Why Does Jesus Refuse to Heal the Daughter of the Syrophoenician Woman in Matthew 15:21-28?

When the Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus initially refuses (Matthew 15:23-25). In fact, Jesus does not even say a word to the woman. This is surprising to a modern, Western reader since we tend to think of Jesus as the compassionate teacher who was kind to people outside of his social class. But outside of a western worldview, it is incredibly audacious for a woman to approach a man directly with a request.  In addition to being a Gentile woman and a Canaanite from Jezebel’s hometown), it is likely the woman did not have a husband (or he would approach Jesus). Having a demon possessed child makes her even more “untouchable” from the perspective of Jewish purity.

Syrophoenician woman

After Jesus does not answer her, she goes after his disciples. His disciples begged Jesus to send her away, she is “crying after us.” In Matthew 14:15 the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away, now they want to send this woman away. The woman is calling (present tense) behind the disciples. The reason Jesus is silent is the awkward social audacity of this Gentile woman approaching a Jewish holy man and healer directly.

He tells his disciples to send her away since he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus instructed his disciples to go nowhere among the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but to go only to the list sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 10:5-6). Is Jesus testing his disciples? Or does he really mean that he is not going to help the demon oppressed child?

The Syrophoenician woman knelt before him and said, “Lord help me.” Her posture is important: she kneels (προσκυνέω) before Jesus. The verb expresses an “attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, the wise men from the east seek out Jesus to worship him (2:2, 8); when they find the child the fall down before him and worship (2:11). A leper (8:2) and a centurion (9:18) both kneel before Jesus to request healing (as does a debtor begging forgiveness in a parable in 20:20). the disciples worship Jesus in the boat (14:33) and again after the resurrection (28:9, 17). The only other person to kneel before Jesus is James and John’s mother when she asks Jesus to allow her sons to sit on his left and right side in the kingdom (18:26).

Jesus’s response seems very rude: it is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs! The “children” in this context the “house of Israel” and the dogs are the Gentiles. More specifically, the noun (κυνάριον) is a little dog, a “a house-dog or lap-dog in contrast to a dog of the street or farm” (BDAG). He is calling her daughter a little dog!

Is Jesus exclusivist? Many scholars have said so, John Nolland for example, “This is a harsh statement of Jewish privilege” (Matthew, 634). To salvage a loving and open Jesus, most pastors will look past what he says to what he will do for the women (he was testing her faith). Most modern, western readers do not like Jewish superiority, but the fact is everyone in the ancient world was exclusivist!

The Syrophoenician woman expresses faith by observing that even the dogs receive crumbs from the children’s table. As a result of this statement, Jesus immediately healed her child. Jesus said it is inappropriate to take bread (ἄρτος) from the children, but she asks for a table scrap. The word for scraps (ψιχίον, a diminutive of ψίξ, scrap) is a very small piece of something, so in the context of bread, she is asking for a few crumbs. The word is used only here and in the parallel in Mark 7:28. (It also appears as a variant in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the poor man longed for some little table scraps from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21). The crumbs this woman asks for is healing for her child, a clear demonstration of Jesus’s power and authority. Ironically these demonstrations have been lost on most of the Jews, and even the disciples are still unsure what the feeding miracle meant

What is the point of this story? Is this the beginning of Jesus’s “Gentile mission”? On the contrary, the stories in this section are a stinging rebuke of the Jewish people who have had bread from Jesus’s own hand, yet they have refused to believe that he is in the Messiah.

This story is usually taken as evidence of a “gentile bias” in Matthew (see for example, K. W. Clark, “The Gentile Bias in Matthew,” in The Gentile Bias and Other Essays, Brill, 1980). Despite saying he was only sent to the house of Israel; Jesus does heal a centurion’s servant (8:5-13) and the child of this Syrophoenician woman.

As Samuel Sandmel notes, the references to Gentiles in Jesus ministry are not the norm, but exceptions. Gentiles are not replacing Israel, but rather some Gentiles may join Israel (Judaism and Christian Beginnings, 362). That Gentiles would come into the kingdom was an expected part of the Kingdom of God, so it not unusual that some Gentiles might come into the kingdom via Jesus’ ministry. If these stories are conversion stories, that is.  It is entirely possible that the Gentiles that experience miracles in this section are no more converted to Jesus’s mission than the Jews in the previous chapters of Mark’s Gospel. It is highly unlikely they would convert to Judaism at this point.

Has Jesus “gone over to the Gentiles” after being rejected by the Pharisees? Matthew writes as many as forty years after Jesus and he knows Paul’s gentile mission was successful. In Matthew’s day, there was no need to “comfort and encourage” Gentiles since they already dominated the Christian church.

6 thoughts on “Why Does Jesus Refuse to Heal the Daughter of the Syrophoenician Woman in Matthew 15:21-28?

  1. Great analysis. Are there any other parts in the Bible that show examples of exclusivity and Jewish Superiority?

    • Some scholars think there is antisemitism in John, although I disagree. Probably Matthew 23 could be included in the discussion as well. Paul might reflect this in Romans 9, the benefits of Israel.

  2. I also think it’s interesting that she, in a way, debates with Jesus. That is, she doesn’t back down. The Pharisees on the other hand are often silenced by what Jesus says and simply have nothing more to say. It seems that she has more chutzpah than the Jewish leaders themselves.

    • Good point, she seems more like one of the Psalmists, persistently begging Jesus for some kind of resolution. The Pharisees get offended and start plotting…

  3. In Matthew’s account Jesus went to Trye and Sidon…(not Israel) then said “I’m only here for Israel”? After this he feeds 4000 Gentiles and then heads to Caesarea Philippi a city filled with Gentiles….I think Jesus is teaching his disciples who Israel is becoming.

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