That Time Jesus Referred to the Foreign Woman as a "Dog" (Matthew 15:21-28)
Topic: One Lord: No One Like You Passage: Matthew 15:21–15:28
I. Which Story?!
Do you remember that story about Jesus? You know, that time he referred to the foreign woman as a “dog”? Now at this point, some of you are saying, “What did he just say? Did he say that Jesus called some woman a 'dog', some woman from another country?” You heard right. That is exactly what I said, and that is exactly what happened.
Now, as you know, there are many popular stories about Jesus, especially conversations he had with a variety of individuals (including women): the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-22); the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42); Nicodemus, when he came at night (John 3:1-15); the lawyer who asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:35-37), Martha, after her brother had died (John 11:17-27). There are many well-known accounts like these. But this... this story of Jesus referring to the foreign woman as a “dog”, isn't one of them. But it should be, even though it does feel a little... uncomfortable.
Let's see if we can change that by digging in to God's word. We find this story in two different Gospels, in both Matthew 15 and Luke 7. But let's focus this morning on the account in Matthew 15. Turn, if you haven't already, to Matthew 15, verses 21 through 28.
II. The Passage: “Yet Even the Dogs” (15:21-28)
In terms of the context here, you'll see in verses 1-20 of chapter 15 that Jesus has just had another run-in with the Pharisees and the scribes, some of the Jewish religious leaders of the day. Chapters 9 and 12 have already described their opposition to Jesus. 12:14 even tells us that the “Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” In light of all this, it's not surprising how our main text begins. Matthew writes...
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  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.”  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.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  And he answered, “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.”  Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
So notice where the action is taking place here: we are in the district of Tyre and Sidon.
These were coastal towns 35-40 miles northwest of Capernaum in Galilee. These towns are both mentioned numerous times in the OT. Interestingly, while they had always been predominantly Gentile lands (that is, mainly populated by non-Jewish peoples), they were, according to the book of Joshua, the northern boundaries of the Promised Land.
So given issues with the Jewish leaders, it isn't surprising that Jesus wants to take a break from Galilee, and it isn't surprising that he encounters this woman in this place. In Luke 7:26 she is described as a “Syrophoenician”. That simply means she was born in that region, the Roman regions of Syria and Phoenicia. But Matthew prefers “Canaanite”, the general, biblical term for a non-Jewish inhabitant of the region.
Now, since we're talking about the location, I think it's helpful to point out that Jesus, several chapters earlier, had already talked about Tyre and Sidon. While rebuking two Galilean towns he declares in Matthew 11:21...
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Jesus is probably referring here to the ancient, OT residents of Tyre and Sidon. But isn't it interesting that not long after making this claim, we find Jesus in exactly that location?
So if we're talking about “mighty works” done by Jesus, then clearly, this woman had heard about them. That's why she comes to Jesus, so that he'll do a mighty work and free her daughter from demonic oppression. Can you imagine what she's going through... seeing her precious child spiritually abused by an evil spirit? How awful.
But remember, surprisingly (maybe shockingly) this is the same woman Jesus will refer to as a “dog”. Now you may have noticed that not only does Jesus go on to compare this woman to a dog, but just before he does that, he seems to say, “A Gentile? No, you're not in the 'club'”; and before that... he simply ignores her. Did you see that in verse 23?
Wow! Right? Now some of you might be saying, “That doesn't sound like the Jesus I know.” Others might add, “this is not a very 'politically correct' approach”. And still others might conclude, “That's just plain rude.” But some of you may be genuinely asking, “Why would Jesus treat this woman in this way... a woman in need... a woman who's suffering?”
Let me offer a few suggestions in light of both the immediate and broader contexts.
1. Jesus Already Knew This Woman.
If we look at the way Jesus interacted with both men and women, both Jews and Gentiles (consider the centurion of chapter 8, for example... if we consider these interactions), in the Gospel accounts, it seems clear something unusual is going on this passage. In some sense, as most of you already... sensed, this is not typical for Jesus. He is not just responding here, in the moment. There is something deliberate here. Something calculated.
I say that with some other passages in mind, passages from earlier in Matthew's Gospel. In both 9:4 and 12:25, the writer tells us that Jesus knew the thoughts of his opponents.
In Mark 2:8, this supernatural knowledge is described as “perceiving in his spirit”. Beyond this ability, we also read in another Gospel, in John 1:48, that Jesus had seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, probably miles away at the time. The context makes it clear that Jesus had not seen Nathanael with his actual eyes, but we might say, in his 'mind's eye'. Does all of this mean Jesus is some kind of telepathic superhero? No. All of it simply means Jesus is who the Scriptures say he is: God in human flesh.
