21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” Matthew 15:21-23
To say the Canaanites were Israel’s enemy is an understatement. They occupied the Promised Land, the same land God told Abraham would be his. They literally stood in the way of the promise God has made. However, the Canaanites didn’t just stand in the way of the promise, they stood in stark contrast to the way of Yahweh. They were a people who didn’t appreciate justice, had no interest in walking humbly, and scoffed at the thought of seeking God.
When we understand how hated the Canaanites were, the disciples’ expectations of Jesus begin to make more sense. A Canaanite woman had approached Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. The disciples responded, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (Matthew 15:23) Sure, that makes perfect sense. She’s not a part of their tribe. She’s part of the competition to God’s plan. She’s on the outside.
Jesus’ response shows that the disciples missed an important component of being his follower. They missed that the tired ‘us versus them’ categories were being done away with. The Israelites under Moses had those categories, but the disciples were being called into an older and greater promise. In Genesis 12:2-3, God made a promise to Abraham:
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
“All the peoples on the earth will be blessed through you…” even the Canaanites. Even this woman. The Canaanites who were distinct enemies of God’s people were also part of God’s mission and they were being called into God’s kingdom. The disciples wanted to send the enemy away, but Jesus envelops the enemy in his love.
The cultural context and the language used makes it hard for us to see, but this passage is actually about Jesus breaking down barriers and extending love to people the disciples wish he’d walk past. What group of people do you wish Jesus would send away? What group do you wish was quieter and less influential? Picture them in your mind – and now picture Jesus welcoming them and now picture Jesus welcoming them, listening to them, and granting their requests.
By Ryan Paulson