When you watch Jesus shun a Canaanite woman, you must see what He does within the context of Matthew chapter 15. The twenty verses prior to where today’s Gospel reading begins have Jesus tangling with the Pharisees and scribes. They want to know why Jesus’ disciples break the tradition of the elders. For they do not wash their hands when they eat. Christ’s response is brisk. And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? The Pharisees and scribes put tradition ahead of the Scriptures.
Jesus continues to poke them by saying it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person…. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. Again, the Pharisees and scribes put tradition and customs not found in Scripture ahead of what the Scriptures say.
So we come to the Canaanite woman. Knowing what we know about Jesus’ remarks to the scribes, Pharisees, and those who heard Him speak, especially His own disciples, we expect to see a kind and gentle Savior heal the woman’s demon oppressed daughter. But he did not answer her a word. The disciples fall in line with their Master, begging Him to send her away, for she is crying out after us. Jesus responds I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Wait a moment. What’s wrong with this picture? The same Jesus Who tangles with the religious authorities about customs and traditions, letting them have it by quoting the Scriptures, now acts like one of them by refusing to have anything to do with a Canaanite woman and her request. Why the turn? Why are the disciples not reminding Jesus about what He said earlier about customs and traditions? It seems that theory and practice are out of whack. Everything is as it seems, at least for Jesus. The disciples are about to learn a valuable lesson from a Canaanite woman. She will show them what comes out of her mouth isn’t always what one expects to come out of a Canaanite’s mouth.
A Jew should never have to respond to anything a Canaanite says. A Jew looks at a Canaanite and sees, well, nothing, really. They are not on the radar screen. They are outside of the kingdom of heaven. They are not God’s chosen people. They are mutts, no longer pure-bred children of the Promise as they were before the Assyrians conquered them in 722 B.C. The Assyrians began to enter into mixed marriages with the Northern Tribes of Israel. The blood line, as God saw it, became polluted. Messiah would not come from them. His children redeemed from Pharaoh’s yoke and brought into the Promised Land gave up what was theirs. Now what is left is to be shunned as idolaters.
A Jew doesn’t eat with a Canaanite. A Jew never prays with them. A Jew doesn’t strike up a conversation with them. A Jew goes out of his or her way to ignore them. That is why Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman is appropriate. I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel…. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. The translation of “dogs” there is actually quite mild. The thrust of the word is actually could be translated as an epithet one might use to describe a female dog.
It’s easy to identify with Jesus and the disciples. The Good News is only for those who God intends the Good News. You have to be chosen, pure-bred, with no defilements inside or outside. There are customs and traditions to follow in order to maintain that sort of life. You get, as it were, braggin’ rights. Messiah is for us, not for you. As long as we stick to the rule of life, the code of ethics, we will remain in God’s good graces forever. We’ll wash our hands just so. We’ll eat only certain foods. We’ll pray a certain way. And we won’t let outsiders have anything to do with us unless they submit to our customs and traditions.
Do your customs and traditions also include not welcoming strangers and foreigners? Does it include coarse conversation against those outside what you believe? Does it include finger pointing and blaming everyone else but yourself when things don’t go your way? Remember what Jesus said earlier in chapter 15: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.
Jesus should be defiled. So should the disciples. Look at how they act. Yet Jesus has a reason for it. He answered the Canaanite woman: It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. This conversation hinges on one little word: Yes. Everything Jesus said about her is true. Now let’s see the account in its true light. You are the Canaanite woman instead of one of the disciples. In fact, the disciples are one with the Canaanite woman. A Jew and a Canaanite both have something in common: sin. Both are outside the kingdom of heaven because both are sinners.
But I hold to the customs and traditions of…no, you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be a sinner. But I am…no, you aren’t. If you were, you wouldn’t think, speak, or act that way toward a fellow sinner. When Jesus says all these things against the Canaanite woman, He says them to you. He says them to His disciples. He says them to His own people. Customs, traditions, blood lines, and nationalities mean nothing in God’s eyes. He sees them as His fallen creation in need of redemption. He sees you in need of redemption.
Hey, watch this! O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. The woman’s daughter is no longer demon possessed. The Canaanite woman receives what she desires: Jesus and everything He provides. Jesus Christ does not limit what He does to one particular people. He is the Savior of both Jew and Gentile, even this Canaanite woman who heard and believed that Jesus is her Savior, too.
The disciples have a front row seat for it because they will soon go to all nations to proclaim what they see and hear. They see and hear Jesus suffer and die for sins. They see Jesus resurrected to seal His victory over death and Satan. This victory is for all who hear and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The desire of the nations is redemption. Only Jesus is the Redeemer. Only Jesus brings light in the midst of darkness. Only Jesus speaks the Word that scatters Satan. Only Jesus is the first-born from the dead. Jesus remembers you when He comes into His kingdom. Our Father in heaven, when His Son remembers you in His death, remembers your sin no more. He doesn’t see Canaanite, American, Jew, or Greek. He sees forgiven sinners waiting for His Son’s return.
Hey, watch this! Jesus is trapped by a Canaanite woman, and in His being trapped sets her daughter free from demons. In His being trapped by His own people He sets them free and you as well.