Please read Psalm 123 and Matthew 15: 21-28 and then pray; Lord, open my eyes so that I might see wonderful things in your Word. Amen.

The story which we will be concentrating on today is the story of the faith of the Canaanite woman. This story is included in two gospels (Matthew 15: 21-28, Mark 7:24-30) principally because it is a story of outstanding faith from which important lessons can be learned. At the climax of the story, Jesus tells this woman; Woman, you have great faith! (28)

This great faith is what inspires Mark and Matthew to include this incident in their gospels. They like to include things which impressed Jesus and moved him to act. There is only one other occasion in the gospels when Jesus speaks about an individual possessing “great faith,” and that is a story which involves another Gentile coming to Jesus out of sheer desperation and expressing remarkable faith in Jesus’ authority over sickness. It concerns a Roman centurion who approaches Jesus on behalf of his servant who is paralysed and suffering terribly. (Read Matthew 8: 5-13) This centurion is driven to come to Jesus out of desperation, and desperation is what he had in common with the Canaanite woman whose precious daughter was “suffering terribly from demon possession.” The relentless suffering of her child moves her to come to Jesus. Both stories involve Gentiles, who approach Jesus on behalf on another person who is suffering terribly; and both individuals, in different ways, express great faith, faith which Jesus feels compelled to highlight and bless. Whatever Jesus highlights and strongly commends needs to be in the gospels for our learning and discipleship!

The one huge difference between these two stories of great faith – is where they took place. The centurion had come to Jesus whilst the Lord was ministering healing in Capernaum in Galilee. Our story today is situated much further away in the “region of Tyre and Sidon.” (21) This is the only time in the gospels we are told that Jesus crosses the border of Israel and enters a pagan nation. In Israel, Jesus sometimes visited Gentile areas, but here Jesus and his disciples enter another land altogether. They are now foreigners. From Mark’s retelling of this story, we understand that Jesus decides to do this for the purpose of retreat and rest. He wanted his presence to be kept quiet.

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. (Mark 7:24)

Strange men in a strange land and town would be noticed. Many in Tyre may well have experienced the power of Jesus’s healing ministry because people from all regions travelled with their sick for healing to the places where Jesus had taught and ministered. (Luke 6: 17-19) Jesus was famous and when the famous arrive in town, it is hard to hide that fact. A desperate woman hears of his arrival and is determined to plead for mercy for her suffering child. No parent wants their child to be endangered and oppressed by any kind of evil. Her girl was being plagued by a harmful demonic spirit.

This was an overtly paganistic land (Syrian-Phoenicia) which was full of idolatry, including occultic practices. It was an “unclean” land as far as the Jews were concerned. No child or adult should be engaging with the occult or any type of witchcraft. Those who do unwisely step into a world of evil and open themselves up to the influence, manipulation, and crippling power of evil spirits. Jesus is the One person however – the only One who has total authority and power over this type of evil. This desperate mother will do anything to find help and healing for her child. She is absolutely determined to ask Jesus for help and mercy – and the Lord is now in her town, perhaps staying in a house near to where she lives. She must find him at all costs!

What we now need to note are both her words and her behaviour because of what they teach us about her great faith. Her anguish and heartache are revealed by the way she “cries out” to the Lord once she has found him. (22)  We know that she also “fell upon her knees” before Jesus pleading for mercy. (Mark 7:25)

But notice how she addresses Jesus. She cries out;

Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.

She is quick to reveal that she believes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who has come into the world. To her, Jesus is the Son of David! She shows profound reverence and humility addressing Jesus as “Lord” three times. (22,25,27) She possesses a passionate belief that Jesus is the Messiah who has power and authority to heal. That is why she is there in his presence. And she knows and believes that Messiah exudes mercy and compassion. She comes desperately seeking that mercy for her needy child.

Now what will happen?

Jesus did not say a word. (23)

Isn’t that astonishing? There is no reaction from Jesus to this woman’s desperate plea for mercy. He did not say a word – and yet a word was all that was needed to bring healing. Remember the story of the centurion. “But just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Why the silent treatment? That is a question that cannot really be answered – but we do know that there are times when we feel that God is not responding to our own desperate cries and pleas. God is silent or seems to be silent. God does hear our prayers. Jesus heard this woman, but there was no immediate response – and we are left to grapple with our “why” questions. Why won’t the Lord respond now?

