How to Be a Good Dog Like the Canaanite Woman

16 Aug


Note: Can be read right after this post from yesterday. And, if you find this message helpful, you might also like the last one I did: “Paul and love for one’s own race….”


“…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table…” “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

–Matthew 15: 27


You thought you knew how controversial Jesus was? Think again.

As my pastor likes to playfully say, “Folks, just mark it out of your Bibles….”

In all seriousness, some Christians have been deeply disturbed by this account from the Gospels today.

And not just some Christians today. Even the 5th c. church father Chrysostom said: “the more the woman urged her petition, the more [Jesus] strengthened His denial…”

So he bluntly states that Christ acts “backward[s]” here (Aquinas)!

Others, in spite of the fact that the text gives no outward impression of this, say that Jesus was somehow testing the woman’s faith, perhaps with a “wink and a nod”.

Or using her to test the faith of his disciples… or to help them counter their own chauvinism, prejudices, or even racism.

Perhaps? “God, help us save Jesus’ reputation here!….”

Again, however, the text – to the dismay of many – says absolutely nothing about this (maybe one might want to argue it is saying she deserved free health care as well?)

In fact, given the way it reads as it does, some have even insinuated that the Son of God Himself learns a lesson from the woman about his own racism or racial prejudice.

And awaaaaaaaaaay we go!

Of course we know that today being concerned about the multitude of ways we have been wrongly discriminating against others that we may not have been previously aware of is all the rage.

Do you think it is “OK to be white”?

That is your racism and white supremacy talking!

Does the young man prefer, all things being equal, to marry a debt-free virgin without tattoos?

He’s a total jerk filled with toxic masculinity!

Do you think Islam is right about women?

Well, in this case, you really might be a misogynist…

(Oh wait, I can’t really say that can I? — perhaps I should be clarifying that I mean not just any woman but “people who menstruate” or “individuals with a cervix”…?).

The fact of the matter is that some kinds of “discrimination” are just normal parts of life and other kinds are even very good. “Discriminate,” after all, can just mean where we differentiate or make a distinction…

So here, we can clearly assert that Jesus is not committing the sin of showing favoritism or worse.

Rather, we see here in the Gospel how what He and the Apostle Paul teach and practice go hand in hand…


“…anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever…” (I Tim. 5:9)


“…as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal. 6:10)

And even this, from Paul’s letter to the pastor Titus, who was stationed in Crete:

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’…. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13b)


Yes. It does us early 21st c. Americans well to remember that, as a friend put it, “Manners are not moral absolutes.” (Cochran).

I also note with interest that right before this passage about this  Canaanite woman, Jesus has just ripped into the Pharisees for their obsession with their own cultural rules — “teachings” which “are merely human rules…”, He says….

Instead of being concerned about the kind of character that pleases God.

Are you going to tell me that the words of the Apostle Paul – who acts as God’s ambassador and urges us to “imitate him” – are not pleasing to God here?

That he, “guilty of prejudicial[, bigoted] and tactless racial stereotypification,” (Thiselton, 222) is not showing “cultural humility” because he arrogantly and incorrectly thought he could understand Cretan culture with help from his favorite “token Cretan”?[i]

Are you going to say this?:

“This man Paul, an outsider to the Cretan culture who doesn’t really know them because – newsflash, he’s not a Cretan! – in making his “objective pronouncements” on Cretans, clearly doesn’t want them to know gentle and compassionate Jesus Christ, does he?!”


Maybe… just maybe…. we should just stick with explaining what the text says, and not speculating on what it doesn’t say….


In 2010 the commentator Juan Williams was fired from his position at National Public Radio when he confessed to feeling nervous when seeing people in Muslim garb boarding his plane.

Williams was not even admitting that his “emotional response to a cultural signal”[ii] was OK: he was just being honest that this was the case.

Is Williams a racist or bigot? Acting in a racist or bigoted fashion? Even if he was, who among us would say that we too have not, at times, not only felt but argued that we at least had good reasons for acting in similar ways?

As a general rule, in early 21st century politically-correct America, we have lost the ability to speak hard truths and so what Jesus says here is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities,” as one commentator put it.

Nevertheless, before we talk more about Jesus, let’s go back to that jarring statement from Paul about the Cretans.

Is Paul, perhaps, committing the sin of favoritism or partiality that the book of James mentions?

Well, we carefully note that in Romans 2:11 Paul says, “For there is no favoritism with God” and then he repeats himself in Eph. 6:9: “There is no favoritism with him” (Eph. 6:9 ; see also I Tim. 5:21)….

And this same Paul then also says what he says about Cretans!

So again, has Paul, in this blast against the Cretans, momentarily forgotten what he said about favoritism?

Not at all.

We can nail this down as Paul also says this, from Colossians 3:25:

Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”

So what exactly is happening here?

