Was the Canaanite Woman Really Called a Dog?

In the Gospel for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28) we find a phrase that some have found troubling. The troubling nature of the phrase was brought home to me in a university lecture I once heard, for the lecturer said that in this passage “Jesus called a Gentile woman a dog.” He thought it rather odd, and evidence that perhaps the Christians had an overly rosy view of their Founder. One could, I suppose, point out that the Greek of the text does not read “dog” (Greek kuon) but “little dog” (kunarion), but this does little to soften the blow. If someone called me a dog I would not be much mollified by learning that the dog they had in mind was a diminutive breed. So, what’s going on here? Does Jesus really call the Gentile woman a dog?

Actually, no, but to find out what’s really going on in the passage, one needs to look at it in its wider context. When we read this wider context we see that in the story of the Canaanite woman we find a collision of two opposing plights, two opposing sets of needs. The interpretation is helped when we supplement the Matthew 15 passage with its parallel in Mark 7:24-30. For in the wider Markan context we see that the Twelve were in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. In Mark 6:30, we see that after the Twelve returned from their mission (Mark 6:7), they were exhausted, so the Lord took them to what was to have been a lonely place where they could rest, “for many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). When they got there they found another great crowd, and instead of turning away and taking the Twelve someplace else, our Lord stayed there, teaching and healing the assembled crowds. Of course this long and exhausting day brought another problem—how to feed the multitude. Our Lord met the need by miraculously multiplying the loaves (Mark 6:34). Then another crisis arose: the multitude tried to come and make Jesus king by force (see John 6:15). Our Lord reacted to this crisis by quickly sending the Twelve out of the center of danger to a place across the lake while He pacified and dismissed the nearly riotous crowd. Then as the Twelve were rowing across the lake, a storm suddenly descended upon them, and they could make no progress in rowing. Our Lord walked on the water toward them, and stilled the storm (Mark 6:47f). Try to imagine the effect of all this upon the disciples. They were already stretched to the breaking point before it all began, which was why the Lord took them to a supposedly deserted place to begin with. Crisis after crisis broke upon them, so that the disciples were a wreck. The only solution was for Christ to take them out of the country entirely. That was why He and His Jewish disciples found themselves “the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Mark 7:24) in the first place. The Twelve, our Lord’s spiritual children, desperately needed a rest.

While there, they collided with a different desperate need—that of the Canaanite woman. And let’s be clear what this woman was requesting. She was asking that the Lord and His disciples accompany her to her home in pagan Tyre or Sidon to heal her daughter. That would involve not simply a quick quiet trip in and out of her city, but a full-scale mission to the Gentile population of the area. Jesus of Nazareth was not able to make quick quiet trips anywhere, for wherever He went a great crowd followed Him. Acceding to the woman’s request would mean days ministering to all the sick, demon-possessed, and afflicted of Tyre and Sidon. And this was not the time for such a mission to the Gentiles. As the Lord said, He was then sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24), and even the Twelve were told to conduct their mission only in Jewish towns, avoiding cities of the Gentiles and the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-6). The time for a full-scale outreach to the Samaritans and Gentiles would come later. That is why our Lord refused her request. To deny the Twelve their desperately needed rest to minister to the Gentiles of Tyre and Sidon would be as inappropriate as taking the food from the table at which hungry children were sitting and giving it instead to the little dogs under the table. Surely anyone could see that the children must be fed first. The needs of the Twelve for rest must take priority over the needs of the Gentiles in those cities.

Then the Canaanite woman makes her response—and changes her request. Okay: Jesus will not accompany her to her place of residence. Let the children be fed. But little dogs can still eat the odd crumb that falls from the table while the children eat. Let the Lord say the word and heal the woman’s daughter at a distance, while He and the Twelve stayed here resting!

It was a bold request, and one that showed tremendous faith on her part. Many people had faith that Jesus could come and heal; this woman had faith He that could heal at a great distance, His simple word of command working a miracle across the miles. That is why Jesus did not say, “O woman, great is your boldness” or “O woman, great is your perseverance”, but rather, “O woman, great is your faith” (Matthew 15:28). And because of this faith, Christ granted her second request, healing her daughter instantly across the miles—”she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.” (Mark 7:30).

We see in this passage that Jesus does not in fact call the Gentile woman “a dog” or even “a little dog.” Rather, He compares the situation of conflicting needs to the situation of hungry children sitting at a food-laden table with hungry little dogs underneath, and says that the children at the table must be fed first—to explain why He cannot accompany her to her home. His willingness to grant her second and amended request shows His great love for her, and for all the children of men. That love even bridged the gap between Jew and Gentile, giving to the Canaanite woman in advance what would later come to all the Gentiles of the world.

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