Scripture Readings: Gen. 45:1-15 and Ps. 133 (or Isa. 56:1, 6-8 and Ps. 67) Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matt. 15:10-28 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matthew 15:10-28
This sermon looks at a powerful example of faith from an unexpected source. The backdrop is what we read in Matt. 15:10-20, along with the history of Israel’s conquest of those living in the Promised Land.
In our Gospel passage today Matthew tells of Jesus confronting the Jew’s spiritual concept of clean versus unclean—both things and people. The Jews had misinterpreted the ceremonial laws written by Moses, thinking that people were made spiritually unclean by the introduction of contaminants in their food. Their idea of clean was not like our modern understanding of good hygiene. They thought that there was some spiritual effect to exposure to uncleanness. Jesus debunks that notion, explaining that spiritual uncleanness is rooted in sinful human thoughts.
Considering Gentiles to be unclean, Jews refused to enter the home of a Gentile and would not eat with them. Of all the Gentile peoples, to the Jewish mind there were none worse than the Canaanites, the former inhabitants of the Land promised to the descendants of Israel. Canaan was Noah’s notorious grandson. His descendants were the people that the Israelites were to displace at the end of their exodus and migration from Egypt. Moses explained that it was because of their sinful and degenerate practices that God had determined that they had to be expelled from the Land lest they influence the Israelites into adopting their corrupt and idolatrous ways. During his travels, Jesus encountered a descendant of the Canaanites and in the process set the record straight about the notion of unclean people and the role faith plays in the grace of God.
The Canaanite woman’s request
Jesus spent most of the years of his ministry within the borders of Israel. He served the people who lived in the provinces of Galilee and Judea and on occasion those who lived in Samaria, which was between Galilee and Judea. Only rarely did he travel outside these three provinces. In Matthew 15:21-28 we have an account of one such occasion.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. (Matt. 15:21).
Perhaps this was a short getaway to rest and refresh away from the antagonistic religious leaders from Jerusalem as well as the massive crowds that showed up everywhere Jesus went. But even in the regions of Tyre and Sidon he could not avoid being recognized.
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” (Matt. 15:22)
This Canaanite woman’s request was unusual. She did not call Jesus “Rabbi” or “Teacher” as others (including Jesus’ disciples) often did. Instead, she called him “Lord, Son of David.” The leaders of the Jewish religion would never have called Jesus that. The term “Son of David” was one of the highest titles that could be conferred upon a man—it literally implied Messiah.
Why would this Gentile, this woman, this Canaanite, call Jesus “Lord” followed by such a title? Her choice of words give away the answer: she was a long-distance believer. Somehow she had come to learn about Jesus and consider him the long-awaited Messiah of Jewish faith. Although she was not a Jew, she was like many Gentiles who, living near Jews, were influenced by their religious beliefs. Such people were referred to as God-fearers. And here was Jesus in her city! Here was her opportunity to be delivered from the demonic torture she was experiencing through her troubled daughter. She did what a believer would do: ask for divine help. But she did not casually ask. Instead, she “cried out” to Jesus, pleading for mercy.
Jesus did not answer a word. (Matt. 15:23a)
Jesus had encountered people before who, through demonic influence, recognized him, calling him Son of God and the like. He was not impressed by a flattering greeting. We do not know what he was thinking when he did not respond. But it did not matter: the woman would not let go. She followed Jesus and his disciples, repeating her request, pestering them with her calls.
So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (Matt. 15:23b)
Perhaps they wanted Jesus to react as they felt. After all, they knew she was a foreigner, and their Jewish revulsion of Gentiles might have been showing. Or maybe they just wanted Jesus to satisfy her request so that they could be rid of her.
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24)
This answer reveals a specific detail of Jesus’ mission that might not have been obvious. Matthew had written that among those who welcomed Jesus’ birth as son of David (Matt. 1:1), Messiah (Matt. 1:16), and king of the Jews (Matt. 2:1) included the Magi, who were Gentiles, but nonetheless had travelled far to worship him (Matt. 2:2). They seemed to realize that his coming had implications far beyond the Jewish people, and they were correct. Although Jesus was well aware of the covenant with Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed, and knew that he, Jesus, came to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17), he had a target audience for that phase of his earthly ministry, a target that excluded ministry outside of the people of Israel. His target was not based on preference or discrimination. It was purposeful in concert with God’s plan, and it was practical in consideration of his limitations as a single human being.
It was important that his disciples understand this target audience, and he had clearly told them that they had the same target audience in their earlier temporary evangelistic ministry (Matt. 10:5). Later Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) as God’s plan intended, but for that moment he focused on his immediate target. Apparently, the woman heard Jesus as he mentioned this target audience to his disciples.
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.” (Matt. 15:25)
Showing unusual understanding, persistence, and faith, the woman did two extraordinary things: she knelt in worship and asked for help. Kneeling demonstrated her humble and worshipful spiritual posture. In her mind, the Messiah—sent by the God of Israel—was sent for her too. Her simple request for help echoed the humble trust of the Psalmist, who wrote, “My help comes from the Lord” (Ps. 121:2). This faith that she expressed was simple. She believed that the one to whom she was speaking had the power and grace to answer, so she put her whole heart into her petition.
