Q: #407. Why was Jesus so mean to the woman from Canaan who asked for help, calling her a "dog" (Mt 15:26)?
By: Steve Shirley
A: At first glance, Jesus' treatment of the Canaanite lady in this story (Mt 15:21-28)(Also see: Mk 7:24-30) seems cruel. (Mark adds that she was a Greek Syrophenician.) However, when we dig into it deeper, we find instead that Jesus is doing some very loving things for this lady. Let's look at this.
First, it is interesting to note that this Canaanite lady (a Gentile) calls Jesus the "Son of David" (verse 22). This was a title associated with the Jewish Messiah in the Old Testament. In other words, she recognized something that nearly all Jews failed to recognize: that Jesus WAS the Messiah. Most certainly, Jesus picked up on this. Therefore, what would His next move be? To test and strengthen this faith.
At first, as she is crying out for help, Jesus does not say a thing. This might harsh, however, we should think of it like this; when we pray, does God always answer our prayer immediately? Not always. Why? Because in making us wait for an answer, it is testing our faith. In addition, it encourages us to keep asking, and be persistent. Both of these apply here.
Next, it is important to note that even though this lady recognizes that Jesus was the Messiah, she had no claim to Him on this basis. She was a Gentile, and Jesus had come for the Jewish people (see: Mt 10:5-6). He affirms this in His response to the disciples in (Mt 15:24), saying, "I was not sent but unto to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The Canaanite lady then comes to worship Jesus saying, "Lord, help me" (Mt 15:25).
It is at this time that Jesus finally responds to her, and says, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" (Mt 15:26)(NASB) (the "children" are the Jewish people, the "dogs" are Gentiles). Two things should be noted about this. First, the Jewish people hated the Gentile people. They called them "dogs." In Bible times, dogs were for the most part a despised animal. They were generally wild animals that roamed about the streets. They are mentioned in the Bible 41 times, and are always spoken of unfavorably. For example, they are compared to prostitutes (Deut 23:18), greedy men (Isa 56:10), and evil men (Phil 3:2)(Rev 22:15).
When Jesus uses the term "dogs," I do not believe He is calling the Canaanite lady a dog per se, but rather, He is simply relating the term that the Jewish people used when referring to the Gentiles. However, if we look at the Greek word Jesus used for "dogs," we find that He is even softening this word. Jesus used the Greek word "kunarion" (only used in this story) which means "a puppy" or perhaps a family pet, rather than the Greek word for dog "kuon," which is the word used in relation to "evil men" in (Phil 3:2)(Rev 22:15). In other words, Jesus is saying in essence, when eating at the family table, the children must be fed before feeding the family pet (puppy). Or, the Jews must be fed before the Gentiles.
Her reply is astounding, saying, "Yes, Lord: but even the dogs ("puppies" = "kunarion") feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table" (Mt 15:27)(NASB). She did not debate the fact that she was a "dog," but instead acknowledged it, and replied that even "dogs" can get crumbs that fall from the table. In other words, she was appealing to Jesus' mercy and grace to grant her request even though she was not deserving of it as a Gentile. Jesus was so astounded at her reply that He said "O woman, great is thy faith," and He immediately granted her request (Mt 15:28).
Summing this up, it seems obvious that Jesus knew this Canaanite lady had faith in Him, and believed He could heal her demon possessed daughter from the moment she came to Him. Knowing this, Jesus set out to test and strengthen her faith. He did not answer her immediately, then when He finally did, He said something that would make many people stop asking for help. Many would respond with anger, or storm off. But, she kept pressing on, being persistent (see: Lk 18:1-8, Lk 11:5-13 for more on the importance of being persistent). Through her faith, humility, worship, persistence, and appeal to Jesus' mercy and grace, she received her petition. Her faith was strengthened!