Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Fourth Sunday in Great Lent (Knanaitho / Canaanite Woman)

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 15: 21-28

Exegetical Notes on Matthew 15:21-28

by Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources

Gospel: St. Matthew 15: 21-28

The entire section of Matthew 15:1-28 is concerned with ritual purity -- who is clean/unclean and what makes them that way? (15:1-9 do not occur in the lectionary.) There is a connection from beginning to end with the word artos = "bread". Unfortunately, this Greek word is usually left untranslated in v. 2b: "For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." It is a key image in Jesus' conversation with the Canaanite woman, v. 26 and in the feeding stories before and after our text: 14:17, 19; 15:33, 34, 36. (Note also its use in 16:5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12).


The Canaanite woman is described by Jesus has having a "great faith" (v. 28). This is the only occurrence of that adjective describing faith in Matthew. Yet, she didn't walk on water, as Peter did last week. She didn't move a mountain. She probably had never been to church in her life. She certainly had never read the Bible. What's so great about her faith?


She's from the region of Tyre and Sidon. These were Phoenician cities just beyond the northern border of Israel. The people worshiped Phoenician gods. They weren't Jewish. They were pagans. By stating that she is from the region suggests that she was a rural peasant, rather than a city-dweller.

She's a Canaanite. (Mark has Syrophoenician.) Matthew's more Jewish audience may be more aware of the enmity between Jews and Canaanites that had existed since the time of Noah. Canaan was the son of Ham, who saw his father naked. Noah utters this curse in Gen 9:25-27:

Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.
Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem [ancestor of the "S(h)emites"]
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave."

Even more significant than this ancient curse about being slaves to the Jews, is the promise given to Abraham: "And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God" (Gen 17:8). They were part of the people the Israelites were commanded by God to annihilate (Dt 20:17), which Joshua carried out partially as the people of Israel took over their land and cities.

These historical events would not make Canaanites very friendly towards Jews nor towards the Jewish God.

Why would this woman approach Jesus? One suggestion is that she had nowhere else to turn. Perhaps she had heard reports about the healing miracles of Jesus. Her need was so great. Her concern for her daughter so deep, that she dared cross that rift between Jews and Canaanites. She was at the point where she had nothing to lose, and perhaps everything to gain. She comes and cries out to Jesus for help. A similar cry was made by Peter when he sank into the sea.

Douglas Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) suggests the following application:

The story reminds us that members of despised or oppressed groups must be bold in seeking relief of their misery. The woman is not content to be ignored, because she is convinced that her daughter deserves to be given a chance at living a normal, productive life. Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who can change things for the better, is rewarded. [p. 179]

A contrast can be made between the earlier verses in the chapter where Pharisees, claiming to be righteous, have found ways not to honor their fathers and mothers and this pagan woman who is willing to risk everything for the sake of her daughter. Who seems to be fulfilling the "law and the prophets"?

Hare also offers the reminder, "We are, as Krister Stendahl has suggested, merely 'honorary Jews'" [p. 179]. Most of us cannot trace our ancestors back to the "house of Israel" (either "lost" or "pastured" sheep). This means we are in the "dog" category. In both Hebrew and Greek, the term "dog" is a name of contempt. Even in English, "bitch" is a proper term for a female dog, but when used of people or the addition of "sonofa," it becomes a highly derogatory term.

Jesus' reply presents a situation in which we may often find ourselves or our congregations. How do we deal with situations that would detract us from our proper callings? What is our proper calling? Who are the people we have been called to minister to? As ordained ministers, I believe that our primary calling is to preach the word and administer the sacraments; but we get those phone calls that interrupt our sermon preparations. When do we (or have a secretary) put off the caller until a more convenient time for ourselves? When does the interruption become our work? When does it get in the way of our work? Should it make a difference if the "interruption" comes from a church member -- one of our "sheep" -- or an outsider?

Jesus has a calling. It is to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." He cannot change that calling for this pagan woman. When Jesus says, "It is not fair ...." (v. 26). The word for "fair" (kalos), can imply "morally right". It is a question of morals. It is not morally right to let children starve while dogs eat their fill. Implying that it is not morally right for the "King of the Jews" to help this Canaanite woman.

