Jesus and the Canaanite Woman: An Exception for Exceptional Faith -- By: Deb Beatty Mel

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 23:4 (Autumn 2009)
Article: Jesus and the Canaanite Woman: An Exception for Exceptional Faith
Author: Deb Beatty Mel

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman:
An Exception for Exceptional Faith

Deb Beatty Mel

DEB BEATTY MEL is Associate Editor of Priscilla Papers and works as Director of Communications at the Boston Building Materials Co-op. In the evenings, she follows the Carpenter as a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston.

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 can be perplexing to contemporary Christians. Why does Jesus seem to put off, in an apparently callous manner, a woman whose desperate plea for her daughter’s healing touches the heart of any loving parent? Why does he appear to demean her by calling her a “dog”? This article will look at the interaction between the Canaanite woman and Jesus, examining the social and scriptural underpinnings of their encounter.

Wider context

As we seek to make sense of these questions, we should begin by noting that this account is a coherent unit with a clear beginning and end. Verse 21 begins with a change of location—Jesus’ departure from Gennesaret, where some Pharisees had disputed with him about ceremonial uncleanness. It ends with the satisfaction of the woman’s request in verse 28. Verse 29 describes travel to another area—a clear transition to the next pericope.

Where does this passage fit in the flow of Matthew’s larger discourse? It foreshadows the future of Jesus’ ministry. His focus up until this time has been almost exclusively on the Jewish community, with the notable exception of the centurion (8:5-12) and possibly that of two demon-possessed men (8:28-34).1 Jesus’ increasing conflict with Jewish authorities is a major theme of Matthew’s gospel. Craig Blomberg notes, “The most obvious thrust of the sequences of topics in the Gospel is that Matthew is tracing the events of Jesus’ life in terms of a growing hostility on the part of the Jewish leaders that increasingly leads Jesus himself to turn to the Gentiles and to anticipate a later, widespread ministry on the part of his disciples among them.”2

The satisfaction of the Canaanite woman’s request—an exceptional act by Jesus at that point in his ministry to the lost sheep of Israel—“is a ‘signal’ of this coming, unheard-of grace of God,”3 where Gentiles are a ...

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