Some people just do not belong. They might be annoying, they might not “fit,” or they might not be the “right” sort of person. I think you know who I am talking about. That’s right. You and me. The vast majority of people in the church today would not have met the criteria set by the apostles for the Canaanite woman who came to find healing for her daughter, who was “tormented by a demon.” The disciples ask Jesus to “send her away, for she keeps calling out after us,” and while Jesus does not send the Canaanite woman away, he does say to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Why did she not belong? Let’s start with three reasons: she’s a woman, she’s a Canaanite, or Gentile, and she’s annoying because “she keeps calling out after us.” While only half of us are women, most of us are Gentiles and, if we are honest, most of us are annoying at least some of the time. Jesus says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, excluding Gentiles, and he compares the Canaanite woman to a dog, which seems derogatory even if the term denotes a small house pet. It is clear that this woman does not belong, but why would Gentiles not be welcome to Jesus’ ministry and healing?
Jesus had gone “to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” a Gentile region, so one might expect to encounter Gentiles there. It makes Jesus’ claim that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” puzzling, though it is a claim made elsewhere (Mt 10:6). These statements, however, must be balanced with the Great Commission of Mt 28:19, in which the church is instructed to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” It points to two realities in salvation history: that the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, were chosen to enter into a special covenant relationship with God; and that sometime in the future this covenant was to expand to include all the nations.
The prophet Isaiah reflects this latter tradition when he prophesies about Gentiles “who keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Isaiah and many other prophets spoke of a time when all the nations would be welcomed into the covenant, but when and how this would take place would be realized in the course of salvation history. In the ministry of Jesus and the church we see the prophecy of Isaiah coming to fruition.
Jesus might indeed be inciting the Canaanite woman, and his disciples, to a recognition of this new moment in salvation history by evoking her faith in the God of the Jews. At first Jesus does not answer the woman; then he tells her he has come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel; and finally he says, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But her faith that Jesus can and will act on behalf of her daughter remains intact.
Some have suggested that perhaps Jesus’ realization of his ministry to the Gentiles is unfolding in this encounter, in which she hears words of rejection but nevertheless stands her ground as a woman, a Canaanite and a mother.
Jesus lauds her great faith when she tells him that “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” But it would not be too long a period before the church became a predominantly Gentile institution and the sense of wonder that even the Gentiles could be saved would be lost on the church. At an early point the Apostle Paul had to warn his fellow Christians that “this welcoming of the Gentiles does not indicate a rejection of the Israelites” but that “the gifts and the call of God” to the Israelites “are irrevocable.” God’s plan in welcoming the Gentiles was not to exclude Israel, just as God’s election of Israel was intended ultimately to welcome all humanity into the family of God. It is difficult for us, because we so often desire to divide the world into us and them, to remember that our salvation is dependent not upon the sort of people we are but upon the mercy of God, which is for all people.