Mark calls her “a Greek” but Matthew uses the ancient name “Canaanite,” a reference to the original inhabitants of the Holy Land, who were conquered by the Israelites some twelve centuries before the time of Jesus. Matthew recognizes that this encounter between the woman from the area of Tyre and Sidon and Jesus is about an outsider “wanting in.” So he heightens the drama by identifying her as a member of that group of pagans who were Israel’s first enemies (after the Egyptians, of course). Notwithstanding her status as “Canaanite,” her anxiety about her demonized daughter brings her to Jesus with a plea that he heal her.
Matthew turns her into a model of Christian prayer when he amends Mark’s version to have her say, “Have mercy on me. Lord, Son of David.” Again revising Mark, Matthew introduces a startling response by Jesus: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (for this indeed was his way of operating during his earthly ministry, the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations coming only later [Matt 28:19]). When she insists, again modeling Jewish-Christian prayer, “Lord help me,” Jesus goes so far as to use a popular insult term for Gentiles: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” In turn, the woman has the blessed hutzpah to make a witty play on Jesus’ image: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Notice that she just addressed Jesus as “master” (Kyrie). “O woman,” he responds, “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
We rightly marvel at the faith of the woman, and we wonder at the abrupt words of Jesus. But when we ask the question of why Matthew, and Mark before him, saw fit to include this account in their Gospels, it becomes evident that they, especially Matthew, had other concerns than ours. For Matthew's introduction of the reference about Jesus’ mission to the house of Israel echoes the theme of Israel-first-then-the-nations developed elsewhere in his Gospel (see Mt 10:5-6 and 28:19).
Today’s First Reading, from Isaiah 56, helps us appreciate that larger picture which Matthew made his own. Isaiah envisions foreigners coming to the Jerusalem Temple to “join themselves to the Lord” and to “make joyful” in God's house. This joining of foreigners in the worship of Israel is not something that occurred upon Israel's return from the Exile. Indeed there were laws against pagans even stepping into the inner court of the Temple. This oracle referred to something beyond what the returning Judahites were ready for. That is why the prophecy could so readily be understood as a reference to messianic end-times. Indeed, the vision climaxes with words that Jesus quotes on the occasion of his cleansing of the Temple toward the end of his mission: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God signaled the end of business as usual, and an opening of the heritage of Israel to the rest of the world.
That's where we come in—that vast majority of we Christians who are Gentiles. However we understand the mainstream Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah—and the reading from Romans 11 shows that this question preoccupied Paul greatly—the fact is that Christian faith has its roots in Judaism and understands Jesus as implementing the vocation of Israel to be a light to the world. It would be a salutary help toward humility if we let the account of the Canaanite woman remind us that if we have found healing in the house of Jesus, it is only because we are foreigners who have been allowed to come in from the outside.