As noted previously, the gospel readings assigned for each Sunday chop up the chapters into bite-sized pieces, usually focusing on a specific episode or point. But in doing so they often leave out significant context.

The gospel for Sunday August 20 (Matthew 15:21-28) is a case in point. It opens, Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. In Jesus’ day, these cities were part of the Roman Empire with many pagans or Gentiles. Earlier, Jesus had used Gentiles as a negative term: if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt 5:47): ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do (Matt 6:7) Jesus sent out the twelve with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles (Matt 10:5) So it is a bit surprising that he would head towards a Gentile region.

The opening sentence also begs the questions: what place did he leave and why?


To fully appreciate this morning’s gospel we have to go back to the end of chapter 14, when Jesus and his disciples had crossed over (the Sea of Galilee) and, they came to land at Gennesaret…on the north-western shore...where the people recognized him and sent word throughout the region and brought the sick to him…that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. This was ‘Jewish’ territory. Jesus had recruited a number of his disciples there, while they were on the shore. Jesus had recently taught and fed people on the eastern beach of the Sea.

Then Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ He answered, ‘Why do you break the commandment of God ... God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” … But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “What support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father…You hypocrites!…Then the disciples said to him,‘…the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said’  He answered, ‘… what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

The Scribes and Pharisees, the self-appointed keepers of scriptural tradition, had travelled about 60 kilometres north from Jerusalem to monitor and harass Jesus. Jesus forcefully rejected their criticisms. He called them hypocrites and he left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon…They disgusted him.

This background creates an important contrast for this morning’s gospel, which continues,

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’

Canaanite was an ancient designation for the pagan inhabitants of the region. So it is significant that this pagan woman addressed Jesus as Lord, Son of David, indicating that she knew the Jewish prophecies about the Messiah being descended from David and more meaningfully, understood that Jesus was ‘the one’. She spoke to Jesus more respectfully than the scribes and Pharisees.

Moreover, she asked for mercy, a key element in Jesus’ teaching…. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Matt 5:7) and Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matt 9:13)


But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’

He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

Initially, Jesus was unresponsive… he did not answer her at all…. Then he disqualified her, saying, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ Jesus seemed to declare that his mission is exclusively to the house of Israel.

In contrast to Jesus’ negative references to Gentiles. Hebrew scripture includes many citations which make it clear that salvation includes Gentiles, notably Isaiah 2:2-4, 42:6, 49:6. 51:45, so there is a tension between what Jesus said and Jewish prophecy in addition to his shocking lack of compassion for her. His reaction seems strange.


The gospel continues, But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’  

Her words, Lord help me, echo Peter’s in last week’s gospel, when he was walking on water and began to sink. When Peter said this, Jesus admonished him for having little faith. (By the end of this gospel passage, Jesus would be commending the woman’s faith. But before that compliment there was more testing.)

He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Jesus’ words imply that the gift curing the woman’s daughter was intended exclusively for the lost sheep of Israel, not her or her daughter. 

She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’

Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Jesus relented and granted the Canaanite woman her petition for mercy and more importantly recognized her faith, even though she was not among the people to whom Jesus thought he was sent.

The woman’s faith contrasted sharply with the cynicism of the scribes and Pharisees, who had come to harass Jesus for his teaching and healing in the chapter immediately prior.

Jesus’ cure of the Canaanite woman’s daughter marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, when he began extending his blessing and offering salvation to communities beyond the Jewish traditions. The God of Jesus was the God of Israel, but of the Gentiles, too. The encounter with the Canaanite woman was an inflection point in Jesus’ own sense of his mission. He would subsequently include all nations in his mission of salvation: this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations (Matt 24:14), and: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19) The Canaanite woman seemed to open Jesus’ eyes to the potential of Gentiles as believers.


Matthew’s gospel was written for the Jewish-Christian community that had been excluded from the temple and synagogues because they followed Jesus. That early Christian community was trying to navigate a way of living that honoured Jesus as the fulfillment of their Jewish tradition but also as one who had come to bless the Gentiles, too.


·      Does Jesus' insulting treatment of the Canaanite woman bother you? How does it contrast with his treatment of other women in the gospels, such as the woman caught in adultery, (John 8:3-11) Mary and Martha, (Luke 10:38-42) Mary Magdalene (John 20:1-18)? Did Matthew use the conventional approach to Canaanites, that many of his readers would have understood, to show a transition point in Jesus’ ministry?

·      If we see this gospel as a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, with a more accepting attitude towards the Gentiles, what does that suggest about his understanding of his mission prior to that? Was it incomplete? Or was Jesus simply ‘play acting’ to draw the woman out?
·      What lessons can we draw from this gospel that extends to Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists or other non-Christian faiths?