Last Sunday (17 August) I visited an English-speaking church here in Santiago. The Pastor preached about Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21-28). I believe the Pastor was trying to make a point about the necessity, for all Christians, of growing in discipleship and witness to the world around us.

The passage describes how the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to plead a deliverance for her daughter, who is demon-possessed. Instead of immediately granting her request, Jesus makes two cryptical (in light of the situation) remarks: (1) I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; (2) It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

In his sermon, the Pastor suggested that, at that stage of his ministry, Jesus had a limited vision of  what his Messianic mission actually was. At that point, it was suggested, Jesus thought his ministry was strictly limited to the Jews, and that he could not extend it to Gentiles. This caused him to make a remark (No. 2 above) which was downright rude to the woman, i.e., he implied she was a “dog” which (at least, from a modern viewpoint) is certainly highly offensive.

However, the Pastor said, the point of the passage is that by the woman’s clever reply, i.e., Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table, Jesus had his mind changed by the woman. He learned a lesson from her, which caused his vision of his ministry to widen, so that he then understood that he was also to minister to the Gentiles. The Pastor subsequently went on to draw parallels with other biblical characters, e.g., Peter, Jonah, Thomas, etc., who also had similar limited understandings at some stage of their lives, but had then learned and grew as a result of their mistakes.

I listened to this sermon with profound disquiet. While this biblical passage is certainly a difficult one to understand (afterwards, I read several commentary discussions of the text), I would hesitate for a very long time before using it to suggest that Jesus had such a blinkered vision of his mission that it lead him to blunder so badly, and to deliver a horrible insult. Also, I think that it is very ill-considered, pastorally, to link this purported behavior of Jesus to that of other fallible, and even downright disobedient, people, just in order to make a general point about discipleship.

A more widely accepted interpretation of Jesus’ actions in this story is that, by apparently resisting the plea of the Canaanite woman to heal her daughter, Jesus was actually testing and strengthening her faith in him, by requiring her to persevere in her petition to him. There was no question of him “having his mind changed” by the woman’s persistence. He was actually using the occasion to teach a serious spiritual lesson to her (and, since it is recorded in the gospel, to us) of the importance of persevering in prayer.

However, I suspect, rather, that he already knew what he was going to do (i.e., grant the request), and that his remarks, while directed ostensibly to the Canaanite woman, were actually intended for his disciples, as an indirect way of challenging them to face their prejudices about ministering outside of their own religious culture, to the Gentiles.

Several years ago I recall reading a very engaging and, to me at least, convincing, alternative interpretation of Matthew 15:21-28. It’s in an extended comment on the passage by Don Richardson in an article called “A Man for All Peoples” in the “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” missionary text book. [I also think it is an excerpt from his famous book: “Eternity in Their Hearts.”] Richardson sees this passage as an acted-out object lesson for the disciples, which is meant to reinforce Jesus’ teaching in the passage immediately preceding it (Matthew 15:10-20), on the difference between real versus figurative uncleanness. Initially, he suggests, Jesus feigns indifference to the claims of the woman. (It must have been feigned, since he had already healed many Gentiles, and to refuse this one would be inconsistent.) Then, when the disciples follow his apparent “lead,” and ask him to send her away, he deliberately makes the two provocative statements (Nos. 1 and 2 above) to set them up.

It is worthwhile quoting Richardson’s exact words here: ” No doubt his disciples thought his [i.e., Jesus’] reference quite appropriate for the occasion. But just when their chests were swollen to the full with pride of race, the Canaanite woman must have caught the a twinkle in Jesus’ eye and realized the truth! Yes Lord, she replied ever so humbly, not to mention subtly, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table! ” Jesus then healed the woman’s daughter, thereby forcing the disciples to question their previous assumptions.

Of course, Richardson, as a missionary and missiologist, would tend to place a mission-oriented interpretation on this passage, but it is enormously better than suggesting that the author and finisher of our faith was confounded in his ministry by a clever piece of human wit.