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Not This Woman

• Abe Johnson

In this third installment of the Women on the Outside series, we explore the story of a Phoenician woman Jesus encountered while with His disciples in the Tyre and Sidon region. We discuss how Jesus held the challenge and beauty of His mission as first the rescuer of the nation of Israel with His overall mission and call to make disciples of all nations.

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There are three important points of context to consider before diving into the passage in Matthew 15. Until the Great Commission at the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the disciples were never told to make disciples of all nations. The focus had been primarily on the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Additionally, right before the story of the Phoenician woman comes a story of identity. Jesus is teaching about what defiles a person – what makes a person clean or unclean. The last important contextual point is what comes after this story. Matthew accounts of the story of Jesus feeding the 4000 and he points out that after the multiplication everyone was full, and there was even food left over. This picture of abundance in the Kingdom of God is important in understanding Jesus’ interaction with the woman from the descendants of Canaan.

The story of the Phoenician woman is unique in several regards. This is the only time Jesus is recorded doing ministry outside of His home nation of Israel. Tyre and Sidon were part of a region that was very wealthy and mostly Greek culture. Additionally, up until now in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is met with infirmity or demons He responds with compassion, empathy, and healing or deliverance. This situation is different because Jesus responds with silence when the woman begs on her demon possessed daughter’s behalf. It isn’t until after the woman goes on to plead with the disciples, and then again talks with Jesus and cleverly puts a twist on His response about Him being sent first for the Jewish people does she receive deliverance for her daughter.

It’s important to understand that Jesus coming to earth to be with humanity wasn’t a do over. This was a continuation of God’s original plan and desire to be in relationship with us and be our sole provider of value, security, and life. The only difference is after the fall Jesus coming to earth became a rescue mission – to get Israel back and save all the nations. That said Jesus stepped in to a mess when He entered the world. He grew up a Jewish boy with Jewish culture and customs with a Jewish understanding of the world. He likely grew up hearing stories of the dangers of the Canaanites and how they would steer Him away from God. He grew up witnessing firsthand how the Gentile “dogs” were murdering His people, stealing their money and food, and oppressing the Jewish nation.

The tension of this backstory and the beauty of the woman’s faith that the Messiah would usher in a Kingdom where there would be so much abundance that even the Gentiles could eat the leftovers must be held in tension. Jesus caller her a woman of great faith because she saw the world as wasn’t yet but would be some day. She had a bigger picture of the coming Kingdom than even Jesus’ disciples. Out of her desperation she had faith in the Messiah to provide for her. Because of Jesus not one of us is on the outside anymore. Through Jesus, God brought us all into his family and adopted us as sons and daughters.

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Topics: Conflict, Faith, Role of Women

Sermon Series: Women on the Outside

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Focus Scripture:

  • Matthew 15:21-28

    21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

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2 thoughts on “Not This Woman

  1. Zack says:

    I’ve been having some trouble with this passage lately. I’ve heard several different explanations for why Jesus said what he said, but it’s difficult for me to discern the truth.

    1. Jesus called her a “little dog” (akin to a beloved house pet) and therefore wasn’t trying being offensive.

    2. Jesus was saying it tongue-in-cheek and she was in on the joke. She knew that he wasn’t being serious when he called her that.

    3. Jesus momentarily got caught up in the racism of his day and (as a human) had a lapse in his normally godly character.

    4. Jesus could sense the faith of this woman from the beginning, but decided to “test” her by seeing if she’d stick with it, even in the face of him being rude.

    I’m not sure that any of these explanations are thoroughly supported by Scripture alone. But the only one that seems to go strictly by the text is Option 3. Is this possible? Would this reading of the text imply that Jesus wasn’t sinless? Is it even a sin to momentarily look at someone as (or imply that they are) less than human? He doesn’t seem to be racist when he deals with other non-Jews.

    I know he rewards her for her faith shortly after, but I’m just curious as to what the supposed rudeness was all about that led up to it. Does 1 Corinthians 13 not say that love is never rude? Is Jesus not the manifestation of God’s love? Just trying to sort this all out.

    I’d appreciate any input that anyone else has. Thanks!

  2. Dave Pritchard says:


    You’ve put forward some really interesting thoughts and analysis concerning this passage. Ideas with in your numbers 1, 2 & 4, I would say, are all present to some degree. As you know “Kynariois” in the Koine Greek is a presumed derivative of “Kuon” – meaning a puppy or if you go with “Kynaria” – meaning household pet (dog). It’s interesting though if you compare the use of the word in Mark 7:27 and Paul’s use of “Kynas” in Phil 3:2.

    But number 3…..

    “3. Jesus momentarily got caught up in the racism of his day and (as a human) had a lapse in his normally godly character.”

    When we look at the whole of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the incredible love and patience he demonstrated towards others, plus a variety of other scriptures attesting to his “sinlessness” – 2 Cor 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, Heb 7:26,
    You clearly get the idea that this would be something (“getting caught up in the racism of his day”) that would be antithetical to his nature/character – human or divine! But I can see what your saying though, in that it appears that he is pandering to the ears of those around him.

    It’s fairly obvious that the use of the word “dog” in the vernacular was derogatory – 2 Samuel, 3:8 2 Samuel 16:9, 2 Kings 8:13, so his use here draws a firm contemptuous demarcation between the children of Israel and those external Gentile heathens “dogs” outside The Covenant. But here’s the beauty of what he’s doing in posing that question/making that statement out loud, for all those surrounding him to hear –

    “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

    Yes, he’s asking her a question/making a statement directly but…. he is also posing it to his Disciples and any other Canaanites that might be standing close by as well. He’s challenging their perceptions about who is deserving of God’s love, blessing and forgiveness, in spite of their inculcated attitudes about race and exclusivity. Look at John 4:6 where he deliberately goes into Samaria and engages the “woman at the well”. Like the Syrophoenicians (The Canaanite woman), the Samarians were despised by the first century Jews and they had little to do with each outer. Apparently they considered them to be ceremonially unclean and weren’t allowed to even touch them. But that doesn’t stop Jesus from sharing his love there either.

    So in that respect, I see his statement as more of an affront to the attitude of his Disciples, as well as being a question to the woman who demonstrates a sharp and clever response. He wants to drive home the point that the Kingdom he is in the process of ushering in, is for ALL those who will demonstrate faith, not just for those of the house of Israel. Greg’s next message “Through Samaria” covers this in a brilliant fashion.

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