[Jesus] replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:26)
Why would Jesus respond in such a seemingly derogatory way? Did he literally think of her as a dog? Was he deliberately trying to offend her? The text does not convey such details as facial expression or tone of voice that could give meaning to the words. But a careful examination of the Greek version of Matthew’s words softens what seems a harsh statement. The Greek word translated dogs is accurately translated little dogs (as in the NKJV). The word we might use today is puppies. In a figurative word picture the woman would have understood, Jesus portrayed children with their puppies in a household setting. Snatching a child’s food from its mouth and giving it to a puppy would be inappropriate. The God-fearing woman realized that the Israelites were the covenant people—the children—and that the puppies, though in the household, were not. She accepted that fact.
To some people, Jesus’ statement might have been offensive. It certainly tested the woman’s sincerity. Although she understood the word picture, she could have seen such a portrayal from a Jew visiting her homeland as disparaging. If she was inclined, she could have reacted angrily. Anything other than a humble response would have exposed her as a hypocrite for calling Jesus by such a high title, and asking of him such a serious favor.
One who truly trusts Jesus as the Anointed One of God sent for the deliverance of humanity will put him above everything else that otherwise would be important: personal pride, race, nationality, culture, religion, ideology, gender—everything! Jesus gave her permission to show what she truly thought about him and she did. She showed that she really believed that he was all she had uttered.
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matt. 15:27)
This statement, far from being just a quick-witted response, exposed her inner thoughts and motivations. Humble, yet insistent upon calling him Lord, she turned Jesus’ word picture into a true presentation of her faith and fervent desire for his favorable response. As she saw it, the children of Israel were being fed by their Master, and some of the goodies that fell from their plates were appropriate game for a hungry puppy standing by.
The grace of God
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt. 15:28)
Jesus’ hesitancy, along with everything he had said so far, seemed unfavorable to this woman. Suddenly, his surprising words revealed his true heart toward her. In the Greek text, the word used for Jesus’ characterization of the woman’s faith was megas. The English word mega is derived from this Greek word. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is also translated loud, high, large, strong, and mighty. Jesus acknowledged her faith that shouted as if amplified by a megaphone! What a compliment! But even more awesome were his words that followed: “Your request is granted.” Her request was for deliverance and healing, a divine act that could not possibly have been earned. Jesus said it was granted. That’s another way of saying it was a gift—the essence of grace. The result was the instant deliverance and healing of her daughter. Glory to God!
What does this mean to us? This powerful example was written not to applaud one person’s exceptional faith, but to show Jesus’ followers what mega-faith looks like. Please do not look at it as a standard to measure up to. Instead, consider it an invitation to express similar faith, and a pattern of trusting in and believing in Jesus for us to emulate. Let’s consider that pattern.
Mega-faith starts with knowing who Jesus really is. Knowing that he is not just another prominent religious leader or great teacher, but the Son of God and High Priest, shapes our reaction to him, encouraging us to boldly approach him, acknowledging who he is, and humbly presenting our requests. Because of who he is, we can trust that he will faithfully respond (Jesus always does who Jesus is). Even if there seems to be an abnormally long silence before his response; even if there seems to be an indifference to our need or insensitivity to our suffering, we know better than to give in to discouragement because we know Jesus!
At the same time, realize that mega-faith does not originate with us. It’s natural for us to have feelings of weakness. Jesus is the author of real mega-faith, so don’t be reluctant to ask for it—he shares his mega-faith with us! Like the Canaanite woman, simply kneel and ask him for help. The sheer act of praying for faith is an expression of faith.
Because we are not fault-free, we may experience reality checks that confront us with unpleasant facts about ourselves. Resist prideful reactions. Instead, humbly admit the truth, accept the facts, and objectively consider who we really are—sinners, broken, in need!
Remember to take comfort in the word of God, its covenant and promises. Knowing the plan that the triune God has for us heartens and reassures us to press forward, without withdrawal, knowing that faith requires patience, persistence and endurance.
And then, we wait for our Lord’s gracious answer.
The Gospel accounts do not suggest that many followers of Jesus had mega-faith. In fact, Matthew records more than one conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which he described their faith as “little” (Matt. 6:30; 17:20). Jesus wanted his target audience to believe strongly, but it seemed that the extraordinary examples of faith, even those that astonished Jesus, came from Gentiles such as the centurion at Capernaum (Matt. 8:10) and this Canaanite woman. Those considered marginal or outsiders by the more religions types can take courage—Jesus sees them through different eyes.
The Holy Spirit inspired two of the Gospel writers to include this story as an example of faith and God’s grace. As we grow in knowing Jesus, and in that knowledge expect the grace of God to be generously poured out upon us, we will increasingly open ourselves to that grace that comes to us from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit.