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.

Who is the Syrophoenician Woman in Matthew 15:21-22?

After his conflict with the Pharisees in 15:10-20, Jesus withdraws from Galilee into the region of Tyre and Sidon. There he meets a Syrophoenician woman who asks him to heal her demon possessed daughter. Matthew calls her a Canaanite, the only occurrence of Χαναναῖος in the New Testament; Mark 7:29 calls her a Syrophoenician woman.

Syrophoenician woman

Jesus has withdrawn from Israel before in Matthew. In Matthew 2:14 Joseph withdrew to Egypt to protect Jesus. When Pharisees began to conspire to destroy him, he withdrew (12:15). After Herod Antipas executed John the Baptist Jesus withdrew into the wilderness (14:13). In each case Matthew uses a verb (ἀναχωρέω) which has the sense of taking refuge (BDAG). It can refer to an army which “beat a retreat” (BrillDAG).

In Mark 7:24 indicates Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Matthew omits this explanation. It is certain Jesus was staying with a Jewish family. The context makes it clear enough he would not be visiting a Gentile family.

Why does Jesus withdraw to Tyre and Sidon? By mentioning both cities together, Matthew may be alluding to Jezebel, the quintessential Canaanite Baal worshipper who promoted Canaanite religion in the Northern kingdom. The two cities were associated with Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians in the days of Elijah.

Sidon was the firstborn son of Canaan (Gen 10:15). Hiram of Tyre built David’s palace (2 Sam 5:11) and Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5:1). Elijah left Israel when Jezebel sought his life and lived in “Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon” (1 Kings 17:9). The situation is similar, Pharisees are seeking to destroy Jesus, so he withdraws to the same area Elijah fled when Canaanite woman sought him.

Although the two Phoenician cities were about twenty-five miles apart, they are regularly paired together in the prophets: Isaiah 23, an oracle against Tyre and Sidon although the two are not paired in the text. Since Tyre and Sidon are regularly condemn by the prophets, Jesus uses them in Matthew 11:21: if the people of Tyre and Sidon saw miracles he did among the villages of Galilee, they would have repented!

This Syrophoenician woman is therefore presented as a pagan Gentile in the tradition of the worst of all Baal worshipers in the Old Testament.

Matthew makes the connection clear by calling her Canaanite rather than a Syrophoenician woman. From the perspective of a Second Temple period Jewish male teacher and healer like Jesus, this woman is extremely low socially. Yet her she is wanting to witness another miracle and giving Jesus the worship and adoration which the house of Israel as so far failed to give to their messiah. It is remarkable this woman would approach Jesus, and his response is even more surprising: Jesus refuses to even talk with this woman!

What Comes Out of the Heart Defiles a Person – Matthew 15:10-20

After calling the Pharisees hypocrites because they declare certain people unclean based on ritual purity or food traditions, Jesus describes what really defiles a person (Matthew 15:10-20). It is not external things life food that make a person unclean, but what comes out of their heart.

Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot

The verb translated “defile” (κοινόω) refers to making something or someone ritually unclean. For example, it is used to described Peter’s attitude toward the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:15; 11:9). Paul is accused of bringing an unclean Gentile into the Temple courts, “defiling this holy place” (Acts 21:28). The irony is the Pharisees tried to remain in a state of purity, yet by focusing on external purity the Pharisees do not understand what defiles a person.

Following John Nolland, both Jesus and the Pharisees are concerned with the purity of God’s people, but they were pushing in different directions (Matthew, 621). For the Pharisee, defilement could be avoided by closer attention to what renders a person ritually unclean, things in the external world that might be touched. For Jesus, he sees defilement as the things coming out of a person, their moral and ethical choices. Jesus is not challenging Torah purity laws (he is not advocating eating unclean foods), but by allowing his disciples to not practice hand washing according to the traditions of the elders, he is rejecting some of the practices of the Pharisees.

The disciples tell Jesus has offended the Pharisees (15:12-14). Some of the disciples approach Jesus and tell him the Pharisees were offended by this harsh condemnation, especially since Jesus publicly called them hypocrites. In Mark 7:17, this conversation takes place in private, back in the house, Matthew does not follow Mark here so that this speech happens in front of the crowd as well.

Jesus does not seem to care if he has offended the Pharisees (after all, they publicly called him an agent of Satan!) He predicts they will be “uprooted” when the kingdom comes and telling his disciples to “leave them, they are blind guides.” John the Baptist said a similar thing in Matthew 3:10, the axe is already at the root and every tree that is not bearing fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus says evil thoughts come out of the heart (15:15-20). When Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable, Jesus says he is still “without understanding” (15:15-16). Mark 7:17 does not identify the speaker, Matthew has already included Peter’s attempt to walk on the water, so he is building up to Peter’s confession in 16:16.

The word translated “without understanding” in the ESV (ἀσύνετος) has the connotation of senseless, foolish, or as the NIV translates, “a dullard.” BrillDAG suggests “obtuse, stupid.” The word is sometimes translated “foolish” and is rare in the New Testament. Paul uses it the other three times it is used, twice in Romans 1 to describe the foolishness of mankind in rejecting the creator, and once in chapter 10 of Romans to describe the foolishness of the nation of Israel in rejecting God.