And so, of course he knows this woman. Just like Zacchaeus in Luke 19, we could say Jesus had a divine appointment with her, and... he knew just where to look to find her. But I think we can also say that...
2. This Woman Already Knew Jesus.
Did you notice how this Gentile, this Syrophoenician, this Canaanite woman addresses Jesus in verse 22? She cries out to him as “Lord”. Since 'lord' could simply be a title of great respect, even more telling, she cries out to Jesus as “Son of David”. This is an indication that the woman has some understanding of the Jewish story; some understanding of how the God of Israel had worked, and was going to work through a descendant of King David.
As the conversation continues, I think she reveals even more of what she knows about what we might call 'God's economy'. But based on Jesus' knowledge of her, and her knowledge of Jesus, I think we conclude that....
3. Thus, Jesus is Lovingly Inciting Her Faith
To incite means to provoke; to rouse; to stir up. As the final verse of this passage indicates, this whole story is about the woman's faith. I believe it's exactly why Jesus made the 35-40 mile journey. What's amazing is the way in which Jesus works with her faith. Step one: silence. No response. Step two: “Sorry, you're not on the list” (or as he tells his disciples in v. 24, probably with the woman overhearing: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). Step three: food for the children is not for the “dogs”. In light of verse 24, clearly the “children” in this saying are “the lost sheep of... Israel” and the “dogs” are the Gentiles.
Now, even though “dog” was a common slur used by Jews in reference to the Gentiles, that is not the form of the word used by Jesus. The word used here takes the diminutive form, which indicated size or could be used affectionately. And the fact that these dogs are in the house, near the dinner table, points to the fact that these are household pets, not dirty, scavenging outsiders (cf. Matthew 7:6).
And this is where we learn more about what informs the woman's faith: far from insulting the woman, she affirms the image Jesus describes. But why? I believe it's because she knows that all of us, as sinners, are far more like the dogs than the children; because maybe she knows that only by God's grace were the Israelites chosen to be God's “children”. Deut. 7:6–8
The LORD your God has chosen you... out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.. not because you were more in number... [No] the LORD set his love on you and chose you... because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers...
But maybe she also knows of verses like Isaiah 42:4, a verse about the “Son of David”, the Messiah, a verse that Jesus himself quoted several chapters earlier in Matthew 12:21... “and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” This is what seems to inform her faith, and thus, she is undeterred; she persistently presses Jesus, believing that, again, by God's grace, even those on the edges of the Messiah's ministry to Israel will receive what spills over: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
You see, the word “dogs” actually quickens the woman: Even if she is just a family pet in the household of God's grace, she is assured of at least some provision. It's no wonder then that, yes, even in Tyre and Sidon (!), Jesus exclaims in verse 28... “O woman, great is your faith!”
III. How is Jesus Inciting You?
It's abundantly clear from Matthew's Gospel that Jesus had a way of inciting the religious leaders. They couldn't stand what he was saying, and thus, they sought to destroy him. But as we see here, wonderfully, Jesus also had a way of inciting the faith of those in whom God was working. Yes, sometimes faith was gently nurtured: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5) But other times, as we see here, faith was... provoked; it was roused; it was... incited through more difficult circumstances.
Matthew's Gospel, along with the rest of the NT, reminds us that this woman was only a taste of what was to come. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus made it possible for both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, for all people to become children of God. By grace, through faith in Christ, we no longer have to plead in light of the crumbs (which are still far more than we deserve). No. Now we can enjoy the satisfying fullness of Jesus, the bread of life (6:35). Now, we can rest in the Father's perfect provision, as beloved children.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (I John 3:1)
Brothers and sisters, friends, how might Jesus be inciting your faith even now, in this season of challenges? When we read often-neglected stories like this, we're reminded that it's very easy to slip into a mentality of, “Jesus? Oh yeah, I know Jesus. I know all about Jesus.” But God is so good to unsettle us in terms of the often unsettling truth about the real Jesus.
Do you really know Him? Could it be that his 'silence' in regard to your prayers, that his apparent focus on other people, that his sometimes hard words, could it be that these are, in fact, expressions of genuine love for you; expressions of a deep desire and design to provoke your faith? If so... is it working?
Please don't give up. Please don't stop praying. Please don't stop reaching out and crying out. Please don't stop kneeling before Him and pleading in light of his promises. When granted requests seem unlikely, remember the unlikely example of this woman and her “great faith”. Though Jesus seemed indifferent at first, do you see how deeply he loved this woman? He knew her pain... AND he knew how critical it was to provoke her faith, to fan it into flame, in light of her deepest needs.
This morning, will you trust God to do that same work in you through the “Son of David”, Jesus Christ? Let's pray together in light of God's perfect provision.