Canaanite Woman 2




Matthew 15:21-28

(21) And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

(22) And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon."

(23) But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us."

(24) He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

(25) But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."

(26) And he answered, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

(27) She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

(28) Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.


Do you remember the last time you felt decidedly uncomfortable somewhere? Maybe it was the office party where your spouse works, or at your child's back-to-school night, or on a blind date, or the first day on a new job. Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we do not know the people around us or when we are not sure of our role, place, or responsibilities. We have all been there, feeling left out, alone, unwelcome. It is a lousy feeling. So lousy that we will go to great lengths to avoid it. No one wants to be an outsider.

In Matthew 15, we have the quintessential outsider story. Matthew probably got this incident of the Canaanite woman from Mark, but he has completely transformed it into a story of remarkable faith in an unexpected place.

Keep in mind, that in many ways Matthew's Gospel is the most "Jewish," of the four gospels. It is the most interested in demonstrating that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy, righteous according to the law, and Moses' successor.

Then we have the story of the Canaanite Woman. Imagine the scene. Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples that we think of as “the lost sheep of Israel.” Now they are leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts. Now they are on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Now they are like a gang of bouncers at the door, checking IDs, and keeping out the riffraff. On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion.

Matthew reverses the usual symbology that we associate with dogs and sheep in the Bible. Sheep are good and represent God’s people. Well not exactly, not in this passage. The lost sheep that is pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd is in fact called a female dog. The disciples think that they are the sheep, but they act like a pack of wolves. As I said, this is totally strange.

The whole story in Matthew is a reversal of what we expected. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus acts like a racist bigot. He says terrible things. He is arrogant and just plain mean.

If you look at commentaries and sermons, they all try to “clean up” this story. They say that Jesus was testing the woman to see if she had enough faith. Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” That verse has caused plenty of pain because some people have heard Jesus saying, “If you had more faith your husband or wife, your mother or father or child would not have died.” However, the woman in this story does not make any confession of faith.

Here is another option to soften Jesus’ words: the Greek word kunarios -- translated “dogs” -- really means “little dogs, puppies.” Therefore, when Jesus tells the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he really means puppies. Does that help? Probably not.

But Matthew does not clean up this story. Matthew dares to give us a very human Jesus and he paints a specific picture of this woman. She is a Canaanite (that is bad). She is a woman (Oh that is bad). But since we are told in v21 that Jesus has gone to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This in modern Lebonon. This is where ancient Canaanites lived. So this is a little like saying we went to Russia and found Russians living there. This is the woman’s home.

Matthew’s choice of the word “Canaanite” seems a bit strange. By the time of Jesus, people were no longer called “Canaanites.” This name was no longer on the map. It is a bit like calling New York New Amsterdam. However, Matthew chooses “Canaanite” on purpose. Canaanites are the traditional enemies of Israel. So, not only is she the “other,” but she is part of an enemy people.

Why would this woman approach Jesus? One suggestion is that she had nowhere else to turn. Perhaps she had heard reports about the healing miracles of Jesus. Her need was so great. Her concern for her daughter so deep, that she dared cross that rift between Jews and Canaanites. She was at the point where she had nothing to lose, and perhaps everything to gain.

She cries out to Jesus for help. The woman is not content to be ignored, because she is convinced that her daughter deserves a chance at living a normal life, and she is convinced that Jesus can give her that chance.

She is desperate and comes out shouting. Some scholars claim that the only women who spoke to men in public were prostitutes. Maybe Matthew wants us to remember Rahab the prostitute who is named in the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew. Rahab was also a Canaanite, but she live in southern Palestine, in the city of Jericho. What is a Canaanite prostitute doing in Jesus’ family tree? The disciples do not want to think about such questions, and they do not want to think about this Canaanite woman. “Send her away,” they tell Jesus. Earlier in this same gospel, they said the same thing. When faced with more than 5000 hungry people, they said to Jesus, “Send the crowds away.” “No,” replied Jesus, “Give them something to eat.” This Canaanite woman is not going anywhere. She may not be Jewish but she calls out to Jesus in language of the Jewish prayer: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” This is odd. A Canaanite pagan speaks like a good Jewish lady, but let that pass. Jesus is not swayed by familiar language. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he tells her.

She will not give up. “Lord, help me,” she begs. This is where Jesus goes to the dogs: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” However, the Canaanite woman is feisty and stubborn. The life of her daughter is at stake. She picks up his words and throws them right back at Jesus: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” When Jesus hears this, he says, “Woman, great is your faith!” Her faith was certainly great, but in a sense she simply spoke the truth: the children have been fed. As we just noticed, In Matthew 14:13-21, 5000 men, besides women and children, were fed with five loaves and two fishes, and they had 12 basketsful left over. Surely there is enough left for this woman and her daughter.