Perhaps Jesus is not saying “Are you a dullard?” but more like “haven’t you started getting with it spiritually yet?” The disciples do not understand a simple parable in context, something they ought to have understood by this point in the story. In 15:10 Jesus told his listeners to “hear and understand,” one would expect this closest disciple to understand. At this point Peter does not understand what defiles a person.

What goes into a body does not matter as much as what comes out (15:17-20). Food simply passes through the body, but “evil thoughts” start inside the body and come out in the form of offenses against God’s character. For reasons that are not clear to me, the ESV and NIV do not translate the Greek phrase εἰς ἀφεδρῶνα, into the latrine. The NRSV properly translates the phrase “and goes out into the sewer.”

The rest of the list is more or less the Ten Commandments (Murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander). Jesus discussed murder and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-32). Matthew re-arranges and reduces Mark’s list, omitting acts of avarice, deceit, licentiousness, and evil eye, pride and folly. “Jesus sticks with matters which in Jewish terms would not only be immoral but also criminal…all his items relate to the Ten Commandments” (Nolland, Matthew, 627). Jesus referred to the fifth commandment in the previous paragraph, the fourth commandment in 12:1-14. True worship is the theme of the first three commandments, so potentially 15:7-9 covers the rest of the commandments.

In verse 20 Jesus states eating with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. This is different than Mark 7:19, the parenthetical comment (by this Jesus declared all foods clean). Virtually every translation takes these as words of Jesus, but it is possible these are Matthew’s conclusion to the matter, clarifying Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’s words.

Jesus makes a clear contrast between what defiles a person according to the Pharisees and what actually causes defilement. Jesus does not declare all foods clean here, nor does he allow his disciples to break the Law.

Tradition and Hypocrites – Matthew 15:3–6

When the Pharisees ask Jesus why he breaks the tradition of handwashing before meals, Jesus turns the discussion around and condemns the Pharisees as hypocrites because of their practice of corban (Matthew 15:3-6). In the parallel passage, Mark uses the term corban, which simply means a gift given to God. Although Matthew does not use the word corban (Mark 7:11), it is clear Matthew is referring to this practice.

Jesus and Hypocrites

The issue is whether the oral law overrides the written law (Blomberg, Matthew, 238). For example, the Law says do not eat unclean food, the Pharisees developed traditions which defined unclean to include food touched by unclean hands.

In this case, there is a tension between the command to honor one’s parents and the commands to honor oaths especially to oaths to God.

Exodus 21:17 (ESV) “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.

Leviticus 20:9 (ESV) For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.

Deuteronomy 27:16 (ESV) “‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

One could potentially make a vow (qorban) to the Lord to give a gift to the temple that was payable if a vow was broken or even on death (like a bequest in a will) and the avoid using the money or property for the care of their parents.

By analogy, imagine making a faith promise to support missionaries when the decide to build a new church, but they have not started that project yet so you keep the money in your bank account so you can give it at some point. But then you tell your parents you cannot pay for their retirement home because you promised to give money to the missionaries (if they ever need it). You get the spiritual benefit of making a vow to God, you get to keep your money in the bank and earn some interest and you do not have to spend money on your parents.

The gift could be given as a “trust” so that the giver could earn an income from the gift, and it was still considered a corban. Nolland says the gift was not intended to be an actual gift to God,  but “a notional forfeit due God payable on failure to fulfill the vow made” (Nolland, Matthew, 617).  There is therefore a benefit as a gift and as an investment, and the giver avoids using the funds to support parents.

Sometimes this is described as a loophole in the Law that the Pharisees exploited, but it is better to see this as a ranking of significance of vows. When two or more vows come into conflict, which vow takes precedence? By analogy, if I promise my wife I will take her out to dinner, and I promise a friend I will help him move at the same time, which promise am I obligated to keep? Which promise is more significant? (In this analogy, which promise will hurt me more when I break it?)

It is necessary to address keeping foolish or hasty oaths or conflicting obligations, but the way these two traditions are used makes it possible for a person to avoid doing both good things. In my analogy, I would tell my wife I have to help my friend, and tell my friend I have to keep my promise to my wife, and then go off to the movies and avoid keeping either promise. I would be a hypocrite and the sort of thing Jesus condemn here.

Jesus however sees this tradition as a breaking the Law. For the sake of their own traditions the Pharisees are breaking the command of God” (Mark has “the command of Moses”). Matthew is emphasizing the origin of the Law of Moses, it is not a law that begins with men, but with God.

Although the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the traditions of the elders, Jesus says they are making the Law void (ἀκυρόω). They are rendering the Law ineffective so that someone could not honor their parents and (potentially) not ever give their offering to the Temple. Jesus could have agreed with one side of this debate within the party of the Pharisees, as he does on the issue of divorce (Hooker, Mark, 178). He does not, since using the Law to break the Law is hypocritical and sinful.

