Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (20 August 2023)

Gospel for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (20 August 2023)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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 (Matthew 15:21-28 – NRSV).

Introductory notes


Matthew is dependent on Mark 7:24–30 for this story, though Matthew has made some interesting changes:

  • He has changed Mark’s “the woman was a Gentile (literally Hellenis – a Greek), of Syrophoenician origin” to “a Canaanite (Chananaios) woman”;
  • he has the woman cry out and address Jesus with the Messianic title: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon”, whereas Mark does not have this address;
  • Jesus’ initial silence and the request of the disciples are omitted by Mark;
  • after the woman’s retort, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”, Matthew has Jesus heal the woman’s daughter because of her “great faith” while Mark says the healing is simply because of what she said.

Jesus would have walked about 50-60kms from Gennesaret, on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, where he healed the sick man – see 14:34-36 –– to Tyre on the Mediterranean coast and about another 40kms north to Sidon. It is in this “district of Tyre and Sidon” that he encounters the Canaanite woman. For a map of Palestine in early 1st century showing where Tyre and Sidon are click here.

The scenario unfolds as a conversation. The woman addresses Jesus three times and Jesus responds twice. The disciples also address Jesus and he replies to them. This conversation grounds the event and makes it accessible to us. It is very immediate and concrete. We are drawn into the conversation.


a Canaanite woman: By saying the woman is “a Canaanite” Matthew calls to mind the ancient inhabitants of this land. This is a dramatic encounter. Jesus is here dealing with one of the traditional enemies of Israel. He not only performs the miracle for her, he acclaims her “great faith”. We should not underestimate the symbolic power of this action, radically expanding the Messianic vision beyond the boundaries of Israel – even to Israel’s enemies. One scholar notes: “It is significant that this narrative immediately follows the discussion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in both Matthew and (Mark 7:24–30), because the woman is Canaanite and therefore ‘unclean’ from the Jewish perspective. The story solemnly declares that though she is a Gentile, her faith is sufficient to confirm her as ‘clean’ and therefore acceptable in God’s sight” (B M Newman & P C Stine, A handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, United Bible Societies, 1992, 492).

Canaanite is found numerous times in the Old Testament, though it is used only here in the New Testament. The problem is that there was no longer a political country called ‘Canaan’ in New Testament times. Some scholars are of the opinion that this was the Semitic manner of referring to the people of Phoenicia at the time that Matthew’s Gospel was written” (B M Newman & P C Stine, op cit, 492-493).

Son of David: This is a messianic title. It is very significant that Matthew has the Gentile woman address Jesus with that title. This seems to confirm that Jesus himself is “radically expanding the Messianic vision beyond the boundaries of Israel” and the people beyond those boundaries are responding in “faith”. They in fact see what the religious authorities of Israel do not – or refuse to – believe.

I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: This is unique to Matthew. It repeats Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 10:5-6 when he sends the disciples out: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Scholars are uncertain as to whether this statement is addressed to the woman or to the disciples.

she came and knelt: The Greek verb proskyneō – here translated as “knelt” – “is the verb most frequently used in the New Testament of worship in general, and it is found first in this Gospel in 2:2. The root meaning is ‘approach in dog-like fashion’, and it describes the manner in which a subject might approach a king or some other holy person or object. Consequently the meaning may be either ‘fall down and worship’ or ‘worship’. The present context suggests that the woman is either kneeling or, more likely, prostrating herself on the ground, pleading with Jesus to heal her child” (B M Newman & P C Stine, op cit, 496). It is entirely possible that all this happened while Jesus and the disciples were moving along. If so, it is not hard to imagine it being more than a little chaotic!

It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs: This is a statement of priority rather than a statement about Gentiles – the children of the household are fed before the pets. One scholar writes: “Commentators generally note the sayings of certain Jewish teachers who referred to Gentiles as dogs, but this does not support the argument that all Jews felt this way toward them. And there is no evidence from other New Testament sources that Jesus himself ever spoke of Gentiles in this manner. In fact, it is most probable that the saying is not intended to make a derogatory remark about Gentiles, but rather to differentiate order of priority: children (symbolizing the Jews) are fed before the household pets (dogs symbolizing the Gentiles). In a Palestinian household, which had children and household dogs, the children would be fed first, after which the dogs would be given the scraps from the table. The woman must have understood Jesus’ remark in this way, as her response in verse 27 intimates” (B M Newman & P C Stine, op cit, 497).

What’s he doing here? 

In today’s Gospel – Matthew 15:21-28 – we have the intriguing story of Jesus’ encounter with the “Canaanite woman”. Mark, the only other Gospel writer to give us an account of this event, uses the word Hellenis, literally meaning, “Greek”: “the woman was a Gentile (Greek) of Syrophoenician origin”. This story is intriguing because the last stated geographical location in which Matthew places Jesus, is Gennesaret, at the very northern end of the Lake of Galilee – see 14:34-36. It is about a 50-60kms walk from there West to Tyre and a further 30-40kms North to Sidon. Jesus’ home base and the focus of his ministry is Galilee – see 4:13, 18 & 23 – around the northern edges of the Lake. “The district of Tyre and Sidon” is a long way from there. It is also intriguing – given that he has made considerable effort to get to this district of the Gentiles – that Jesus then excuses himself from attending to the woman by saying: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  

We might well ask: What’s he doing here? Paradoxically, the very oddness of this account suggests its authenticity. Let us therefore hold that oddness in tension as we endeavour to answer this question. Being intrigued and puzzled can help us to be open to the otherwise unforeseeable.  

Two other texts in Matthew offer some context here. Firstly, immediately prior to this encounter with the Gentile woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon, is Jesus’ encounter in his home territory with some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem – see 15:1-20. What a difference! The Gentile woman’s faith versus the Jewish authorities’ refusal of faith. 

Secondly, the last words of Matthew’s Gospel envisage the whole world being invited into the Covenant of God’s love: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and … remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:19-20). Jesus is not constrained by cultural or social or religious boundaries or any other boundaries. And neither should his disciples be. God’s loving plan is for everyone! 

It seems reasonable to read our Gospel today as a deliberate strategy by Jesus to teach his disciples a crucial lesson. He removes them from their familiar Jewish territory. He plays the role of resisting the Gentile woman but, in the end, applauds her great faith. It is precisely this relationship in faith with Jesus, that matters in the end. St Paul puts it well: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29. See also Colossians 3:11 & Romans 10:12). Everyone belongs. Yes, even you and me! 

Fr Michael Whelan SM – Homily for the Feast of Transfiguration (20th Sunday)