Read Matthew 15:21-28
So let’s take a look at the woman at the center of today’s passage from Matthew. This woman’s story is recorded twice in the gospels; here in Matthew, but also in Mark’s gospel, where she is described as the Syro-Phoenecian woman. In both cases, the intent is to make very clear that this woman is an outsider. She is not a Jew. Mark’s description of the woman as Syro-Phoenician is geographical, placing here in a region beyond the bounds of Jewish territory; an area that we would refer to as Gentile territory. Matthew takes the distinction a bit further by describing her as a Canaanite. In doing this, Matthew is not just placing her outside Jewish territory, but actually setting her against the Jews, as the Canaanites were the people the Jews displaced in order to move into the Promised Land centuries before. Clearly, this woman is not a person Jews would associate with under normal circumstances.
The next thing we learn about this woman is that she has a daughter who is suffering from demon possession. I believe it is safe to assume that like the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, this woman was also desperate for healing. Many of you know the pain of watching your child suffer, even when it’s just from a little stomach virus. You’d do anything to make the aches and pains stop. Parents of children suffering from cancer often say they wish they had gotten cancer instead of their children. We do anything and everything we can when our children are sick to make them comfortable and to help them get better as quickly as possible. And that’s exactly what this Canaanite woman is doing. She has heard about a Jewish healer named Jesus, and she wants to see if maybe he can heal her daughter of this agonizing affliction.
And it just so happens that Jesus is in the region. As Jesus makes his way through Tyre and Sidon, the Canaanite woman sees the perfect opportunity, and she knows she must seize it. She sees Jesus walking by, and so she does what any of us would do when we have a sick child and a renowned healer is in the neighborhood, she cries out to him. What follows is a four-fold rejection. First, Jesus ignores the woman. Undeterred it seems, the woman continued to cry out, for the next rejection was dealt by the disciples. Obviously annoyed by the woman’s noisy nagging, they appeal to Jesus to at least send her away, which prompts the third rejection. This time, Jesus responds neither to the persistent cries of the Canaanite woman, nor to the pleas of the disciples. Instead, he makes a rather general statement indicating that he has no intention of getting involved with this outsider woman and her daughter. “I have been sent only to the lost sheep, the children of Israel.”
But Jesus, it seems, has underestimated this woman. She stops crying out now and instead employs a new tactic; she throws herself at Jesus’ feet. “Lord,” she says, “help me.” She wants her daughter to be healed, and she knows that this man can do it. She has tried every other possibility, and with nothing but failure to show for it, she needs Jesus to help her. But again, she is rejected. This time, I imagine, Jesus must have looked at her with some measure of compassion and understanding as he said to her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Now, before we go on here, I think we need to take a moment to understand why Jesus was rejecting this woman just as persistently as she was pleading with him. Though his words are harsh and seem to indicate that Jesus came only to save the Jewish people, that was not the case. Already in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has raised the daughter of a Roman centurion. Nevertheless, Jesus understood very clearly from his Father that his mission began with the lost of Israel; his task wasn’t simply to be a traveling doctor, healing every sick person he met. So Jesus was going along with his disciples, traveling from one region to another, trying very intently to reach the lost people of Israel and restore them to right relationship with God.
Think of it like this: If you are taking your child to school, the goal is to get your child to school, and that’s what you do first. Unless you have planned in plenty of extra time, you typically don’t go grocery shopping, stop for a walk in the park, or bowl a few frames at the bowling alley. You and your child get in the car, and you drive your child to school where you drop them off before, perhaps, dealing with some of the other tasks for the day like a trip to the store. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to do what needs to be done, but that you have one mission to accomplish before you can tackle the next.
It just so happens that as Jesus is traveling through Tyre and Sidon, he is singularly focused on the people of Israel and helping them become a light to the nations as was always the intention. And so Jesus does not want to take time now to deal with this non-Jewish woman who has thrown herself into his path. It would seem that he has even gotten annoyed with her as he, in his final rejection, refers to her as a dog, which was one way Jews commonly referred to Canaanites. But this woman is desperate, and she is crafty in her desperateness, as she takes Jesus’ words and turns them right around on him. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s tables.”
I’m not sure I can adequately describe to you what this woman has done in this one simple sentence. It is truly masterful, and not only because she has boldly used Jesus’ own words against him in support of her cause. The woman accepts her identity as a lowly “dog,” an “outsider” in Jewish thought. And yet, at the same time, she has placed herself within the reign of God’s kingdom. She recognizes Jesus as the Master, and she places herself as the dog scrounging crumbs under that Master’s table; lowly, and yet still within the Master’s presence. Even more than that, without being taught, she takes the approach of a mustard seed-sized faith as she says to Jesus, in essence, “I don’t require much, only enough that my daughter be well, and from you, even the leftovers, the crumbs can take care of that.”
Is it really any wonder that Jesus finally relents? Here Jesus has been going around preaching, teaching, and healing among the Israelites, and still God’s people don’t understand. Even his own disciples have had difficulty wrapping their heads around what it means that the Messiah is in their midst. They continue to question, they continue to doubt, they continue to falter in faith; but not this woman. She has probably never heard from Jesus himself, and yet she has heard enough about him to understand. Here is the great physician, the savior of all peoples, the Messiah. She is in his presence, and she knows that he has the power to heal her daughter. So she says what any parent would say, “Help me.”
How many times have we prayed that prayer, and how many times have we felt rejected in the response or lack thereof? Here’s what we need to learn from this Canaanite woman with the very sick daughter. Again and again this woman violates boundaries; boundaries set up because of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession. This woman refuses to allow even Jesus to let “tradition” become a barrier, blocking her access to the grace of God that she knows is there. The Canaanite woman comes to Jesus with a crystal-clear, unshakable conviction that God’s mercy is enough for her daughter and for herself. That’s what drives her. And, in the face of uncertainty, doubt, and even rejection, it is such “great faith” that should drive us as well. How is your faith? Are you down?....Hopefully if you are….you are not counted as out.