The Canaanite Woman

Reading: Matthew 15.21-31

What would we think if we saw someone come into church, look at one of our seats, feel the legs, press the back hard, get on hands and knees and check up underneath… and then find a place to stand at the back throughout the service? We would begin to wonder what was wrong with that person! Most unnatural behaviour!

If someone did that to a log while we were out bush-walking, there might be some good reason. Is it rotten? Are there red-back spiders under it? Is a snake having its winter sleep there? You don’t just sit on “any log”!

But the first person is paralysed by an unnatural fear, and, even after the inspection, is still unable to exercise the simple faith of sitting down on the chair.

Some people have the idea that faith is a special religious idea. And yes, we do talk about it a lot in our relation to God. But we need to understand that faith is a normal and natural part of everyday life. In fact, I doubt that we can live at all without having faith somewhere along the line.

That doesn’t mean that faith is blind. Some people used to talk about faith as a “leap into the dark”. Now, that could be both scary and stupid! Faith does have information, evidence and experience. We don’t have to “prove” everything all the time. And we could never get on with living if we had to! Faith is our trust in something or someone. We have a reason to trust — or at the very least we don’t have a reason not to trust.

Sometimes there are real barriers to our faith. When Jesus called Peter to come to him on the water – that was something very out-of-the-ordinary. It is not just that Peter hadn’t walked on water before. It is that, quite frankly, we aren’t really designed for walking on water! But, to come to Jesus, Peter had to exercise the ordinary sort of faith in this out-of-the-ordinary way. He was acting on his information, evidence and experience about Jesus. Probably he had also had plenty of evidence about what happens to a fisherman who falls overboard! So when Jesus said, “Come!”, it wasn’t a matter of trusting his own native ability to walk on water – if you try it, you’ll get wet! No, he was acting on his information, evidence and experience about Jesus. Jesus had called and he was trusting him. But then his attention was drawn away from Jesus to the wind and the waves. Fear gripped him, and, instead of continuing to trust Jesus, he knew he had no ability to walk on water and began to sink. Peter’s fear was a barrier to faith.

But there can be other barriers to faith. Sometimes the pressure of peers, of public opinion or of long-established tradition can make it more difficult to exercise faith. Today’s Bible reading is about someone who had faith in Jesus but had barriers to overcome in order to exercise it.

The Canaanite Woman

Jesus spent more of his life in the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth than going about preaching, teaching and healing. The time of his ministry from baptism to crucifixion was only about three-and-a-half years. He couldn’t be everywhere at once. He couldn’t see everyone. He couldn’t talk to everyone. He couldn’t do everything. He had left heaven and accepted limitations.

And he had a mission to fulfil and that, in itself, meant limitations. At the end of the story of Zacchaeus, we hear him saying, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk. 19.10). When James and John had made their request for special seats next to Jesus in his glorious Kingdom, we hear him saying, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45). The time came when Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Lk. 9.51). The Gospels give a great deal of space to the events that happened there – about a third of the Gospel records (29 out of 89 chapters in all) are devoted to Jesus’ last week, his death and resurrection.

The redemptive work of Jesus was, of course, for all people of every time and place. But his earthly ministry had to be limited. It had to be concentrated on the people who were supposed to be waiting for him – the people of promise, the descendants of Abraham, through whom God’s blessing would reach people of all nations (Gen. 12.1-3).

After the walking-on-water bit, they landed the boat at Gennesaret where Jesus healed some sick people, answered some critics from Jerusalem and taught the crowd. “Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Mt. 15.21). This would be special “time apart”, away from the crowds and away from the immediate demands of his mission. This is where “a Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him” with her urgent request, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

This woman, not brought up on the Bible, evidently had some knowledge of God’s promises to Israel and must have heard some report about Jesus. She calls him “Son of David”. This was not a usual term for a Jew – “son of Abraham” perhaps, but not “son of David”. John tells us about a woman of Samaria who came to recognise Jesus as the Messiah (Jn 4.29). Has this Canaanite woman come to the same conviction?