It is interesting to note that at the end of chapter 15, there is another feeding story. This time 4000 men are fed, besides women and children, and seven baskets are left over. Seven is the number of wholeness or completeness, indicating that there was enough left over to feed any number of people. Matthew has placed the story of the Canaanite woman between these two feeding miracles. Obviously he is making a point.

This is an intricately woven story of faith and love, which is full of contrasts. Matthew is trying to get our attention so he can teach us something. Initially Jesus does not sound like Jesus at all. He sides with the disciples who are saying, “Get rid of her.” He says to her, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24). But a question arises here. Was Jesus talking the woman when he said that or to the disciples? Who are these “lost sheep”? The disciples at the time thought Jesus meant Jews, but the woman is not deterred when Jesus does not reply to her. She persists in her pleas for help, addressing him again as "Lord." Still Jesus seems to add to the rejection. Now he speaks to her directly with a comment about the injustice of throwing to the "dogs" what belongs to the children (15:26). That is the comment we do not like. What is Jesus thinking?

But Matthew is setting the scene for an astounding reversal. The most important thing for us to hear is not what Jesus says, but what the woman says! The point of the story is her wondrously strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and, against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, she doggedly keeps on, keeping on. She persistently seeks the Lord's help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the master's table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God's Messiah.

Several times in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has chastised the "little faith" of these disciples, but here is the only place in the whole gospel that he speaks of a “Great Faith.” Jesus praises the "great faith" of this woman and commands that her plea be granted. No sooner are the words spoken than it is done. We are told that the woman's daughter is healed instantly . As if in response to this "great faith," in the verses that follow today's lesson, Jesus breaks out in healings that amaze the crowds and call forth the praises of God (15:29-31).

So we learn one thing from the Canaanite woman. She had an unwavering, persistent faith.

This reminds me of an old story I read somewhere. This minister had been all his life an upright, God-fearing man. He was well respected in his community. He was considered a sober, decent, good person. He lived a long life, and in the course of things, he died. He woke up in a great hall surrounded by all kinds of people, speaking different languages, dressed in different ways. Over to one side he saw some people he knew, some church people, so he went over to them and he asked them where he was and what was going on. They replied that this is the judgment hall and soon an angel will come through the door and tell each person whether they got into heaven. The minister thanks them for this information and continues to look around. Over in another corner he sees some people that he knows are not so decent. He sees some of the "sinners" he knew on earth: a corrupt politician, an itinerant woman who had been convicted of shoplifting numerous times, prostitutes and drug dealers and people who had been in prison, people who had done some ugly things in their lives. In particular, he recognizes one man who in his day was noted as “the most hated man in America.” He had divorced his wife when she was dying of cancer; he had bilked millions of people out of their life savings. He had murdered another wife in an effort to get control of her money. The whole country rejoiced when he was executed.

The minister glared at this man, and then he just cannot resist. He goes over to the man and he says, “What makes you think that you are going to get in?”

The man replies, “I just trust in the mercy and grace of God.”

There is a long pause. Then the man asks the minister, “What makes you think that you are going to get in?” We are all the Canaanite woman. That is what Matthew is trying to tell us. We are all outsiders. In the story that we have in Matthew 15, the disciples assumed that they were insiders, they were the inner circle, they were the ones in the know. But they did not know anything. They were just as much outsiders as the woman. They were outside the only group that mattered.

Do you remember being in High School, and you had all these little groups and cliques, and some of the groups you did not care about. You did not want to belong to them anyway. You called them the losers. Remember this. But some groups mattered a lot and you desperately wanted to belong to them. In fact, for many people, the most important thing in high school is to belong to the right group. Now the group varied according to the individual. For some people the group they just had to belong to was the “Jocks,” the athletes. They got their identity from playing sports. For another person the most important thing might be to belong to the “geeks”—the chess club, the beta club. To still another person the most important thing might be the 4H club. To still another it is important to belong to what my wife used to call the “pre-prison group” the nonachievers, the troublemakers. That also is an identity and a belonging, and in some schools, that is the biggest group. The point is we all want to belong somewhere. The thing we fear most is being an outsider, yet somehow we know that when it comes to spiritual things that is just what we are--outsiders.

Matthew is showing us how to belong to the only group that matters. The only group that matters is the family of God. This is not to say that everything else is bad and corrupt. Not so. There are many human groups that do good things, but I say again the only group that really matters is God's people. Matthew gives us the key that guarantees entry into this group. The key is faith, only faith. Nothing else. This is absolutely essential to understanding the gospel. If you do not get this, you do not get anything. Moreover, I have to say, most people do not get it, even today. Most people are like the disciples or like the minister in that little story I just told. They think that somehow they deserve to go to heaven. They don’t, we don’t. Nobody does. The only way in is the way of the Canaanite woman, unwavering faith.

So let me ask you the question the bad man asked the minister, “What makes you think that you are going to get in?”


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 05/02/13