The lady agrees with Jesus. One way to disarm criticism is to agree with the critic. "You're a dog," implies Jesus. She agrees! "I am a dog, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table." Or, perhaps in other words, "I know I don't deserve a thing from you. I am no better than a dog, but even dogs receive better treatment than you're giving me. Can't you spare a few crumbs of grace?" We know from the miraculous feeding story from a few weeks ago that there is enough "bread" to feed thousands. She received her crumbs. Her daughter is healed.


It is Jesus who calls her a woman of great faith. It wasn't she who approached Jesus talking about how great her faith was: "I really believe in you, so you should do this for me."

She doesn't approach Jesus with anything great: no great faith, no great obedience, no great religious piety. She comes with a great nothing: no Jewish faith, not knowing or keeping God's commandments, if she had any religious training, it wasn't centered on the God of Israel. Perhaps we can define her great faith as coming to Jesus with nothing -- nothing to offer him, yet trusting him to give her what she needed.

Her "great faith" comes closely after Peter's "little faith" (14:31). That is not accidental. She is presented as a contrast to Peter. If she had said, "If you are the Son of David, command my daughter to be healed," she would have been in the same category as Peter; or worse, acting like the Tempter.

Another way these two accounts are connected is by the Greek word krazo. Originally, this word described the (unpleasant) sound of a raven. It then came to refer to any screeching or screaming or crying out. The implication being that the sounds were not pleasant to hear.

It is the fearful sound that the disciples in the boat make when they first think they are seeing a ghost walking on the water (14:26). It is the tone of voice that Peter uses when he begins to sink: "Lord, save me!" (14:30). It is what this woman is doing when she says: "Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon" (15:22). It is how the disciples describe the woman's noise when they advise Jesus to send her away (15:23). If we suddenly had someone screeching during the middle of a worship service, wouldn't we want someone to send her/him away? (It's bad enough when a cell phone rings -- hopefully it's not mine.) Anyway, just as Peter cried out for help, so does this woman.


This incident is an example of what Jesus talks about in 15:10-20. What makes a person "unclean" (koinos = "common") comes from within, not from without. The woman's faith came from within. She had none of the outside trappings of piety or holiness.

Vv. 10-11 are addressed to the crowds. Vv. 12-20 are addressed to disciples. [Another possible outline: vv. 10-14 an explanation to the crowds and disciples; vv. 15-20 an explanation to Peter.] Whatever outline is used; a majority of this section is addressed to the disciples, which suggests that there may have been more of an "insider" problem than one with outsiders. Jesus/Matthew is issuing a warning to disciples against overrating ritual correctness as criteria for judging/condemning others. I'm certain that this would never be a problem with us liturgically rite Lutherans <g>. It is commonly thought that within Matthew's community there were both "weeds and wheat" growing (13:24-30) and "sheep and goats" (25:31-46) -- and the warning that we can't tell the difference.

We also need to be careful in this section not to fall into simplistic caricatures of Pharisees or other "opponents" we may name. I.e., WE have the correct understanding of the Word of God. THEY are misled by human traditions. It would have been very easy for the Pharisees to accuse Jesus and his followers of throwing out the commandment to honor father and mother. Didn't Jesus say that one cannot love father and mother more than him (10:37)? And told a would-be follower not to go and bury his father (8:21-22)?

"It is a regrettable habit of many Christians to speak disdainfully of 'Jewish legalism.' Rabbis sometimes ask ministers, 'Why is it "legalism" when we take our tradition seriously, but when you do, it is merely a matter of carefully observing the mandates of your book of order?'" [Hare, Matthew, p. 175]

We also need to be aware of our own tendencies of placing our traditions ahead of God's word and will. [Note the use of the word "your" in v. 3 -- that it was a human, not a biblical tradition that they were following.] How often do we hear, "We have always done it this way," which can impede the work of spreading the kingdom.

