Matthew 15:21-28 The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting 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 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food 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, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This talk is recorded here – although I cut off a bit at the beginning by mistake – apologies!
How desperate are you?
Its been fascinating over the last month conducting the Who Cares? survey. As I am sure that you all know, we have been visiting as many households as possible in the parish, going from door to door.
It takes a bit of guts to do this, even if you are wearing a dog collar, and I have a lot of respect for those who did it without!
So I have been knocking at the door and saying ‘I am so sorry to disturb you we are conducting a one question anonymous survey to help with the work of the church would you be willing to take part?’
Almost everyone has been polite in response to the knock on the door even if they have said ‘no thank you!’ But in the reaction to the question on the card, “what hurts the most?’ or ‘what is the one thing in life you find most hard to handle?’ people seem to fall into two categories: those who look puzzled and cannot write an answer immediately and those who know the answer straight away….
Those who look puzzled sometimes ask if they can keep the card and respond later and some have…
Those who know what hurts the most immediately, are those who carry their suffering at the front of their minds, it never really leaves them.
Suffering breaks down the protective barriers with which we surround ourselves.
When we are faced with problems that we just cannot manage we will try anything to get a solution… even Jesus!
Perhaps this is what is going on in this story of the Canaanite woman.
What is the context?
Jesus has just had a major face off with the Pharisees. Earlier in Chapter 15 they have been arguing with him about religious rules of purity they have been complaining Chapter 15 vs 1-9 that Jesus’ disciples don’t follow the traditions of the ancestors by ritually washing before they eat.
But Jesus responded in verse 8 look at your hearts and quotes from the prophet Isaiah ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’.
After speaking to the crowd, verse 10, Jesus takes refuge from the Pharisees and all the criticism and abuse he is receiving from the religious Jews by going to the very north of the country, to the border land with Tyre and Sidon to the edges of Jewish society, to the border land of the gentiles.
Tyre and Sidon were two Phoenician ports north of Judea. The Phoenicians were probably the same people as the Canaanites and the two ports of Tyre and Sidon had been very powerful maritime powers in ancient antiquity with settlements all over the Mediterranean including Carthage in North Africa.
We know that the Jews tried to avoid spending any time with Gentiles. The Jews saw them as unclean; they saw the Gentiles as dogs…and not nice dogs at all: the dogs of the Ancient world which went around scavenging for rubbish.
So from a Jewish perspective, it was very very controversial for Jesus to spend any time in this region.
But what about the Gentiles, the people of Tyre and Sidon what did they think about the Jews? What would the Canaanite woman or, as Mark calls her, the Syro-Phoenician woman, have thought about Jews?
Well, we don’t know, but its possible, and I would guess likely, that the feeling of antipathy was mutual…
Particularly since in the Old Testament, which covers the previous 1500 years, the earliest references to Canaanites were to God instructing the Israelites to kick the Canaanites out of the Promised Land: the Canaanites who were so idolatrous, so evil in all their practices, that God required Israel to annihilate them without mercy, we see this in a passage in Deuteronomy 7.1 which we find difficult to understand, these days.
So I think that we can assume that this lady was not exactly drawn to the Jews.
But when your daughter is demonically possessed and there is nothing you can do to get rid of it, then you will try anything try anyone to get a solution….even Jesus
And Jesus does heal her daughter remotely, even though she is far away.
As Jesus grants her request, He says: ‘Woman, great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish’ and her daughter is healed.
So what is it about the woman’s faith? What is so great about her faith that Jesus is willing to act? And what can that tell us about how we should be if we want him to act in our lives?
Firstly, there is her boldness: she just shouts out for help; no social niceties she doesn’t ask the disciples to introduce her to him; she doesn’t think – this Jewish messiah wouldn’t be interested in me; she is determined to make herself known.
It can be a huge obstacle to some people they think – why would God want to help me? I’m not worthy of his attention: I’m a drunk or an adulterer or a criminal or I’m just an ordinary working person I am not like those posh people who go to church. God’s not interested in me he likes nice people ….I’m not nice.
Some years ago I heard a talk given by someone who had been to Ronnie Kray’s funeral. He had gone to see what the vicar would say at the funeral of this notorious criminal. The vicar speaking said that Kray had asked him to visit him in Broadmoor because the vicar had written a book about bringing youths out of a life of violence and crime by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Kray said to him ‘God wouldn’t be interested in me, I’m a murderer and a thief’. But the vicar said well actually Moses was a murderer and the man crucified next to Jesus who Jesus said that he would see that day in paradise was a thief. So yes God is interested in you even though you are Ronnie Kray, a murderer and a thief…
So the vicar told how he had led Kray to faith in Jesus Christ. Kray insisted that it remain a secret until his funeral, so it would not appear that he was trying to manipulate a parole board into his release.
