A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on November 17, 2019.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:21–28).
Faith is a consistent theme in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples at times had “little faith” (Matt. 8:26), while the Roman Centurion had greater faith than any witnessed in Israel (Matt. 8:10). The zealous disciple Peter was confronted by our Lord for his lack of faith (Matt. 14:31), while Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, “O woman, great is your faith!” What are we to understand in these distinctions? What makes this woman’s faith great?
In considering this passage, the first thing we see is that she is desperately needy. She doesn’t care what the disciples think, and she will not be deterred. She will do anything to get to Jesus. Of course, this is the case for all who would come to Christ in faith. We do not come to him with our deeds, as if he has needs. We come to him desperately needy to receive salvation only he can give.
The second thing that we observe is that she comes to Jesus decidedly hopeful. She cries out specifically to the Son of David. In whatever knowledge she has of him, she has come to the Messiah of Israel. Her hope leads her to cry out her need to Jesus: “my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Her hope is so strong that she believes Jesus can heal her daughter.
Of course, this is the hope of every Christian: The belief that Jesus is who he is and that he will save us.
The example of the Canaanite woman is one of great faith. In her, we witness a humble need, a humble hope, and a humble faith, a testimony of faith before Jesus’ disciples then and now.
A Humble Need
Jesus “went away from” the Galilean region and withdrew. The implication is separation, likely from Jewish ministry and confrontations with the Pharisees. His choice of location is interesting, moving to the Northwest toward the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, the ancient enemies of Israel. Yet, this was the same region the Prophet Elijah had cared for the widow of Zarephath.
It appears, however, that Jesus has arrived not to provide food for a widow in the midst of a famine but to rest in solitude. Yet even in the quiet of the countryside, word of Jesus spread, apparently reaching the ears of a Canaanite woman. Historically, the Canaanites were the pagan enemies of Israel, so son of Israel would not commingle with a Canaanite, nor would a Canaanite seek out Israel’s Messiah.
But this Gentile woman knows more than expected, crying out to the “Son of David” for mercy, petitioning our Lord to heal her daughter. The woman’s daughter is not physically sick but spiritually oppressed. We do not know the details of the demonic oppression beyond Matthew’s carefully descriptive words, “severely oppressed.” We may assume that the need is urgent, perhaps a matter of life or death. We are told nothing more about the daughter but instead allowed to witness the desperation of her mother.
Note the humility of her need. She has come to Jesus in desperation. She is unashamed in her appeal. Though seemingly deterred she humbles herself before the Lord bringing her need to him. The perseverance of the Canaanite woman shames the petitions of most of us. She leaves her daughter to venture into the countryside to bring her humble need to our Lord and plead for his mercy, while we often carry our cares and concerns in the arrogance of our autonomy. She will not be deterred by the disciple’s intervention, while even the slightest obstacle or distraction may keep us from falling before the throne of grace.
Her persistence reminds me of the parable recorded in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke: Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily’” (Luke 18:2–8a). The example of the Canaanite woman as well as Jesus’ parable should lead us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6). Let this humble woman’s example lead us to our knees remembering, “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).
The humble need of the Canaanite woman is demonstrated in her persistent pleas, but they are not brought to our Lord in vain. There is substance to her petitions. Her hope is not in the pagan gods of her ancestors but in the Son of David, the King of Israel, Jesus Christ the Lord.
Jesus does not initially respond to the woman’s pleas, seemingly ignoring her cries for mercy. But the disciples can’t ignore her, pleading that Jesus show them mercy by sending the woman away. (We would say that she is “wearing them out.” Our Lord does not send her away but explains why he is ignoring her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Do these words surprise you? Is this different than your perception of Jesus? A bit too harsh? Too matter of fact, perhaps? Can we handle Jesus’ defining words of his earthly ministry? Or, would we rather be the one to define Jesus? Have you synthesized the Jesus of the Bible with your culture, your opinions, your needs? Who is your Jesus? Is he an SUV-driving capitalist waving an American flag? Who is your Jesus? Is he a social activist harboring illegal aliens? Who is your Jesus? Is he a wish list granter of wealth and prosperity? Who is your Jesus? Is he a rainbow flag-adorning lover of everyone regardless of sin? Or, is he the Son of God, Second Person of the Godhead, the Redeemer of God’s elect, Jesus Christ the Lord of Glory? In this defining moment with this needy woman he will not be perceived as anything other than who he truly is.
Let us remember that the Canaanite woman cried out not to Eshmun, the pagan god of healing, but to the Son of David. He was in the fullness of time sent by God the Father. He was born of a Jewish virgin in Bethlehem, the city of David. He was born under the law of the people of the law. It was not Ishmael God promised but Isaac. It was not Esau God loved but Jacob. It was not Egypt God redeemed but Israel. And to Israel he established his covenant. To Israel he gave his law. In Israel he established his presence. God’s covenant promises rested upon Israel exclusively.
So, Jesus says in the presence of this pleading, pagan woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” because only he could obey Israel’s law; only he could keep the covenant; only he could fulfill the promise. And in his atoning death, as the perfect sacrifice, and in his life-giving resurrection he redeemed the lost sheep of the house of Israel, as their Lord and King.
What then is the hope of this Canaanite woman? What is the hope of the Gentile today? Our hope is that the promise God made to Abraham be fulfilled. God promised Abraham, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). That great nation was ancient Israel, which God blessed with the law and the land, and within Israel he sent his only begotten son to redeem the lost sheep and in so doing save the world. In Israel, the Lord promised, “I will make you a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). And so, the perfect child of Israel, the Son of David, the Son of God, became that light to the nations.
Jesus declared, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). The Jewish Messiah is the hope of Israel, the hope of the Canaanite woman, the hope of the world. But there is no hope apart from faith.
Having revealed himself as the Jewish Messiah, what is this Canaanite woman to do? By God’s grace she persists in faith, revealed in this poignant response: You were sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” a humble faith indeed. Her response reminds me of Martin Luther’s last words, “We are beggars. This is true,” humble words of the great Reformer. But I might add: Oh, how glorious are the crumbs of grace! Oh, how beautiful are the table scraps of mercy!
Jesus taught his disciples, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3), yet it was not in the capital city of Israel that they witnessed this but in the district of Tyre and Sidon in a Canaanite woman pleading that her daughter be healed. And so, our Lord says to her, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Such is the grace of God in the humble faith of this woman, and such is the grace of God in our faith. By his grace we come to him needy yet hopeful, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.
For he who was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel has redeemed us as his own, uniting Jew and Gentile into one body through faith in Christ. We who, like that Canaanite woman, were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. . . have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13).
So, we come not to Christ with our birthrights, upbringings, pedigrees; we bring not our achievements, our deeds, our badges of merit. No, we come like dogs to the table, needy yet hopeful and find that the Master of the house is our heavenly Father. Oh, for those glorious crumbs of God’s grace for beggars like us, who have through faith become the children of God.