As we saw yesterday, there are quite a few hidden layers to Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. Instead of testing her faith, I firmly believe Jesus was testing the morality of his disciples and whether or not they would “live out” the teachings he gave them before this episode.
One other hidden message of this episode has to do with the woman’s ethnic background. You might recall words like Canaanite or Canaan from reading the Old Testament. Here’s a bit of background on this people group and region:
- According to Genesis, Ham received a curse for looking upon Noah (his father) while Noah was naked. Ham’s son, Canaan, would also receive the curse, too. The descendants of Noah then scatter across the world. According to scripture, Canaanites settled near the land of Jordan.
- “Canaanite” is a broad term including various peoples who lived in this area. It also included Amorites, Hittites, and so on.
- After a few generations on Shem’s side of the family (another son of Noah) God promises Abraham the land of Canaan, which was to the west along the coastline, next to Jordan.
- It is unclear how distinct these people groups truly were. In some cases, God works explicitly through people in Canaan! Other famous leaders took Canaanite spouses. However, in a theological sense, one major distinguishing factor of Canaanites is worship of false gods like Baal.
- Many biblical books deal with preparing for and eventually taking the land of Canaan through warfare. The Israelites conquered the region and established a kingdom. The kingdom eventually split and was conquered by other nations before the time of Jesus.
That might sound like a lot of biblical names and random facts, but it is all important to remember to set the stage for how the bible describes the relationship between Israel and Canaan. For many generations, the two people groups were enemies of one another. So in the gospels, people in Jesus’ culture did not get along with people like the Canaanite woman.
But one of the beautiful things about the bible is that throughout the grand story of scripture, God works to bring about salvation to all different kinds of people. We don’t just see this in the New Testament. There are key passages and stories in the Old Testament, too. For instance, the story of Ruth is about a faithful Moabite woman. Moabites and Israelites didn’t exactly get along, either! Even in Genesis it briefly talks about how Moabites were descendants of incest from Lot and his daughters. Yet this story teaches us that God is working to save people who might be outsiders. That’s exactly what God’s kingdom is all about–bringing in the poor, sick, and lost. God’s family gradually gets bigger over time.
So one of the truly remarkable things about Matthew 15 is that even though Jesus spoke as any Israelite would of Canaanites as part of the test, this unnamed woman ends up being one of the heroes of the story. She continued to pursue Jesus even after the disciples refused to help her. God worked in her life, and she responded to God.
So let’s bring this message to today. Who are the Canaanites in your life? Who are the people you haven’t gotten along with? With whom have you fought? Who might even be your enemy?
You might think someone in your life is “too fare gone.” You might think that one relative is just utterly hopeless. You might think you’re destined to always feud with that one particular coworker.
But the biblical story teaches us that God is always willing to work in the lives of other people. If God can work in the life of this faithful Canaanite woman, God can give anyone a second chance.