God is interested in everyone whatever they have done, whoever they are.
So on the one side we have people who think they are not worthy of God’s attention because of what they have done.
The other side is that sometimes we think, that we are not worthy of his attention because our problems are so trivial in comparison with others.
‘well I just have little problems, I should be able to handle them myself; its not right to bother God about them; he has more important things to do; like looking after the poor and the starving and the victims of war all over the world; he is not interested in me with my little problems.
This is a lie, told by the enemy (the devil) to us to get us off track, to undermine our relationship with God or to prevent it ever really beginning.
God is interested in everything that we are concerned about.
God is interested in our problems however great, however small however bad or good we are, bring them to him! Be bold, don’t be put off by the lie that he does not care about you and your problems. He does….
We need to have a constant dialogue with God about everything. Approaching God boldly about every aspect of our lives.
CS Lewis wrote: ‘I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me, all the time- waking and sleeping’. It doesn’t change God- it changes me’.
Its OK to pray for parking spaces…and things don’t get more trivial than that…Bring everything to him…
So, the Canaanite woman is not put off by who she is in the eyes of the Jews – an idolater from an idolatrous nation, a dog. She is not put off by what she wants; she boldly approaches Jesus Christ. So the first thing to note about her ‘great faith is her boldness’
Secondly, there is her persistence: she just wont stop shouting for Jesus’ attention.
If we are desperately in need, if we carry our pain at the forefront of our minds the whole time, if we know immediately ‘what hurts the most’ when we filled in that card at the door for the Who Cares survey. Then we have got to go on and on and on asking him. To keep on asking him and never give up, and ask others to pray also: ‘have mercy on me, Lord’, ’have mercy on me, Lord’ ‘have mercy on me, Lord’.
Jesus seems initially not too keen to help and the disciples try to drive her away but she just keeps shouting: ‘have mercy on me, Lord’, ’have mercy on me, Lord’ and ‘have mercy on me, Lord’. There is no let up in her persistence.
Do you remember when we prayed as a parish about Sonia Cragg’s impending dialysis during the interregnum? I remember preaching during that time about persistence.
We were looking at the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18 who, Jesus said, will give the widow, the justice she deserved because of her persistence.
I remember Sonia saying to me at the time ‘I tell the children that ‘no’ means ‘no’ don’t keep asking….but here is Jesus saying precisely the opposite!
And we were persistent and look at the result: ‘the perfect kidney at the perfect time’ according to her surgeon…
So the Canaanite woman’s boldness and her persistence are hallmarks of what Jesus calls her ‘great faith’.
Thirdly, there is her humility.
When finally after her persistence she gets Jesus’ attention and Jesus explains ‘I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel’ ‘its not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’.
After all, Jesus’ project for the three years of his ministry: is to bring the people of Israel, who have a broken relationship with God, back into a relationship with God in which they are not just honouring God with their lips, but with their hearts.
She might have been expected to say to him: ‘OK so if its all about the people of Israel, the Jews, then what are you doing here on the borders of Tyre and Sidon sheltering from the Pharisees on the borders of gentile land? It doesn’t look as if the project of leading the Jews back to a real faith is going too well does it?’
But she doesn’t say that. She is not approaching Jesus telling him what to do, treating him like some flunkey, who has to keep the customer satisfied. She accepts that she is not entitled to any miraculous cure for her daughter, she accepts that he is here for the lost sheep of Israel.
She recognises that she is not worthy at all to have anything from him Israel’s messiah, because she is a gentile. But with great humility she fits her desperate situation into his view of the world…
She says – just give me the crumbs that the children of Israel – that the Jews don’t want: the bits that the children let fall to the floor.
Even the dogs – the household dogs clearing up get the crumbs under the children’s table; that’s all I need, that will be enough….she says
When we are suffering, do we approach God with humility or with anger?
Do we say ‘its not fair’ ‘why should this happen to me’? Its a common reaction and understandable. But I think Jesus is making clear here that great faith is faith in a great God.
A God who doesn’t give us what we think we deserve, but what we realise we don’t deserve. A God whose grace – the undeserved blessing which we receive is the hallmark of his greatness.
Once we realise that, once we really understand that God is great because he gives to us even though we are not; because he gives to us what we do not deserve: once we get that, then we do fall on our knees in worship and like the Canaanite woman, call him ‘Lord’ and from our hearts we mean it…