Must A Canaanite Become an Israelite to Enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
“It’s just me against the world” sang a popular hip hop artist in the 1990s. Of course, the concept of “you’re either with me or against me” goes all the way back to Jesus. He made it very clear to his disciples that a person cannot serve two masters () when he said to his disciples they are either with him or against him ().
Jesus drew a clear line in the sand to teach us about faithful discipleship. Faithful discipleship requires Jesus’ followers to be loyal to him and to his teachings, no matter what the cost, until one dies. This is one reason Jesus says those who want to be his disciples must be willing to “deny” themselves, to “take up” their cross, and “to follow” him (). Following Jesus requires total (not perfect) daily repentance, daily trust in, daily loyalty to, allegiance to, and faithfulness to him and to his teachings above all until the end of one’s life (). Failure to trust in Jesus in this way is to deny him before men (). The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel personifies the kind of faith that Jesus expects and demands from anyone who would dare to follow him.
The “Canaanite Woman’s” Great Faith
In , Jesus intentionally goes to the Gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon. According to v. 22, a “Canaanite Woman” approaches Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, he calls her a Greek/Syrophonecian woman in the parallel account in . His point is she isn’t Jewish. She’s not a member of the commonwealth of Israel. She doesn’t share in the spiritual privileges that went along with Jewish identity.
Both her ethnic identity and gender are an important piece of the story. Jesus is a Jewish man, in Gentile territory, and she (a Gentile woman) approaches him and seeks to engage him in a conversation about her daughter. We know from Israel’s history the Canaanites and Israelites were enemies (e.g. read Judges). Both Jesus and Matthew are aware of this history.
In v. 22, the “Canaanite” woman approached Jesus and “was crying out” to him. She demonstrates she has faith in Israel’s God in v. 22 when says to Jesus “Lord, Son of David, my daughter is demonized with an illness.” In , Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus presents him as the Son of David (a Jew) and the Son of Abraham (a Gentile). These verses support Jesus is the Messiah and savior of Jews and Gentiles who repent and follow him. Furthermore, after Jesus’ resurrection in , Jesus tells the disciples to make disciples of “all the nations,” that is, to make disciples of both Jews and Gentiles.
However, for the most part, in Matthew’s gospel up to this point, Matthew has emphasized Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who has come to save the Jewish people from their sins. In fact, in , Matthew tells us Jesus “will save his people” (i.e. the Jewish people) “from their sins” (brackets mine).
Yet, in his encounter with this Gentile woman, Jesus teaches he’s also the Messiah, Savior, and Lord of Gentiles who repent and follow him. We further see that Gentiles (even a Gentile woman) have a faith and a righteousness greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who do not repent and follow him (cf. ), because she relentlessly pursued Jesus. Her relentless pursuit demonstrates her heart is yielded to King Jesus by faith.
Her faith also teaches us that Gentiles with relentless faith in Jesus will enter the kingdom of heaven. However, self-righteous, religious, hypocrites, like some scribes, some Sadducees, some Pharisees, and like those who profess Jesus today with their mouths and yet reject him by either their lack of orthodoxy, by their lack of orthopraxy, or by both, will not enter the kingdom of heaven because their hearts are evil (see ).
In , Jesus ignores this Gentile woman’s request. Jesus’ disciples began to ask Jesus in v. 23, please “release her” because she “is crying out behind us.” In v. 24, Jesus answers and says to the woman “I was not sent except for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus’ statement implies this question: what do you (a Gentile woman) want from me (the Jewish Messiah)?
Jesus engages her on this level, I think, to illustrate to his disciples at least two things. First, he’s the Lord, Messiah, and Savior of Gentiles who follow him. Second, the kingdom is wide open for everyone who repents and follows him as the Lord, Messiah, and Savior until the end of one’s life.
This Gentile woman’s response supports my interpretation of the text. He wants to draw out her faith as a Gentile woman for his Jewish disciples to see in anticipation of the universal mission that he will commission them to conduct after his resurrection. In v. 25, Matthew says this Gentile woman “began to fall down before him and said: ‘Lord, please help me!’” In v. 26, Jesus calls this woman a dog: “It is not good to take the bread of the children and give it to the dogs.”
