One of the most surprising (if not confounding) accounts in the Gospels is Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 (Matthew 15:22). After a heated dialogue with the Pharisees over the relationship between tradition and God’s law, Jesus travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon. The hostility Jesus found in the Jewish religious leaders on the shore of Galilee directly before (Matthew 15:1-20) is contrasted by the response of the Gentile woman He encounters immediately in this unambiguously Gentile region.[1]

Matthew identifies this woman as “a Canaanite woman” rather than opting for the Markan identifier (and more precise sociological term) “Syrophoenecian” as Mark does (Mark 7:26). This traditional Old Testament identification brings the storied history of God’s people and the people of Canaan to bear on this encounter between a Gentile and the Jewish Messiah.

This unnamed woman’s desperation is visceral as she approaches and “start[s] shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon’” (Matthew 15:22-23). Her faithful acknowledgment of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, as well as her desperate plea for mercy, is met by uncharacteristic silence from Jesus. Matthew writes, “he did not answer her at all” (Matthew 15:23). The disciples respond to her desperation with annoyance, calling on Jesus to send her away (Matthew 15:24).

Jesus responds to both the disciples and the woman saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus instructs His disciples with similar language, calling them to go “nowhere among the Gentiles” but instead to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). However, this is the first time in Matthew Jesus says that He was sent only to the house of Israel. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus taught and healed Gentiles, not least the Centurion’s servant, so this occurrence jars the reader and forces the question: What is going on here? The rest of this encounter further heightens this question, as the Canaanite woman kneels before Him and tenderly asks for His help. Jesus responds by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).

This hard word does not deter the faithful Canaanite, but she presses even further in saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). In this account, it is the woman’s persistent faith which turns the tide of the encounter, as Jesus responds to her saying “great is your faith,” and her daughter is healed instantly (Matthew 15:28).

There is no question that this is a difficult text, but when read as a whole, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman serves as a kind of narrative interpretation of Paul’s definition of the gospel in Romans:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).

Mark seems to understand the encounter in this way, as he records Jesus’ initial response as beginning with, “let the children be fed first,” in concert with Paul’s explanation of the saving work of God beginning with the Jew and expanding to the Gentile (Mark 7:27; Romans 1:16).

Paul spends the latter part of his letter to the Romans attempting to communicate this very mystery. How is the Christian supposed to understand Israel’s election in light of the boundary-shattering work of Christ? In chapters 9-11, Paul argues that the inclusion of the Gentiles and “partial hardening” of Israel is not contrary to the Scriptures, nor does it undermine God’s faithfulness to His people. Using the examples of Isaac and Jacob, Paul argues that the makeup of God’s people has never been merited by descent but instead by His call (9:6-13). Although Scripture attests that there will be periods when Jews are in the minority among God’s people, the inclusion of the Gentiles is the means by which God restores Israel to Himself (9:24-11:31).

The Canaanite woman, perhaps unknowingly, articulates a robust biblical theology of Israel's election as she acknowledges their status while prophetically proclaiming the vocation of Israel: to be a blessing to all nations and a light to the Gentiles (Genesis 22:8; Isaiah 42:6).[2] Her bold reply did not assume her worthiness but wholly depended on the mercy of God to turn her faith into sight.

This mystery calls forth humility from all of us. The faith of the Canaanite woman serves as an example for us, humbly acknowledging the mysteries of God with genuine belief and entrusting ourselves to the merciful work of God. The Canaanite woman acknowledges the mysterious work of God, agrees with even the seemingly harsh word of Jesus, and continues to knock for the door of God’s mercy to be opened to her (Matthew 7:7-8). In her bold reply, the Canaanite woman becomes a prophetic forerunner of non-Jewish faith, anticipating Paul’s calling for Gentile humility, as he writes to the church in Rome:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble…​​For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11: 17-24)


[1] Gary Byers, “The Biblical Cities of Tyre and Sidon,” Bible Archaeology, accessed May 31, 2024,

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007), 595.