In this difficult passage of Scripture, both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are rejected by the Jews. In fact, they are so thoroughly overlooked that the listening audience doesn’t catch the irony of Jesus’ word picture. They don’t realize that Jesus is the crumbs, carelessly discarded by the children of Israel.
In the parallel passage of this story in Matthew 15:24, Jesus tells the woman that He came only for people of Israel. His disciples, comfortable in their privilege, ask Jesus to send her away. Jesus calls the woman a dog.
What’s going on here?
Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon—a Gentile region. Tyre and Sidon were cursed by God several times in the prophetic books (Ezekiel 26 for example). In other words, Jesus willingly entered historical enemy territory.
The woman was a Canaanite—or Syrophoenician. Canaan, the person, was cursed by Noah after Canaan’s father acted inappropriately toward Noah when Noah was drunk (Genesis 9:20–25). Canaan, the land, was also known as the promised land—the place that the Israelites were destined to possess after the Exodus (Exodus 6:4). The people within Canaan were enemies of the Israelites. This is why no one has a problem with Jesus’ inferring that the woman is a “dog.”
In ancient near-eastern culture, women and men didn’t interact much if they weren’t family, and even less if they were of different ethnicities. This woman was scandalous in her crying out to Jesus.
In this scene, Jesus is not having any of this prejudice. When Jesus wanted to teach His Jewish audience how to be a good neighbor, He made a Samaritan the example of selfless love—Jews hated Samaritans! When He wanted to emphasize the primacy of faith to His Jewish audience, He said (in Matthew 11:21–22), “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” Observe how Jesus contrasted Jewish cities (negatively) with Gentile ones (positively). Note also that the region of Tyre and Sidon is exactly where His encounter with the Canaanite woman took place.
Jesus knew both the prejudiced hearts of His Jewish audience and the great faith of the Canaanite woman, and made an example of her in order to teach this profound lesson: Jesus loves and came to seek and to save—without prejudice.
Jesus honored the faith of the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, by healing her daughter. She demonstrated more faith in the “crumbs” of Jesus than many Jews did with an abundance of prophets and signs. The people of Israel had the Bread of Life, and wasted Him, like crumbs carelessly tossed from the table.