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

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Matthew 15:21-28

The Faith of a Canaanite Woman
21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out 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 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

IPV Exegesis

A Canaanite Woman's Faith

Placed immediately after a discussion of purity in both Matthew and Mark, Jesus' encounter with this Gentile woman brings out the implications the Evangelists find in his view of purity: Gentiles will no longer be separated from Israel (compare Acts 10:15, 28; 11:9-18). Like an earlier Gentile in Matthew's Gospel (8:10), this woman becomes an illustration of faith. Also like the centurion, this outsider's faith compares favorably with that of some religious insiders among Jesus' contemporaries (15:1-20).

Matthew reinforces this point by specifying exactly what Mark's Hellenistic Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:26) means. She is a descendant of the ancient Canaanites, the bitter biblical enemies of Israel whose paganism had often led Israel into idolatry (compare Jub. 22:20-22). "Yes," Matthew seems to reply; "God's compassion extends to all Gentiles." If Tyre and Sidon (15:21) lead some readers to recall Jezebel, others must recall instead the widow who supported Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-24; Lk 4:26). The narrative thus constitutes another of Matthew's invitations to the Gentile mission (like 2:1-11; 8:5-13), reinforcing the message of 11:21-24 (where Tyre and Sidon were more open to repentance than Galilean towns were).

The Woman Will Not Take No for an Answer (15:21-25)

In our culture we might consider this woman rude, but ancient Mediterranean judges were sometimes so corrupt that among the poor only a persistent, desperate, otherwise powerless woman could obtain justice from them (Lk 18:2-5; Bailey 1980:134-35). Both men and women in the Old Testament (Gen 18:22-32; 32:26-30; Ex 33:12-34:9; 1 Kings 18:36-37; 2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6, 9; 4:14-28) and in the Gospel tradition (Mk 5:28-29; Jn 2:3-5) show courage by refusing to take no for an answer to a desperate need. When we recognize that we have nowhere else to turn, clinging to the only One who can answer us is an act of faith.

Jesus' Mission Is Specifically for Israel (15:26)

Jesus had left Jewish territory because the masses crowded him and he needed a short vacation to rest with and teach his disciples (v. 21; compare 16:13); but this stage of his mission was for Israel alone (compare 28:19). Thus when his disciples ask him to send the woman away (15:23), he notes the limitation of his mission (v. 24; compare 10:6; Rom 15:8). Yet he did not send her away as his disciples requested, which may have encouraged her to persevere (compare 19:13; 20:31). To her own insistent entreaty (15:25) Jesus responds with almost equal firmness (v. 26). Some Jewish teachers would have reached out to the woman, hoping to make her a proselyte (see, for example, Jos. Ant. 20.34-36; Apion 2.210; m. 'Abot 1:12; Goppelt 1964:54); Jesus simply snubs her.

The language in Mark is somewhat milder: that the children must be fed "first" (Mk 7:27) allows for the possibility of a later healing and a window for the coming Gentile mission (Hurtado 1983:103), but even in Mark the woman's need is too urgent for that. Jesus probably refers to children's pet dogs; well-to-do Greeks, unlike Jews, could raise dogs as pets and not view them merely as troublesome pests (compare Lk 16:21; Ex 22:31). The image is thus simply one of children's needs (compare 7:9) taking temporal precedence over those of pets (Lane 1974:262; Anderson 1976:191). Such an admission, however, hardly transforms the image into a compliment (compare 7:6).

Jesus is not cursing the woman, but he is putting her off (compare 8:7). It is possible that he is testing her, as teachers sometimes tested their disciples (Jn 6:6; Lev. Rab. 22:6), but he is certainly reluctant to grant her request and is providing an obstacle for her faith (compare Jn 2:4). Perhaps he is requiring her to understand his true mission and identity, lest she treat him as one of the many wandering magicians to whom Gentiles sometimes appealed for exorcisms. Yet he is surely also summoning her to recognize Israel's priority in the divine plan, a recognition that for her will include an admission of her dependent status. (One may compare Elisha's requirement that Naaman dip in the Jordan despite Naaman's preference for the Aramean rivers Abana and Pharpar in 2 Kings 5:10-12, ultimately leading to Naaman's acknowledgment of Israel's God and land in 2 Kings 5:17-18.) For one of her social status (an elite "Greek" citizen of Syro-Phoenician race, in Mark's account) this was a dramatic reversal indeed (see Theissen 1991:66-80); but by calling her a Canaanite, Matthew's account mutes the class issue, properly focusing instead on the racial issue, which is more relevant to his own audience.

The Woman Shows Her Faith (15:27-28)

The woman recognizes that Jesus is no mere magician who performs feats for fame or money. By hailing Jesus as Son of David (v. 22; compare Ps. Sol. 17:21), she has already acknowledged him as the rightful king over a nation that had conquered her ancestors (Josh 12:7-24; 2 Sam 8:1-15)-more than many of his own people had done (Mt 15:2; 21:15-16; 23:39). Like John's woman at the well (Jn 4:25-29; 6:69), this Canaanite woman publicly acknowledged Jesus' identity before the disciples who wished her to leave had done so (Mt 16:16). Now she refuses to dispute that Jesus' mission is to Israel first and that her status is secondary to that of Israelites (Jeremias 1958:30; Rhoads and Michie 1982:131); nevertheless, she believes Jesus will have more than enough power left over from what Israel does not need or want. Jesus responds to such striking faith. Jesus has enough bread for Israel, but the following narrative reinforces that plenty of scraps remain over for others (15:37). Matthew reminds his community that all, both Jew and Gentile, can approach God only through faith in his Messiah (8:10; compare Acts 15:8-11).

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