Then Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Gospel story is the only mention of “Canaanite” in the New Testament. The woman’s identity as a Canaanite reminds readers of ancient Israel’s role in displacing the Canaanites from their land (Joshua- Judges). According to the biblical narrative in Joshua, Israel was directed by Moses to take Canaanite land and livestock, but chase down the fleeing Canaanites and kill them. Judges notes that Israel was unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites entirely. Most surviving Canaanite people were taken into slavery. Sidon is mentioned in Judges 1:31-32 as one of few settlements where the inhabitants were neither conquered nor subject to forced labor.
When she initially calls out to the Lord, “have mercy…my daughter is tormented by a demon,” the disciples turn and ask Jesus to send her away, to dismiss her- she was a woman and foreigner. This reaction would have been typical, given the racial, and cultural hatred between these two Semitic groups. She bypasses the disciples, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and pleads, “help me.” She will do what’s necessary to be heard. The demon from which the daughter is tormented could have been psychosomatic. Terrifying events in the past are often submerged from conscious memory- but stored in the body. The effects of trauma sustained through familial and community violence can be passed on to successive generations. Perhaps that is part of the message in this story: that in the daughter's healing, generational curses can be healed in Jesus Christ.
The brief interchange between Jesus and the woman seems like banter between a teacher and a disciple. The master asks a tough question and the star pupil’s retort earns the respect of the teacher. Jesus sees in her a remarkable trust in God. “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” “The prayer of faith will heal the sick,” James 5:15 reminds us.
This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite is uncommon. The woman is the exemplar in the story (not the disciples, again). In advocating for her daughter, the power differentials (gender, race, geography) that would have marginalized the Canaanite woman are themselves judged. Not among the "lost sheep of Israel" and living in a non-Jewish area, she is the exception in Jesus’ ministry in Matthew. Finally, she shows herself up to the task, speaking faith where there was complete dismissal.
References to this story appear in the traditional “Prayer of Humble Access,” said before receiving Holy Communion: “We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table.” However, as the story unfolds, the mother's intercession is granted, and a Canaanite woman too, is a recipient of God’s healing grace. She will gladly gather, without apology, the crumbs under Jesus’ table!