Paul, unlike what many modern commentators might imagine, is not showing partiality or favoritism or evil prejudice.

He is not, like the men mentioned in the book of James, making judgments about people on the basis of their outward appearance… namely about how attractive and rich they look…how successful or impressive they are in the eyes of the world … 

Rather, when he says what he says about Cretans in general – even seemingly implicating individual Cretans in particular – he is not making judgments about them on the basis of their outward appearance, but rather the proven content of their character vis a vis the objective Law of God.

And this too, as hard as it might be for us to face up to, seems to be why Jesus is talking about dogs….


In the ancient world, as today, to be called a dog was not a complement.

For example, the cynic philosophers, because of their “shameless rejection of conventional manners, and their decision to live on the streets,” (Wikipedia) were given their name precisely because of this (and they, by the way, often reveled in their role).

And, as regards the Jews, one commentator has noted:

“References to dogs in biblical literature are overwhelmingly negative, and when the term is used metaphorically for human beings it is abusive and derogatory… Keener’s survey of attitudes to dogs in Greco-Roman culture… confirms the negative implications of the term in those cultures too…” (595, France)

The Old Testament refers to the unbelieving as dogs.

Paul calls the legalistic Jewish Christians who required circumcision for people to be sure that they were Christians dogs.[iii]

And the book of Revelation says that the dogs will be among those thrown into the Lake of Fire.[iv]

Both the Cretans and the Canaanites really did have some issues, and so, it is only right to call a spade a spade…

In America, we love the individual who claws and scrapes and fights and achieves and overcomes – and so, we will gravitate towards the exceptions to the rules – but nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with using generalities and even stereotypes….

No offense, but it’s true!

Distinct people groups, ethnicities, cultures, nationalities tend to have certain characteristics. They have strengths, which in most cases we tend to celebrate!… and they have weaknesses, which in most cases we tend to not talk about…

And people – good and honest people – have been recognizing these for a very long time…

You might think that the content of your character is better than the rest when you refuse in each and every situation and circumstance to attribute negative characteristics to this or that ethnic or national group or religious group….

But when you do that and insist that everyone else does the same, are you also going to insist that no one attribute any positive characteristics to them either?

That, to say the least, is a rather bland and colorless way of looking at the world – not to mention a foolish one I’d say – is it not?

Don’t misunderstand: in saying all of this, we are not necessarily saying that all of these characteristics are entirely genetic or something that can never be helped.

The guilt of original sin is always with us – even as it is forgiven in baptism – but progress can certainly be made fighting against particular sins.

And we are certainly not saying that any collection of characteristics a group possesses should make us think they are naturally superior… inherently or intrinsically superior to others…

So when Jesus is focused on His people and His mission here, He is not, as I recently heard someone say “committing a racism”.[v]

Furthermore, again, He is not showing partiality in the way it is talked about in the book of James for example, where favor is shown to the rich, the attractive, the powerful and successful.

Jesus Christ is, after all, sinless…

Finally, we also have no indication that this is a situation where Jesus is learning to be more sensitive to how people apply laws like “honor your father and mother” in the world while also not sinning, which we really do have the impression occurred when He was twelve years old in the temple.

No, no, and no!

Rather, our Lord and Savior comes not to save us Gentiles first, but rather for “the lost sheep that are the house of Israel” (Gibbs, 787).

As the commentator Lenski puts it, as regards his calling his own people “sheep, all his love and kindness toward his nation is revealed. He thus also denominates himself as their true Shepherd” (597).[vi]

Another puts it this way (Fraanzman):

“Quite simply, [the statement “the lost sheep that are the house of Israel”] makes it abundantly plain that the biblical doctrine of Israel’s election must be taken seriously.”


“Wait though,” you might be thinking… “Even if one is not believing that one’s group is intrinsically and inherently superior to others, this has implications…

Aren’t you suggesting that Jesus would tell us not to hire someone on the basis of their skin color?

Aren’t you saying that because Jesus knew what generally characterized the Canaanites He assumed the worst about the Canaanite woman?

Aren’t you saying that it is impossible for real racism, odious to God, to be one of the contributing causes to the material inequality that we see exists in our nation?

Again, “No, no, and no….”

Sad to say, many modern people living in America, like many modern biblical scholars, are very good about making assumptions about the character and attitudes of others based on the flimsiest of evidence.

If I say, “I live by the rule that sometimes there are exceptions to rules and that these exceptions matter…”

…that doesn’t mean I am hiding my evil hatreds at worst and my politically incorrect prejudices at best.

I am just stating this: The text does not say that Jesus intended to do anything here other than to simply assert the priority of those who God chose…. therefore making them Jesus’ own precious flesh and blood…

His own beloved if not wayward people Israel…

And – do you see it?

