I have to say this text has grown on me throughout the week. At first glance I said to myself, “Okay. This text is about Jesus taking the Gospel to the Gentiles and showing that all people (not just the Jews) are to be included in the New Testament church, even the unbelieving Gentiles whom the Jews despised. So, as far as application, I thought, “Immanuel is to be for all people, even for those whom our sinful nature may be prone to despise.” Because salvation is by grace. The Jews didn’t deserve Jesus any more than the Gentiles. And if you happened to grow up in a believing family like I did, neither do we deserve Jesus any more than the person who has spent their entire life up until now as an unbeliever.
Of course, all of that is true. And it is a key element in this text. But there is so much more to this text than meets the eye. This woman is downright fascinating to me. There are so many things about her that humble me as a life-long Christian, and yes, even as a pastor.
Then I look at the faith of some of our newer members, and I say to myself, “You know, some of them have some pretty serious problems. Their problems are immediate. Their problems are acute. And in some cases, the issue at hand is so complex that I get overwhelmed just thinking about it. I don’t know what the answer is! I don’t know how God is going to resolve things for this person. And yet, the person expresses a trust in God that says, “I don’t know either, but I know that he will.” And I leave humbled and think, “What if I were in that situation? How well would I carry that burden?”
I kept thinking of the word “burden” as I studied this text. There is no physical burden laid on the woman, but rather an emotional burden of the worst kind. Her daughter is in torment by a demon. For the moment, however, let’s just set the demon aside and focus on a mother watching her child suffer, and the child cries out to her, “Mommy I don’t like this. Mommy help me. Mommy, it hurts!” Many mothers have had to, unfortunately, go through that type of experience. And any mother who has had to witness the suffering of her own child—what happens is that they embody that suffering. In a real, physical way, they suffer too. It is a burden that seems almost unbearable because you wish you could just take the child’s place. You would give anything to suffer in the place of your child so that their pain would go away.
And this lady is a mother first and foremost. She is many things besides that. She is a foreigner. She is Syrophoenician as regards her nationality, and culturally she is a Canaanite. And you know how idolatrous and grossly immoral the Canaanites were throughout the Old Testament. Jesus and the disciples knew this too. She also was familiar with the tension that existed for 1,500 years between the Jews and the Canaanites. She knows that the Jewish religion excludes her people, that the Jews believe in only one God, and that to worship Baal and Ashtaroth is an abomination to God. She knows that Jesus and the disciples are Jews. She knows that they are religious Jesus, and therefore, they probably despised her and wouldn’t want anything to do with her.
Except she is desperate. And when it comes to a desperate mother there is no amount of propriety that is going to hinder her from seeking help. She doesn’t care about herself. She only cares about her child. She forgets herself. And so, this mother, upon hearing that Jesus is in the area, immediately goes out to see him.
And she is quite insistent with him too. Everything Jesus does in this text until v. 27 seems downright harsh to us. But that does nothing to dissuade this woman.
Now, it’s true that her daughter (her younger or “little” daughter as the Greek relates) is grievously afflicted by a demon. But there is more to her insistence than just her daughter’s suffering. It’s that she really believes Jesus has the power to heal her daughter. And she believes that if she can just make him aware of the situation, that he will.
Now, how do we come to that conclusion? We want to make sure that we don’t jump to conclusions when we read the Bible. You can’t just insert your own thoughts into the text. But we don’t need to in this case. For the text itself tells us that the Canaanite woman—again, from an unbelieving people who were not given the law of Moses nor the word of the prophets—a people group to whom God the Father didn’t even send Jesus to preach to—she is convinced that Jesus is the Promised Messiah. How do we know?
She addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David” (v. 22). “Son of David” was an overt Messianic title. Moreover, it was a title that would have only made sense to the Jews, or to someone who was acquainted with the Jewish faith.
