Maybe this marks me out as a shallow human being, but one of the things that I most enjoy about the gospel accounts of the Lord’s ministry is the rhetorical brilliance with which He dazzled His opponents. I went to a Top 15 law school back in the day, so I’ve spent some time with people who are good with words, but I’ve never met anybody as quick-witted as Jesus was.
For instance, the story of Matthew 22:15-22 leaves me in awe. I couldn’t have come up with such a crushing reply if you gave me 10 years, but Jesus did so instantaneously. His enemies were subtle, intelligent people (just look at the way they manipulate Pilate in John 19:1-16), but Jesus repeatedly made them look stupid. He truly had a superhuman intellect!
The Story of the Canaanite Woman
However, there is one story in the Scriptures in which Jesus, superhuman intellect and all, appears to lose an argument. It appears in Matthew 15:21-28, with a shorter version in Mark 7:24-30. Jesus has attempted to escape the crowds by going to the predominantly Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, but even there someone in search of healing finds Him. We don’t know her name, but we do know that she was a woman, and a Canaanite woman at that. She has a daughter who is demon-possessed, and she believes Jesus can cast it out.
She comes to Him, crying out for help. He ignores her.
She continues to cry out. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” He says.
She kneels before Him, begging Him to help her. He answers, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Ouch. How would you like Jesus, of all people, to deny the humanity and worthiness of your sick daughter and compare her to a dog instead? Most women would have left, devastated.
Not this one. She takes Jesus’ insulting comparison and uses it to counterpunch the greatest counterpuncher of all time: You want to call my daughter a dog, she says. Fine; my daughter’s a dog. Dogs get to eat too. Heal her.
At that, Jesus gives in, casts the demon out, and bestows on the mother the greatest compliment He ever bestows on anyone: that she has great faith. She leaves, apparently having gotten the better of the Son of God.
Questions About the Story
However, the story leaves us with all kinds of questions. In many ways, it simply doesn’t make sense. First of all, during His ministry, Jesus casts out countless demons. Why does He so object to casting out this one?
The justification that He offers, that He only helps Jews, doesn’t hold water. After all, Jesus’ most famous exorcism, the story of the porcine swimming lesson in Mark 5:1-20, involves a Gentile. The demon-possessed man in that account is a native of the Decapolis, but Jesus heals him without anybody asking for His help at all. Why is He resistant here?
Second, how can it possibly be that this Gentile woman out-argues Jesus? The Lord spent His ministry zinging the best thinkers among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. They might have been trained in rhetoric, but He took them all to school. Here, though, a woman (who is therefore uneducated, untrained, and a general no-counter according to her society) very politely zings Him. Was the Everlasting Father having an off day?
Under the Surface
With a little bit of thought, though, it becomes evident that a lot more is happening under the surface than is originally evident. First of all, Jesus handles the Canaanite woman very differently than He handles the scribes, lawyers, etc. who are His usual antagonists. He doesn’t tell her an apparently irrelevant story or ask her a strange question that will lure her into range of a killer comeback. Instead, He makes an insulting comparison that she is able to turn around on Him, and I can only think that He does so intentionally because He wants to see how she handles the opportunity.
This, in turn, sheds all sorts of light on Jesus’ apparently obstructive behavior throughout the story. He’s not actually trying to turn her away. He’s testing her, measuring the extent of her faith and her determination to receive His help. In many ways, this story is like the parable of the unrighteous judge in Luke 18:1-8, with Jesus in the place of the judge. In both cases, the question is whether the (powerless female) protagonist is going to push through to get what she wants.
I think Jesus does this for two reasons. In both Matthew and Mark, this story appears in the context of a series of stories about faith. Just a little later on, Jesus will warn the disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees, and they’ll start arguing about bread. Peter will confess Him as the Christ but angrily argue with Him when He reveals the true reason for His coming. Like the man who is incompletely healed of his blindness in Mark 8:22-26, the disciples’ faith is incomplete, and they remain in need of further enlightenment from Jesus.
Not so with the Canaanite woman. Even though she is a Gentile female non-disciple and they are Jewish male disciples, she gets it when they don’t. Jesus is using her as an illustration of the time when the determination to seek and find will count for much more in His kingdom than any accident of birth.
Second, this story holds the same lesson for us as does the parable of the unrighteous judge: the importance of praying and not losing heart. To quote Edwin Crozier, there are really three ways God can answer our prayers: “Yes,” “No,” and “How badly do you want it?” Christians who get discouraged and give up turn the third response into the second; Christians who persevere in prayer turn it into the first. Here and generally, God isn’t interested in those who aren’t interested in Him. However, if faith leads us to walk in the footsteps of the Canaanite woman, we too surely will be blessed.