A response to the woman’s sincere and desperate pleading comes from the disciples. Their reaction is that Jesus should send her away because she is clearly not going to calm down, rather like the blind beggar Bartimaeus who would maintain his “crying out to Jesus” despite others telling him to be quiet. (Mark 10:46-49). She “keeps” crying out to us, the disciples complain. (23b) This is not going to stop. She is exactly like the widow who kept on demanding justice from the uncaring judge in Jesus’ parable. (Luke 18: 1-7) She is not going to take no for an answer. Jesus should send her away now and let peace be restored inside the house. But Jesus does not send her away. Those who are drawn to him, he will never send away. (John 6:37).

He responds to the disciples by stressing the primary focus of his ministry. I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. (24 and 10:6). Did the woman also hear these words from Jesus? Almost certainly. Jesus’s mission was to Israel and its people – his own people. (John 1:11) Later there would indeed be a mighty and sweeping mission to the entire Gentile world (Mathew 28:16-20), but for now his ministry would be to the land of Israel and the lost within it. He had only come to Tyre and Sidon for rest, for time away from this primary mission to the Jews. But guess what? The woman is back again. She has heard Jesus, but is not giving up. She will press him once again.

The woman came and knelt (worshipped) before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

Lord, I need your help. I am begging you for your help and mercy. Surely, Jesus will respond this time. But his response is shocking, isn’t it?

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (Matthew 15:26)

“First let the children eat all they want”, he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

Jesus is now using an analogy to repeat what he has already stressed about where he is called to fulfil his earthly mission. He is here to feed “the children of Israel.” The “little dogs,” who are “their” household pets do not get the children’s food. The children’s food is for them alone to eat. Jesus is here to feed the lost and needy children of Israel. The Gentiles time will come later. First things first.

This is not Jesus insulting the woman by referring to her as a dog. It was common at that time for Jews to refers to Gentiles as dogs – those “unclean” horrible scavenging dogs who fed on rubbish heaps and ate carrion and even corpses. “Dogs” was a horrible term of abuse. Here Jesus is using a domestic analogy to illustrate the fundamental primacy of his mission to his own people – Israel.

The Canaanite woman understands and accepts this, but comes back one more time because her present need is so great. She does not want the children’s food – she knows what Jesus must prioritise now – Israel – but at a meal table there are always some crumbs (perhaps tiny) which fall to the ground, especially when children are eating. Can she at least be allowed to have the crumbs? There must be crumbs – please, I beg you, let me have crumbs of your mercy and healing power. That will be enough to heal my child. That would be enough for her, just as a slight touch of the edge of his garment would be enough for others to know His healing power. (9:21)

She believes that there will be sufficient from the crumbs of the ministry of Jesus to bring healing and deliverance to her daughter. She believes the Son of David is that powerful and that merciful. Jesus loves her persistence and her intuitive “faith” response, a response which latches onto God’s ultimate world-wide missionary embrace; He recognises that she possesses great (mega) faith in Him, His mercy, and His power. Take the crumbs – your daughter is now healed. The demon that troubled and bound her daughter has gone and she can now go and live in peace.

This amazing mega faith which was seen in this woman was characterised by;

  • Humility and reverence toward the One she addressed as LORD.
  • Belief that Jesus was the Son of David – the Christ, the Messiah.
  • Belief in the mercy of God coming through Jesus’s power to heal.
  • If necessary, determination and perseverance to keep asking, seeking, knocking, begging for mercy.

She was like the patriarch Jacob, who determined not to let go of the Lord until he has been blessed. (Genesis 32:26). Some refer to her faith as desperate faith. I prefer to refer to it as the determined and resolute faith of one who was facing a desperate situation. Her attitude, displayed in her faith, is perfectly expressed in the words of the Psalmist, and this is the model we must copy in our lives when deeply troubled and distressed;

I lift my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God TILL he shows us HIS MERCY. (Psalm 123: 1-2) Those 2 verses must be underlined in our bibles!

We only stop looking to heaven and petitioning the Lord our God after the mercy has been poured out. Even then, we continue to look to heaven giving thanks and praise for the mercy we have received. This is what Jesus saw in the life of this remarkable woman from a pagan land. The greatest faith can sometimes come from the most unlikely places. The faith which Jesus did not often find in his own people, he found in the life of a Gentile underdog. And in the years to come, as the gospel was taken out to all nations (Jew first, then Gentile Romans 1:16), more and more people embraced Jesus with her kind of humble, daring and determined faith.

The attitude needed to come into Christ’s great kingdom and personally know his salvation is wonderfully summed up with words from the story of the Canaanite woman which have been formed into a well-known prayer – the prayer of humble accession – the prayer of those who gratefully and humbly receive mercy from the table of the Lord Jesus. It is a prayer which magnifies God’s mercy and our unworthiness of his grace. It is a prayer which opens the door to a heavenly banquet.

We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy.   Amen.

Revd Peter J Clarkson (20.8.23)