God had explicitly told King David a thousand years before Jesus: “One of your descendants will be the Messiah. He will be the King of all Kings. and his throne (that is, his reign) will never end” (2 Samuel 7:16). And during that thousand-year period between David and Jesus, the prophets had referred to the coming Messiah with this title. He would be a man in that he would be a direct descendant of King David. And yet, he would be God himself. “He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
That is why Matthew, in the first chapter of his Gospel, includes a detailed genealogy of Jesus. Matthew is writing to Jewish readers. The Jews understood that the Messiah would come from the Jews. And so, Matthew shows that Jesus was born of Joseph and Mary, who themselves were direct descendants of King David.
And this woman was not even a Jew! What in the world did Jesus have to do with her? Everything! For while it was true that Jesus was sent first to the Jews, it was and still is true that Jesus has never been reserved exclusively for the Jews. And this is something that the disciples needed to understand. They were going to have to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. You and I are still taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It’s just that they world has gotten a lot smaller over the past thirty years. It’s come all the way to Waukegan. Yes, the disciples would first take the message to their fellow countrymen. That was the grace God had given the Jews. Everything was to go to them first. The promises were given to them first. The commandments were given to them first. The adoption of sonship was given to them first. The Savior was given to them first. And the idea was that having been given to them, the Gospel would then go through them to the ends of the earth.
But by and large the Jews rejected God’s gifts like spoiled kids. “We don’t want this food! This food is gross!” Do you know who will take the scraps? The desperate of the world. If you are truly hungry and desperate, you don’t care whether they are leftovers or not. You are just thankful. Dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
It is important to note that these are not stray, mangy, street dogs. They are beloved pets. Which means they are dear to their Master. We know this because the word Jesus uses for dogs is the word used for household pets. He talks about “little” dogs, the kind you would keep in your house and that had to be fed. But what Jesus is saying to the disciples here, within earshot of the woman, is that it is not right, not proper—you don’t take the food that is for the children and give it to the dog first. You don’t cook your meal, set the table, dish the food onto the children’s plate, and then before they can eat it, you give it to the dogs and then you give it to the children. No! That is not proper. That is all wrong.
And yet, there is still food for the dogs. That is the genius of this lady’s faith. She has a lot of chutzpah for not being a Jew. She tells Jesus—a man, a distinguished teacher, a known miracle worker (for that is why she sought him out. She had heard about his miracles, and she was convinced he could do miracles), and Jesus just seemingly blows her off. He ignores her. The disciples grow tired of her. They say, “just give her what she wants, Lord, and send her away.” Like a whiny kid. “Just give him what he wants so he will be quiet!” Jesus then speaks a rather rude comment to the lady, at least on the surface level it seems rude, and this woman—she is just a fascinating woman—responds, “Yeah, but…” “Yes Jesus. All that you say is true, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). “You, Jesus, are even for me!”
Now, that is great faith! Which is exactly what Jesus tells her. He is amazed at the conviction this woman has that “You, Jesus, are going to help me!” Says the commentator Wenzel (and I have to quote this because it is so good), “The woman had fought with God and had come forth victorious. Her faith had conquered God” (p. 353).
Jesus had given her all the reasons why he shouldn’t help her. She didn’t deserve it. There was no entitlement that she was privy to. She had never gone to temple to offer a sacrifice for her sin. And yet, the woman’s faith conquered all these objections. Like Jacob at Bethel she had wrestled with God and won. “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (Genesis 32:26).
What an amazing faith! You must be convinced that someone is able to do what you are asking them, and that they will do what you are asking them, to be so persistent. Did you know that there are only two occasions that the Bible records for us where Jesus praises the faith of someone—and they were both Gentiles! He never said that to his disciples. No, he said to them, “Are you so dull? Do you still not understand? Oh, you of little faith!” But to this Canaanite woman (v. 28), “Jesus answered, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”
Let me close with this.
What was it that drove her to such a tenaciously, clinging faith? It is that she was desperate, not entitled. She was a beggar before God.
And so, “Nothing in my hand I bring, Safely to the cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress, Helpless, look to the for grace. Foul I to the fountain fly—Wash me Savior or I die” (Rock of Ages, CW 389).