Some ancients generally viewed dogs as wild and unclean scavengers. Other ancients generally viewed dogs as predators. When readers hear Jesus call this Gentile woman a dog in this text, they shouldn’t think of Lassie, who loved everyone and tried to save everybody, but they should think of Cujo, who hated everybody and tried to kill everybody. Jesus’ point here is he has come to save the lost sheep of Israel, not Gentiles. This is exactly what he stated in v. 24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (ESV).
Every non-Jewish reader must understand that WE are the Gentile dogs in this text. Regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race, political affiliation, gender, social economic background, etc., Asian, Black, Brown, and White people are all Gentile dogs in God’s sight. But, in Christ Jesus, we, the Gentile dogs, are now members of the commonwealth of Israel (=members of the people of God ) along with other Jewish Christians.
This Gentile woman’s relentless faith teaches us this when she pushes back against Jesus in . She concedes his point that she is a Gentile dog. Yet, she tells Jesus even Gentile dogs need salvation (15:27). She agrees with Jesus that she is not a Jew. But she proclaims to Jesus that even the Gentiles need salvation, and she confesses she’s willing to take whatever gospel crumbs he, the Jewish Messiah, would be willing to give to her.
I absolutely love Jesus’ response to her in v. 28: “O dear woman, your faith is GREAT! Let it be to you as you desire.” Then, Matthew says “And her daughter was healed that very hour.”
This Gentile woman’s faith is contrasted with and greater than the faith of Peter, a Jewish man, when he sank because he doubted when he took his eyes off Jesus (). Her faith is also contrasted with and greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because their hearts were evil and because they didn’t know God or his Christ ().
Must “Canaanites” become Israelites to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
I finish this piece where the title begins: must a Canaanite become an Israelite to enter the kingdom of heaven? The story of the Canaanite woman teaches us the answer is emphatically NO! Today, must one Gentile become exactly like another Gentile to enter the kingdom of heaven or to be a faithful Christian? The answer is just as emphatically NO!
This is an important point for Christians to grasp in our increasing polarizing society where some who profess Christ are quick to draw tribal lines in the sand based on cultural preferences and not based on things explicitly stated in the biblical text. The New Testament and the story of the Canaanite woman teach us that those who desire to enter the kingdom of heaven and to live faithfully as Christians as faithful citizens of the kingdom of heaven while on earth simply need to have a relentless and exclusive faith in Jesus Christ and be relentlessly and exclusively devoted to his kingdom-agenda until we die.
No matter what the cost, followers of Christ must remember the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (). Faith in Jesus is more than intellectual assent (). Faith in Jesus is a commitment to him that shows itself by means of faithful obedience to and faithful submission to him as the Lord, Messiah, and Savior of the world (; ) and faithful submission to his agenda (). Faith affirms everything the bible teaches about Jesus (see ). Faith in Christ holds onto and responds to the promises that God gives in Christ and to the demands that Jesus places upon our lives until we die (see )! Faith always has Spirit-empowered works that attest to one’s faith (; ). Those without this kind of Spirit-empowered faith don’t have faith.
During these times of a deadly pandemic, a bad economy, intense tribalism, sickness, suffering, death, and during this (what is sure to be a divisive) election year and beyond, may it be said of those who profess faith in Christ that our faith in, obedience to, faithfulness to, and loyalty to Jesus Christ is relentless and GREAT! Father, Son, and Spirit, please help us!
 – Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of the New Testament are the author’s. This article was originally preached as a sermon at Sojourn Community Church (Midtown Campus) on April 26, 2020 where Dr. Williams serves as a preaching/teaching pastor. Click link to listen to the sermon https://sojournchurch.s3.amazonaws.com/sermons/Matthew+(2019)/Midtown/MT-April26-JrWilliams.mp3.
24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (ESV)
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (ESV)