Scripture: 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 ESV
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Observation: In yesterday’s Daily Focus, Jesus offends the Pharisees and scribes by stating that what comes out of the mouth (borne from the heart) defiles a person, not what we take in. Not holding back, he refers to them as blind guides who lead others with them to spiritual ruin (click here to read it). In the above story, an unclean Gentile (as held by the Jews) approaches Jesus out of desperation for her daughter’s well-being (who is genuinely defiled by an evil spirit) and begs him to heal her. Ironically, unlike the religious leaders, she addresses Jesus as Lord and acknowledges he is the Son of David (messianic title). But Jesus and his disciples press on. Undeterred, she continues to cry out after Jesus. So his disciples, annoyed and dispassionate to her plight, beg him to send her away.
While we have no details of the movement of each character at this point of the story, it would seem that Jesus stops and turns toward the woman when he answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.24). This persistent mother welcomes any response as a sign of hope and immediately draws near and kneels before him (a sign of submission), and with a similar tone to her first remark, pleads for Jesus to help her. Jesus, however, responds again dispassionately (so it seems) and declares, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v.26)—ouch! Still, unlike the Pharisees, she does not take umbrage and persists in gaining his favor. Continuing to address him as Lord, she reasons with an aphorism that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v.27). Climactically, Jesus praises her for her great faith and grants her desire. And Matthew provides an epilogue that her daughter experienced healing from that very hour (original Greek).
Takeaway: Having withdrawn from the Jewish region of the Gennesaret on the northwest coast of the Seal of Galilee (14:34), Jesus now treks toward the infamous cities of Tyre and Sidon in the Gentile territory between Galilee and Judea. Here, he will briefly heal and restore Gentiles (previewing the extent of his mission beyond his ascension). And as expected, the news of his miraculous healing powers quickly disseminates to this pagan region and apparently reaches the Canaanite mother’s ears. While she could have sought help for her daughter at a temple dedicated to Eshmun, a god of healing, only three miles northwest of Sidon, she trusts more in Jesus’ reputation.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ seemingly incentive response to this woman who showed him respect? In chapter 10, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach his Gospel to the lost sheep of Israel (10:5-6). In our story, he similarly clarifies that this is his focus—even while passing through this pagan region. Indeed, there is a sense of urgency, for as theologian Michael Wilkins notes, “lost sheep” does not refer to an unsaved segment of Jews but to the whole house of Israel because all were lost outside of hearing and receiving Christ’s Gospel (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.539). Wilkins adds that the expression “children’s bread” refers to God’s covenant promise to care for Israel. And “dogs” stood as a humiliating label for Gentiles in Jesus’ day. But during his Sermon on the Mount (7:6), Jesus used this same word to command his audience not to give to dogs (any who reject him) what is holy (his consecrated Gospel).
In both instances, Jesus applies the pejorative to those who would reject his divine message. But this desperate mother is unwavering in her pursuit of her daughter’s well-being and points out that even dogs can have a carrying relationship with their master. Whether or not she gained knowledge of Jewish doctrine that pointed to Yahweh’s extension of grace to all nations (see Genesis 12:3) or is quick-witted, like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:29-42), she demonstrates faith that eclipses the vast majority of Israel.
Our takeaway? While there is no pat answer to smooth the ruffled edges of Jesus’ blunt response, it clarifies two things: that salvation comes first to Israel and then to the Gentiles and, on a personal level, it helps this Canaanite woman solidify in her mind in whom she places her faith. When she proves unwavering, Jesus responds to her “great faith” and grants her the most urgent need. And the same applies to us. While there is always room to ask Jesus to help us in our unbelief (as did the man whose son had epilepsy, Mark 9:24), Jesus repeatedly urges his disciples to exercise faith in him. And there’s no better way to strengthen our faith than through adversity. Still, trials alone will not turn hearts. But when we move toward Christ, seeking his crumbs rather than demanding his feast, we discover “it is better to be called than not at all,” for all that matters is that we are supping with our Master.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who faithfully and humbly completed his mission and has become the Bread of Life for our hungry souls. Still, we confess that we sometimes seek sustenance apart from Christ or demand more than he has provided. So would you please help us exercise faith and humility to receive with gratitude whatever he provides from wherever he might lead us? And if that means the crumbs under his altar, please help us sup with him there with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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