Jesus says Isaiah 29:13 prophesied about “these hypocrites” (15:7-9). By quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus is drawing a parallel between the Pharisees and the generation of Isaiah. The worship of God in the Temple may have been performed correctly, but it was only lip-service to God because the people did not wholeheartedly keep the covenant. In a similar context, Jesus quoted Isaiah 6;8-9 in Matthew 13:13-17 to describe that generation’s response to the revelation Jesus is the Messiah.

This verse is often quoted when we do not like a particular religious ritual or practice. Although the person quoting the verse seems pious, how are they not hypocrites themselves?


Bibliography: J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Qorban Inscription from Jebel Hallet et-Turi and Mk 7:1/Mt 15:5,” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (London: G. Chapman, 1971), 96.


Jesus and the Traditions of the Pharisees – Matthew 15:1-9

The stories in Matthew 15-16 begin with a challenge to Jesus (15:1-20) and end with another demand for a sign (16:1-12), both stories include a stinging rebuke of the Pharisees for their reliance on their own traditions. The two stories between in which Jesus encounters remarkable faith among the Gentiles. Jesus is not “turning to the Gentiles.” On the contrary, the two stories contrast the remarkable faith and openness to the Jewish Messiah from the Gentiles with the lack of faith from the Pharisees.

Hand Washing Old Jerusalem

In Matthew 9:14-17 the Pharisees questioned Jesus’s disciples about his non-practice of fasting. In Matthew 12:1-14 they question Jesus’s activity on the Sabbath (his disciples glean, and he heals on the Sabbath). This results in the Pharisee’s pronouncement Jesus casts out demons by the power of Beelzebub (12:22-24) and the demand or a sign (12:38). This sequence represents a break with the Pharisees and Jesus turns to teaching the crowds in parables for the first time in Matthew because the present generation has become like the people in Isaiah 6:8-9, always seeing, never understanding (13:11-17).

There are several important changes from Mark 7, including the explanations of hand washing and corban, both added in Mark to explain a Jewish tradition to a non-Jewish audience. Another significant deletion is Mark’s comment that Jesus declared all foods clean. Remarkably, Craig Blomberg titles Matthew 15:1-20 as “Kosher Laws Rescinded” in his NAC Matthew commentary. Kosher food (or not) is not the subject in Matthew, but rather the traditions of the elders.

The Pharisees and scribes approach Jesus and ask about his disciples not washing their hands (15:1-2). These Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem to Galilee, indicating Jesus’s reputation has reached religious authorities in Jerusalem. The problem is Jesus’s disciples do not follow the “traditions of the elders.” This phrase can be used for the legal decisions made by respected teachers of the Law in the Second Temple period (Antiq. 13.10.6), but here refers specifically to the oral tradition curated by the Pharisees.

The problem with eating with unwashed hands is that it will render the food unclean and eating unclean food makes a person ritually impure. If you are in a state of cleanliness, but you have touched something or someone who is unclean, then your hands are unclean and that will defile your food. The solution, for the Pharisees, was to always ritually wash one’s hands before eating.

The Mishnaic tractate m.Yadim (“Hands”) describes various ritual washings, although this dates to at least AD 250. This tractate covers washing of hands as a process of purification and is different than immersion in an immersion-pool (miqveh) for purification from uncleanness. For example, in Jubilees:

Jubilees 21:16–17 “Wash thyself with water before thou approachest to offer on the altar, and wash thy hands and thy feet before thou drawest near to the altar; and when thou art done sacrificing, wash again thy hands and thy feet.”

As much as possible, they were practicing the kind of separation from uncleanliness required of a priest working in the Tabernacle (Exod 30:19, 40:13) in everyday life. “the analogy between the domestic table and the Temple altar which is probably the source for the requirement to wash hands before eating” (Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities, 19:104).

Although Aristeas 305 says “all the Jews washed their hands and prayed to God” (cf. Judith 12:7, Sib.Or. 3.591-583), only the Pharisees sought to create “in everyday life the conditions of purity required in the Temple” (Jacob Neusner, “‘First Cleanse the Inside,’” 494, n. 2).  The average Jewish person would avoid contact with uncleanliness but would not overly concern themselves with accidental contact with unclean things.

Some Jews think food could defile a person, see, for example 4 Maccabees 7:6.

4 Maccabees 7:6 O priest, worthy of the priesthood, you neither defiled your sacred teeth nor profaned your stomach, which had room only for reverence and purity, by eating defiling foods.

Why would the Pharisees think Jesus and his disciples ought to conform to their traditions? By analogy, an Amish person probably does not get too upset when an Episcopalian does not follow their traditional practices (they probably assume they are going to hell and not worry too much about it).

But since Jesus is closest to Pharisees in terms of theology, they may have thought of Jesus as one of their own, or close enough to ask the question. If the Pharisees had the sense Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, then certainly the Messiah would follow their interpretations of the Law!



Bibliography: Jacob Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities: Tebul Yom and Yadayim, ed. Jacob Neusner, vol. 19, Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007). Jacob Neusner, “‘First Cleanse the Inside,’” NTS 22 (1975–76) 486–95; 494, n. 2. See also G. J. Wenham, “Christ’s Healing Ministry and His Attitude to the Law,” Christ the Lord (ed. H. H. Rowdon; Leicester: InterVarsity, 1982).