She has come with an urgent plea for help. This man heals the sick and casts out demons. He can bring release and healing to my daughter.

“Jesus did not answer a word” (v. 23a). Why? It seems in contrast with what we know about the compassion of Jesus.

The disciples misread the silence of Jesus, assuming he was annoyed by the disturbance and irritated by her insistent pleas. Well, they certainly were insistent, but Jesus wasn’t annoyed and irritated!

He was facing the immediate limitation of his mission. True, his coming was for all people everywhere. God’s love was for the whole world. But this three-and-a-half years had to be very focused and specific. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (v. 24). This was Jesus’ answer to the disciples. It was not a question of annoyance that she was following them and making a lot of noise.

The woman becomes even more insistent – she falls at the feet of Jesus. “Lord, help me!” (v. 25)

Jesus answers her,It is not right to take the children’ bread and toss it to their dogs” (v. 26). He was reminding her of a familiar saying, gently, almost playfully. The word he used referred to the family pet (the puppy). She knew that, in the eyes of a Jew, she was considered to be as unclean as the scavenger dogs that fed on the filth and refuse of the streets.

She accepts the reference and recognises the kindness implied in his words. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). She isn’t arguing that her claims are as good as anyone else’s. She isn’t entering into the question of whether a Jew is better than a Gentile, or a Gentile as good as a Jew. She doesn’t question the purpose of God in which he chose the Jewish nation as his special people through whom he would reveal himself to the whole world. All that she knows is that her daughter is in a terrible condition and that she needs supernatural help.

Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). Even the puppies are part of the family. Though the Messiah must for the present concentrate on food for the “children”, surely there must be some scraps left over for a Gentile “dog”.

Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (v. 28).

The Nature of her Faith

What was it about this Canaanite woman that led to this great commendation? What were the elements of her faith?

• She recognised her need – on behalf of her daughter. There was nothing further she could do. She had come to the end of her own resources. Her only hope was supernatural intervention. This awareness of need was the starting point of her great faith.

• She acknowledged that only Jesus could help her. By what course of rumour or report we are not told. We affirm that the Holy Spirit brought that conviction – but not in a vacuum.

• She put her faith in Jesus. Some people have faith in faith and that is about as far as they go. They will say, “I have great faith!” or “I have great faith in prayer!” Do you have great faith in faith or in prayer? Or is your faith directed to Jesus and to his powerful Father who answers prayer?

• Her faith was expressed and deepened by her persistent asking. In exercising her faith, there were barriers to overcome. There was the barrier between Jew and Gentile – still evident in the disciples. There were also the limitations of the earthly ministry of Jesus – “to the lost sheep of Israel.” There was the challenge to this heathen woman to trust in the true God. Here was no Gentile “dog”, but “a woman of great faith”!

We would like to think that all we have to do is “ask”. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it clear that it would not always be so. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt. 7.7-8). Sometimes our asking needs to lead to seeking and to persistent knocking.

We too can become people of faith. Too often we have little awareness of our desperate need. People who feel self-satisfied and self-sufficient have little chance of becoming people of faith. Jesus said that the Kingdom would belong to the spiritually poor (Mt. 5.3).

Feed our minds on the story of Jesus. Read the biographies of great Christians. Consider the facts that Jesus is trustworthy, that he alone can help us, that he alone is the answer to the world’s need. The Holy Spirit is at work in us to bring about this conviction about Jesus.

Come to Jesus. Remember that our faith is to be directed to him. Invite him to be part of our life – to be our Saviour and our Lord. Bring our needs to him with confidence. He is listening. He no longer has the limitations of his earthly ministry.

Persist in asking. Often our faith and our motives are deepened and strengthened as we keep on asking. Sometimes the way we ask changes to express more of his will. At other times we are made more ready to receive.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Kennedy, 12 August 2005
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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