A story related to this text [summarized from Sunday and Holyday Liturgies, Cycle A, by Flor McCarthy] has a group of the very pious waiting in heaven for the judgment. As they are waiting and complaining about the wait, they begin to see some of the "sinners" they knew on earth coming into the waiting room: a corrupt politician, an itinerant woman who had been convicted of shoplifting numerous times, a prostitute, a drug addict, a man who spent most of his life in prison, etc.

With each of these arrivals, the feeling of hostility increased in the first group. They glare at the others. They talk among themselves. Within a short time, words were spoken to those others, "What makes you think you're going to get in with that evil, sinful life you lived on earth?"

"We are relying on the mercy and grace of God. What makes you so sure you're going to get in?"

"Our good lives, of course." They turned their backs to the others.

Time began to drag on for the first group. They began to complain to one another. "If those other people get in, there's no justice. After all the sacrifices we've made. It's not fair."

The Lord arrived. He turned towards the first group, "I understand you've been wondering why there has been no judgment."

"Yes!" they cried out. "We want a judgment. We want justice."

"The judgment has already taken place. You've judged yourselves. By judging these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you have judged yourselves. In rejecting them you have rejected me. You have shown yourselves unworthy of the kingdom of God." [pp. 151-3]

Hare says something similar in his conclusion to this section: "We are defiled, Jesus tells us, by the unloving words that spring so readily from our mouths." [p. 176]


Periodically there arises complaints about music or movies or TV and how they corrupt us (make us "unclean"?). Do we believe these words from Jesus that it is not those things from the outside that come in and defile us, but what is already inside of us that comes out? Does watching violence on TV or on a movie make people violent? Or does such a person already have an inner craving for violence that leads to the behavior of watching such things on the little and big screens?

I think that from the perspective of this text, the cure for violence is not removing it from the media, (I doubt that if we did that we would remove violence from the world), but to transform the inner cravings of the people so that they don't watch such things in the media, or act them out in society.


Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith) offers a different interpretation of this section.

He suggests that in v. 15:14a

...that Jesus and his disciples should carry out their ministry without taking into account the Pharisees and their reactions. Respecting the Pharisees' feelings would be to avoid challenging their ministry to the crowd. But they are "blind guides" and thus they mislead the crowd. Jesus, who by his teaching to the crowd, offends the Pharisees, is thus presented as a sure guide for the crowd. [p. 219]

In a similar way, he concludes that the disciples' request in v. 23, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us," was a plea for Jesus to grant her request just to get rid of her and her bothersome commotion. [p. 221]

He writes:

For the disciples, one should conduct one's ministry by acting in a way that would avoid anything that could displease people; one should avoid disquieting confrontations. But, for Jesus, this is precisely not the way of conducting one's ministry. He does not act in response to people's reactions or wishes but acts according to what he was sent for (15:24a), according to his God-given vocation. He is totally devoted to his vocation, whatever might be the reaction of the Pharisees (15:12). ... Similarly, since he "was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he has nothing to say to this pagan woman (15:23a), even though she acknowledges that he is the 'Lord, son of David,' the Jewish Messiah, and even though she might be bothersome by her cries (15:22, 23b). [p.221]

In order to be faithful to God, I think our congregational leaders need to spend much more time in Bible study and prayer -- to discern what God would have us do; rather than just listening to the complainers and would-be consumers. (However, having been a parish pastor for nearly 30 years, "bucking the system" is easier said than done.)


In line with an issue most of our denominations are struggling with: what if the person coming to Jesus asking for help for a child were a homosexual (or someone else outside of our "boundaries," e.g., a prostitute)? While we can't know precisely what Jesus would do in other cases; we do know that in this story he overcomes the ethnic, cultural, political, gender, and religious barriers humans have created.

See Also:

Crumbs from the Master's Table
by Hubert Beck

God of Mongrels
by the Rev. Dr. Gail Ricciuti

Canaanite Woman
by Fr. Daren J. Zehnle

A woman's Faith: Matthew 15:21-28
by Rev. Bryan Findlayson

Prejudice and Faith
by Larry Broding

Dylan's Lectionary Blog
by Sarah Dylan Breuer

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 4th Sunday in Great Lent (Canaanite Woman)

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