This is beautiful! Strong! Admirable!

Jesus is even better than the Marvel movie Super-Hero Black Panther, who dearly loves His nation Wakanda!

And the woman marvels at such singlemindedness, such devotion to one’s mission… to one’s people…

And she is no doubt attracted to such love – a love for one’s own that does not necessarily equal a lack of love, or an “unlove” for the “other”.

And so, she, as one commentator puts it, is the only person we know of who could “beat Jesus in a debate”!

She beats Jesus in a debate – and so He praises her to High Heaven!


How could she have known what was deep inside the heart of Christ?

She, was, after all, one of those awful Canaanites!

Well, speculating can be dangerous, but in this case I am going to suggest it can be done quite responsibly.

In Matthew 8, after all, following the Roman centurion’s giving us another example of amazing Gentile faith, Jesus says:

“….I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And just two chapters before in Matthew 12:19-21, Jesus tells us of the salvation He is bringing to the Gentiles:

[God’s servant] will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations[, that is the Gentiles,] will put their hope.

Maybe the news had spread! Or maybe – just maybe – she was aware of the book of Isaiah Jesus was in the process of fulfilling and believed that?

Whatever the case, however it happened, this is basically the opposite of His disciple’s faith, which Jesus had earlier called “little”…

The woman’s brilliant faith absolutely amazes Jesus….[vii] …and the story makes it into the Bible. : )

How does she do it? The late 5th/early 6th century commentator Epiphanus the Latin says: “The woman agreed, saying to the Savior, ‘Yes, Lord.’ That is to say, I know Lord, that the Gentile people are dogs in worshipping idols and barking at God…”

Another excellent modern commentator (Schaeffer) sums up things by saying her faith is a

“…happy combination of all the essential features of true faith,” including “clear views on Christ’s character, or a certain amount of religious knowledge (respecting His power, grace, etc.), entire, unquestioning and humble submission to the Lord’s will (thankful even for crumbs),” and a confident reliance in the face of discouragement as well” (373, italics his).

But, but, but….

He was saying she was dog!

Yet she did not hear “Go away.”

And she did not just hear, like she might have heard from us: “Just wait, I want to get to you…”

She heard: “Wait, I will get to you!”[viii]

…and she thought she’d try her hand at a little bit more!

Isn’t this Jesus Christ after all?[ix]

Our friend Martin Luther also said something very intriguing about this story. He suggested that in not directly calling the woman a dog, Jesus is “leaving it undecided whether she is a dog or not” (Luther’s Church Postil Gospels. Vol. 11, 152).

Contrary to Luther, some commentators argue that Jesus was just calling the woman “a little puppy” here. Probably not.[x] On the other hand, even back then, “little pet dogs” did have owners who kept them in the house and fed them…

Therefore, the man Lenski who I mentioned before suggests that the Gentiles who “lived among the Jews or came into contact with them… could thus in a way obtain some of their blessings….” (Lenski, 598).

So: maybe the question to ask is this: What kind of dog was this Gentile… this Canaanite woman?

And what kind of Gentile dog are you?


So with this my friends, I hope I have persuaded you that this is a beautiful, beautiful story….

What Jesus says is not full of evil prejudice or something worse, but something marvelous and wonderful – and a sight to behold!

And likewise with this most excellent Canaanite woman! Like a good mother would, she cried out to Jesus on behalf of her daughter.

We can learn from her example of great faith. For whom do we cry out to Him for His healing? Are we first like this woman and the Apostle Paul, crying out for our own family or people (Rom. 9:1-3)…. even as our affections and concern are also not so limited – and so can and will extend ever more broadly?

What is wrong with American Christianity today?

Even among those who I thought would know better, economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups in our nation are taken as prima facie evidence of systemic racism by white people.

Again, never mind that disparities between racial or ethnic groups exist everywhere, and have from since the Fall, since Cain and Abel, since the tower of Babel…

Never mind that the average earned income of “white people” is far, far down the list, behind Asians, Nigerian immigrants, and many more![xi]

And so here… in our text for today… a perfect man on a mission of love seems to clearly indicate to someone that they are not His first priority or responsibility…

…and many in the church go to absolute pieces, wringing their hands, clutching their pearls, and running to the corner for their coloring books and teddy bears.

Again, do we think the sins of nations, “the ethnos”acting like dogs with their worship of idols and their barking at the one true God – are no big deal?

What a contrast this woman is… In today’s Gospel reading I would say we see one of the greatest examples in the Bible of faith from a non-Jew: a Gentile!

Why does all of this not cause of to marvel at the love and plan of God, and to cry out, like the Roman centurion – another Roman Centurion! – at the foot of the cross:

“Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Why does not all of this cause us to have admiration for His mission, His devotion?

