemptuous Jewish attitude to Gentiles in order to explain why her request does not fit into his mission to Israel. But written words do not convey a twinkle in the eye, the tone of delivery, or other such nuance. Perhaps Jesus verbally conveys the words she would expect, but everything else hints at an invitation to “make her case.” And she makes it in a way that conveys her faith.

No-one else receives from Jesus the accolade “…great is your faith!” (though the centurion seems equivalent, cf. 8:10). Was it merely her persistence in expecting a response despite apparent refusal? Or is there also the idea of her spiritual perception in recognizing both the primary scope of Jesus’ mission to Israel and also the fact that was not to be its ultimate limit? The Canaanite woman, like the centurion before her, foreshadows the time when the true Israel will transcend the boundaries of culture and nationality.

Universal Salvation

The careful reader of Matthew should be mindful that there have been persistent hints. From the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew begins to make it clear that the community of the Messiah is formed from unexpected sources. The mention of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (1:3, 5, 6), all evidently Gentiles with overtones of scandal in their backgrounds, prepares the reader for Jesus’ association with the sinners of his own day. The curious arrival of the mysterious wise men (Magi) from the east who wish to worship Jesus (2:1–2) foreshadows the power of the message of the Kingdom to summon followers in surprising ways. Jesus’ amazement at the faith of the Roman officer (8:10–12) and his acknowledgement of the faith of the Canaanite woman (15:28) encourage the readers of this Gospel to believe that the message of the Kingdom is able to engender faith from unlikely sources in their own day. The Roman soldier’s amazed confirmation of Jesus’ true identity at the crucifixion (27:54) has a similar effect. All of these episodes from the narrative collectively encouraged Matthew’s original Jewish readers to expand their vision of the people of God. It was not that they should abandon their fellow Jews, but they were to take the message of the Kingdom to “all the nations” (28:19).


  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 54
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 335-38
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 320-25
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 587-96
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 248-51
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 234-38
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 884
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 414-18
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 170-73
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 211-13


  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at


2 thoughts on “The Canaanite Woman: the reply

  1. This is all good to know the historical story of this passage. The way I see it in current situation as a dog or pet that I discussed on my Sunday snippet that I have to be like a dog hounding Jesus for his mercy.

  2. I have always liked the story of the Canaanite woman. Don’t you think on its deepest level it shows Christ’s compassion for all, even the alien among them? The same as the woman with the hemmorage. They both had the courage to approach Jesus. Both of them would have been considered outsiders, correct? The Canaanite woman not being Jewish and the woman with the hemmorage would have been considered unclean, thus an outsider among her community. Of course, I might be mixing analogies here and got it wrong on both counts. Thank you!

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