There are passages of Scripture where we find ourselves uncomfortable. It could be a scene that describes something we find difficult to understand. Stories, as well, where we are left wondering if God’s holy love could be seen. There are also moments in Scripture we find uncomfortable because we wish Jesus had not said what we did.
We find ourselves, this morning, looking at one of those uncomfortable passages. Not because the story’s outcome is uncomfortable. Indeed, it is a wonderful and powerful moment where Jesus heals a Canaanite woman’s daughter who was demon possessed. What we find uncomfortable is how Jesus interacts with this woman. He ignores her. At first, he seems to dismiss her concern. He even goes so far as to call her a dog.
It is difficult to read these words and reconcile it with the Jesus we know to be the author and giver of unconditional love and grace. Because of this we have spent centuries trying to analyze Jesus’ motives and interactions. Some have argued Jesus was only testing the woman to determine her level of faith. Some have said Jesus was simply following the customs of the day. Others have said he wasn’t dismissive of the woman’s concerns at all.
Without the context of facial expressions and body language, we are left to wonder why Jesus says what he does in this passage. But the purpose of the story isn’t found in trying to understand why Jesus says certain things. It is found in what Jesus does and the faith of the Canaanite woman.
At the center of this story from Matthew 15:21-28 is an interaction between a Canaanite woman and Jesus. Not just a Canaanite woman but a mother who was deeply concerned for her daughter’s well being. This woman approaches Jesus. She expresses a deep faith and admiration for Jesus. She pours her heart out to Jesus seeking his mercies to fall upon her daughter. Nothing would stop her from seeking help for her precious child.
Even with its uncomfortable elements, this is the story of a woman who is the image of someone who exhibits a persistent faith. A faith that never gives up seeking and believing in the Lord. A faith that is willing to overcome all obstacles and challenges. A faith that depends on the gracious and merciful hand of the Lord. A faith that, I believe, inspires us to continue to seek Christ in every aspect of our lives today.
We come to this story as Jesus and the disciples have arrived near Tyre and Sidon. It follows an interaction where Jesus is questioned by the religious leaders over the laws regarding food that is considered clean or unclean. He has come to this region, which is roughly 50 miles into a heavily populated Gentile area near the Sea of Galilee, to continue his ministry in the Galilean areas. Word quickly gets out that Jesus has arrived. A word that reaches this Canaanite woman who is desperate for Jesus to help her and her daughter.
The reference to this woman being a Canaanite is important. It could signify the people who inhabited the promised land and were enemies to Israel. Most likely, it is reference that suggests that this woman is an outsider. She is not from a Jewish background. Because of this, she is considered an outcast by the religious leaders and society at large. Even though this is how the community sees her, this woman does not let the ideas of others to prevent her from seeking the Lord. Cultural differences were not going to stand in her way from seeking help for her daughter.
So, she approaches Jesus and cries out with words that signifies her respect and faith in Jesus. The woman uses two phrases that describes her heart towards Jesus. The first is “Lord,” which signifies that this woman has a sense of faith and trust in Jesus. She recognizes there is deep power and authority in him. As well, she uses the phrase “Son of David.” An “outsider,” someone not accepted by the larger community, uses in this moment an “insider” term that connects to Jesus’ messianic role as the one who would be an heir to David’s kingdom. Because of the woman’s cultural background, she faced obstacles in approaching Jesus. Yet, she persists and reaches out to Jesus trusting he would bestow mercy upon her daughter, even though he does not immediately answer.
The disciples, however, wished she would go away. They wanted her to stop. They approach Jesus and try to get him to tell the woman to leave, because she keeps crying out to them. It appears the disciples find her demands to be an obstacle to Jesus’ ministry. This is not the only time we see the disciples try to keep someone considered an outsider from Jesus. Later in Matthew’s gospel we see the disciples try to keep children, who were also considered as outsiders, from the Lord’s presence.
How does the woman respond? Even though the disciples are trying to keep her from Jesus this woman, this mother, does not stop reaching out to Jesus. We can imagine that even as the disciples are telling her to leave that she continues to cry out to the Lord for help. She does not let the disciples’ focus on cultural norms deter her from seeking the Lord’s mercies and grace. She is singularly focused on her mission of hope for her child.
So, too, is Jesus singularly focused on his mission to care for the lost sheep of Israel. This is how he responds to the disciples’ request to send this woman away. He tells them he was not sent to anyone but Israel, perhaps showing his understanding of the kingdom or perhaps even giving a clue to his welcoming of all people into the kingdom, into the household of God, to consider people as part of Israel, based on their faith. This woman likely heard Jesus saying these words, and could have given up. She could have easily thought that there is no way Jesus would help her now. Yet, she does not stop. She persists in seeking Jesus’ mercy for her daughter in crying out for the Lord’s help trusting that God would not see her as an outsider.
This leads to Jesus’ words we find uncomfortable. He responds with a rhetorical statement that asks if what belongs to the children should be given to the dogs. In other words, is it right to take from the people of Israel and give it to the Gentiles. Now, Jesus says these words after challenging the religious leaders own understanding of what was in and what was out, so we must believe Jesus knew what he was saying with these words. Regardless, it is the word, “dog,” that we find most challenging. A word that is used to describe this woman and those the religious leaders would claim should not receive help.
Once again, this woman, this mother, does not allow the designation of others to stop her from seeking the Lord. She continues to seek after the Lord and does so say by claiming the moniker of “dog” for herself. This woman shows humility by taking on this low stature and saying, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What she says is that those who are considered as outsiders, the Gentiles, would humbly take what little was left over from God’s grace. Her faith was such that she knew that anything that came from God, even the smallest bit of grace, was worth more than anything she could ever imagine. She is willing to accept the smallest crumbs of grace that Jesus would be willing to offer her. The woman never gives up.
Her persistent faith moves Jesus. It moves him to express compassion and love for her to where he responds to her by saying she was someone of great faith. This woman, this mother, this outsider, is the picture of faith because she never gave up seeking the Lord. She prayed without ceasing, trusting God would hear her prayers, and provide healing for her daughter in whatever ways possible. Her faith moved the Lord and his compassion of mercy rained down upon her daughter who was healed from a distance, much like the Centurion’s servant was healed by Jesus in Chapter 8. Jesus’ grace, the compassion of the Lord, moved in a mighty way and brought healing to the one who needed it, and hope to the one who never gave up.
This Canaanite woman is a testimony to a strong faith. She never stopped trusting in Jesus. She never allowed obstacles to prevent her from believing Jesus would do something big for her daughter. She never allowed the challenges to prevent her from believing that God would do an amazing work of mercy. Even though there were opportunities to walk away she chose time and time again to maintain her faithful witness of prayerfully seeking Jesus’ heart for her daughter, trusting he would heal her. She is the story and witness of persistent faith.
It is a story and witness we all need. So often, we are tempted with the desire to give up seeking the Lord. When the challenges are too difficult, when the obstacles become too real, or when we wonder if God hears our prayer, we are faced with the temptation to give up and walk away. Yet, faith is the trusting and believing that God is at work in every situation, even when we cannot see him at work. Faith is about believing in God no matter the challenge and no matter the obstacle. Faith is the hope that Jesus is at work and believing his grace can be realized in all situations.
When we want to give up and walk away, the story of the Canaanite woman calls us to never give up. To have a faith that perseveres through every obstacle. To have a faith that never stops seeking God in all things, whether in our personal lives, whether in our careers, or whether in the life of the church.