And why, in addition to this Canaanite women, do so many of these Roman centurions in the Bible “get it”?

It was after seeing the faith of yet another Roman centurion [!] that Peter confessed: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism…” (Acts 10:34).

I think it probably has to do with their having at least a passing acquaintance with the Scriptures, but there is something else as well.

In Matthew 8, the centurion says to Jesus:

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

This man understands authority – and He gets that when it comes to His judgment according to His Law, the Lord, unlike many leaders among men, is no respecter of persons…

…in His desire to show mercy and grace as well…

What greater authority could any of us be under?

Where, I ask – other than your works of fantasy and science fiction which steal from the Gospel story anyways – are those who have it better?


What greater Master could we serve?

Words from the cross come to mind. Words for me, words for you, words for all of us:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…”






Also from the article:

“On a more essential level, however, the acrimonies that exist between groups today reflect less the recent history of racism in the West and more the perennial condition of inter-cultural discord that has shaped human conflict throughout recorded history.”

“Much of what sounds like racist condemnation of African-Americans and Latino immigrants in the States, or of Arab and African immigrants in central and western Europe, is, in fact, concerns over what are perceived to be the cultural ailments of certain portions of these groups of people. Conservatives in America (most, but not all, of whom are white) are generally not anti-black. Yet they see part of black culture as lending itself to the vices of family dissolution and criminality. (Black conservatives, and many black liberals for that matter, feel this way too.) They are not anti-Latino, but see many Latino immigrants as bringing with them a tolerance of socialist authoritarianism that conflicts with traditional American civic values. Latino conservatives feel this way too. Similarly, opposition to unchecked immigration into Europe from the Arab world has far less to do with any social presuppositions made on a genetic basis, but rather on an understanding of Islamic culture that sees it as embracing illiberal attitudes towards personal freedom, and imbued with too great a willingness to tolerate political and religious violence. Most of these cultural critiques come from white Europeans, but by no means all. They are echoed by some Muslims and ethnic Arabs living in Europe as well….”

[iii] A late 5th/early 6th century commentator by the name of Epiphanus the Latin argues that the Jews themselves, in their unbelief, were reduced to just these kinds of dogs: “[T]he unreceptive Jews were made into loathsome dogs out of children, as the Lord himself said in his Passion through the prophet: ‘Many dogs surround me; a company of evildoers encircle me.’” (Sionetti, 29)

[iv] Theophylact of Antioch (8th c.) bluntly says that “Christ speaks of her as a dog, because the Gentiles led an unclean life and were involved with the meat sacrificed to idols, while the Jews He speaks of as children” (133).

[v] Case-Winters, for example, talks about how Jesus’ humanness is on display here, as he is “caught with His compassion down,” but that the woman “teaches Jesus about a wider divine embrace” (202).

[vi] Lenski perhaps overstates his own case a bit when he says that because Jesus really was focused on his mission to Israel (“I was not commissioned save to the sheep that have been lost of Israel’s house”), we need to give up the idea, which is also “so offensive to moral feeling,” that Jesus “pretended to be hard and tortured the woman with uncertainty for the purpose of testing her faith in order then to praise her” (596, italics mine).

[vii] Gibbs: “She is, like the Magi and centurion before her, an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to babies (11:25-27).”

[viii] Hillary of Poitiers writes “Not that salvation was not to be imparted also to the Gentiles, but the Lord had come to his own and among his own, awaiting the first fruits of faith from those people he took his roots from. The others subsequently had to be saved by the preaching of the Apostles.”

[ix] Christ, of course, only “oversteps the limitations” of His earthly mission. For, again, as can be seen in earlier passages in the book of Matthew, God’s light coming to the Gentiles for their salvation was always in view, in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies hearkening of the Messianic Age to Come

[x] For more on exegesis on this passage throughout church history, see here:

[xi] Thomas Sowell also asks a pointed question: “If you cannot achieve equality of performance among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, how realistic is it to expect to achieve it across broader and deeper social divisions?”


Posted by on August 16, 2020 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “How to Be a Good Dog Like the Canaanite Woman

  1. Delwyn X Campbell

    August 17, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Long sermon – or was it a sermon? I wasn’t seeing either Law and Gospel or Two Kingdoms here so much as defense against Critical Theory based propaganda.
    So I am not criticizing, just getting clarification.

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      August 17, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      Pastor Campbell,

      I think there is quite a bit of law and a good deal of well-placed gospel (most clearly, of course, at the end).

      Of the law, some of it could apply across time and some of it is more time-specific, yes. The law has to do mostly with the sins of pride (lack of humility), cowardice and bearing false witness.


      • Nathan A. Rinne

        August 17, 2020 at 1:37 pm

        It was a sermon — and it is about the normal length of the sermons I do: 25 minutes.



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