The time Jesus was wrong?

Recently I preached a sermon from Matthew 15:21-28, the famous story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. In this text I was taken back by Jesus’ seemingly harsh tone and attitude toward a woman who, from all intense and purposes, was one who showed tremendous faith and perseverance. A simple straight forward reading of the passage shows Jesus completely ignoring the woman’s plea for help (verse 23), dismissing her because she is not a Jew (verse 24), and finally calling this poor woman a dog (verse 26)! As one sifts through the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ actions toward the persistent woman is oddly out of place. Jesus told the gentile centurion that he had never in all Israel found such faith (Matthew 8:10), spoke highly of the faith of the Paralytic in Matthew 9:2, and many more examples could be given. So, why in this particular instance does Jesus seem so unlike, well, Jesus?

While on the surface it may seem that Jesus is treating the Canaanite woman harshly could it be that there is something going on in the text that isn’t so obvious; that when one digs a bit deeper into the text discovers Jesus is actually being tremendously endearing? I think there is.

While trying to unpack the essence of this conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, some clues unveil in at least two places. The first involves the sudden shift in Jesus’ attitude in verse 28. It seems bizarre at first. After completely ignoring this woman while she cries out for Jesus’ help in verses 21-27, Jesus’ tone dramatically shifts as he exclaims “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire (Matthew 15:28).” So, why does Jesus intentionally ignore her in the first two requests for help, but then suddenly shift and speak of how much faith she has?

The second hint is found in the statement made by the Canaanite woman in verse 27. The Canaanite woman finally approaches Jesus, falls to her knees, and says “Lord Help me (verse 25).” At this point one could easily envisage Jesus responding in compassion. But no, Jesus actually responds with what only can be viewed as a harsh and rude statement: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (verse 26).” It is at this point that the Canaanite says something that changes Jesus tone entirely, verse 27 reads thus: “She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” What is it about this statement that radically changes the conversation?

I discovered that most English translations translate the Greek phrase Ναὶ κύριε, καὶ γὰρ (yes Lord, yet even) as “yes Lord, yet even…” or “Yes Lord, But even…” The problem however is that the words “καὶ γὰρ” never mean “but even” or “yet even,” but always mean “for even.” When translated as “but even” it gives the impression that the Canaanite is agreeing with Jesus statement. That is, it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs—Implying that it is not right for Jesus to minister to the woman because his purpose was only to minister to the people of Israel. Rather, the phrase should be translated “For even.”

Read this way it implies something entirely different, namely that the Canaanite is disagreeing with Jesus. In essence she is saying in response, “Yes Lord, it is right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table…(my paraphrase)” In other words, the Canaanite woman was challenging Jesus’ statement. She was arguing that the Kingdom is for both Jew and Gentile! In light of this, Jesus’ ecstatic expression in verse 28 makes sense. Jesus in essence says to this woman—you’re right!

If this interpretation is correct the tone and feel of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is read in a different light. Was Jesus being rude and ugly in response to the Canaanite woman’s plea for help? Some would conclude that he was. But, what if Jesus was purposefully responding in the manner he does in order to draw out the faith of the Canaanite woman? Could there be a bit of sarcasm and facetiousness being delivered by our Lord? Was Jesus purposefully saying something wrong in order for the Canaanite woman to correct him?NT scholar R.T. France seems to think so:

Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in the cheek, and it may be that Jesus’ demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not to be his last word on the subject. Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!” (France, R.T., NICNT, Matthew, 591)

When I preached this sermon I titled it “The time Jesus was wrong?” It got a lot of attention as you can imagine! But, in the end it is interesting to see that Jesus’ deliberate response to the Canaanite woman actually intended to spur on the great statement of faith that she did. And Jesus was glad she was right!

2 thoughts on “The time Jesus was wrong?”

  1. I think something most miss in this exchange is the twelve who are observing all this. It is likely that Jesus says what he says not primarily to bring the woman to faith – she seems to be there so that would be unnecessary. Rather, we need to consider how Jesus, knowing the hearts of the twelve who probably needed to see why the attitude Jesus seemed to be displaying, even flaunting, was entirely inappropriate. It is a bit of reading between the lines, but not much I would contend, to hear Jesus’ words here in an even overly-serious tone that makes even the hard-hearted disciples recoil a bit at this seeming total rejection on the part of someone who approaches Jesus in great faith. This episode could be dramatized in a way that would make this very clear, even though the interactions were quite complex.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and reply Harold! There is no doubt that the conversation is just as much for the twelve as you observe, as it is with the Canaanite woman. It probably is a both/and rather than an either/or. I do think that the conversation zones in too much on Jesus and the woman for us to think that it is “not primarily to bring the woman to faith.” Nevertheless, there has to be an emphasis on the twelve as well. They do in fact respond in the conversation by asking Jesus to send her away (I recall some of the commentators suggesting that the way the phrasing is stated implies that the disciples were asking Jesus to “send her away by giving her what she was asking for.”). Thanks again for the comments!

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