A Canaanite Woman's Great Faith
Passage: Matthew 15:21–28
Faith. We use the word “faith” a lot in Christianity. Sometimes the Bible uses “faith” to describe the content of the gospel. We possess “the faith” once for all entrusted to the saints. More often, the Bible uses “faith” to describe a personal act—such as “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In that sense, faith is the instrument God uses to unite us to Jesus and his saving benefits.
But what is faith? Historically, orthodox Christianity has argued that faith includes three elements: knowledge, assent, and trust. Knowledge—faith is not blind but acts on knowledge of God, his character, his work in Jesus. Assent is the next element—not ascent as in “going up” but assent as in agreeing that the knowledge you have about God is true. The final element is trust—that restful reliance upon Jesus to save. Demons have knowledge. They don’t trust, they don’t rest in the goodness of God.
All three elements help us speak carefully about the nature of saving faith; and you’ll find these in the older confessions and catechisms. But sometimes, we just need a good picture, don’t we? We need a story. We need to see faith in action to grasp its fuller outworking. Today, the story of the Canaanite woman is one of the greatest pictures of faith. Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith!” In the process, though, we also learn about the object of her faith. Jesus—who he is, why he’s come, and what he offers to all who come to him like this woman. Let’s begin reading in verse 21, and as we do may your own faith in Jesus become stronger. Listen to God’s word…
21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 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 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
I love this passage. I see four parts to this dialogue. Each begins with someone speaking—either the woman or the disciples—and then closes with an answer (or non-answer) from Jesus. But with each part, something further stands out about this woman’s faith, and we also learn more about the Savior in whom she places her faith.
Faith comes to Jesus confident that he’s merciful to sinners.
The first part comes in verse 21 and stretches to Jesus’ non-answer in 23. Here, we learn that faith comes to Jesus confident that he’s merciful to sinners. To this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has ministered primarily among Jews. Now he withdraws to Gentile territory—Tyre and Sidon. It’s no accident that this move follows Jesus’ teaching on defilement. I don’t know the last time you checked, but Tyre and Sidon don’t score so well when it comes to purity. Just read places like Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 26, Zechariah 9. Historically, these are cultures of arrogant injustice, trading humans for products, rampant idolatry. Jesus has withdrawn to what was considered unclean territory.
If that wasn’t enough to ruffle Jewish feathers, verse 22 gets even more surprising. It’s the only place that “Canaanite” appears in the New Testament. When Mark tells this story, he describes the woman as “a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26). Matthew wants us to see more. Her backstory includes a long family history opposed to God’s covenant people. Her people are enemies of Israel. In other words, she’s the last person you’d expect searching out a Jew for help. Perhaps that’s why Matthew himself seems so surprised. “Behold! A Canaanite woman.”
Her daughter is severely oppressed by a demon, verse 22 says. We later find a boy in 17:15, also severely oppressed by a demon. That includes things like convulsions and falling into fire or water, just to help you feel what it must have been like for this mother to watch her daughter suffer this way. But she comes out looking for Jesus. Then, upon finding Jesus, she repeatedly cries to him. She wants her girl healed, but it’s also agony for her. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”.
We know Matthew’s goal is to reveal Jesus as Son of David. The first line of the Gospel says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David.” But the characters within the book—well, they’re not always so confident. Take the Jews of 12:23, for instance: “Can this be the Son of David?” Of course, the Pharisees quickly squelch that idea. Of all the people that should’ve seen Jesus as Son of David, it was the Jews. For centuries God revealed his purpose to them. But to this point, they totally miss Jesus. Instead, a Canaanite gets it. She calls him, “Lord, Son of David.”
Which are both loaded terms. “Lord” appears regularly in settings where Jesus does what only Yahweh was known to do in the Old Testament.[i] “Son of David” was a title reserved for God’s anointed king, the one whose kingdom would make all things right. Jesus will later bring both titles together in 22:45—“If David calls him Lord, how is he also David’s son.” In other words, this Gentile woman seeks help from the Jewish Messiah. She knows something about him. Mark’s Gospel tells us how earlier in Jesus’ ministry some folks from Tyre and Sidon had seen him cast out demons in Galilee. Perhaps word made it back to this woman. She puts the pieces together; and she knows that God’s mercy to sinners flows through Jesus.
But then Jesus does the unexpected. Verse 23 says, “He did not answer her a word.” Some have said this is cold-hearted of Jesus. But one only has to read the rest of the New Testament to know that’s not true. Jesus is compassionate, gentle, lowly in heart. Better is that Jesus must be testing the woman’s faith. That’s part of it. But we mustn’t forget the disciples. They’re part of this picture too; and given the disciples’ response in verse 23, I think Jesus stays silent for their sake. He wants the disciples (and us) to see this woman’s faith and learn something more about Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t respond like we always think he should. Sometimes he says nothing. But it’s not because he’s cold. It’s not because he lacks compassion. Surely the love he displayed on the cross has taught us to draw better conclusions. Yes, even in silence he’s working to give us a better understanding of our need. He’s working to draw others in for a deeper understanding of who he is and why he came.
Faith embraces the priorities in Jesus’ mission.
Which leads to the next part. In verses 23 and 24, we see that faith embraces the priorities in Jesus’ mission. Again, this woman is following Jesus, pleading that he heal her daughter. Jesus’ deliberate silence lets this persist a while—to the point where the disciples finally say something. Verse 23, “Send her away; for she’s crying out after us.” You could read this as the disciples wanting Jesus to heal her. It’s unlike him to stay silent like this. To this point, he’s healed nearly everybody who’s asked. So, the words “Send her away” might include an element of, “Heal this woman already!” Also, Mark’s Gospel tells us Jesus was trying to lay low anyway and not cause a big scene. In this case, Jesus’ answer in verse 24 explains why he hasn’t healed her.
But it’s also possible they’ve misunderstood Jesus’ silence in a far different way—a more negative way towards this woman. It wasn’t the norm for a Jewish rabbi to interact so closely with Gentiles, especially an unclean Canaanite. So, they tell Jesus to send her away—“Let’s avoid this awkward situation altogether.” Given the disciples’ track record, that might be the better way to take it. What, then, does Jesus mean in verse 24, when he answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”?
The woman hasn’t left the scene. I imagine Jesus answers within earshot of the woman. But his answer here is first for the disciples. He wants the disciples to reflect on the nature of his mission—I think in a couple different ways. One, he was sent to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The lost—he wasn’t sent for the righteous, but for sinners…unclean people in Israel who aren’t so different from this woman.
Two, he’s highlighting the historical priority of his mission to Israel, but I think he’s doing it to eventually show the disciples in the miracle how that historical priority does not mean exclusive priority. We’ve heard similar words before, haven’t we? 10:5—Jesus commissions the Twelve and says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Historical priority. But keep reading Jesus’ words and you find how the disciples’ mission wouldn’t always be limited to Israel. Eventually their testimony would come before “governors and kings, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles”—10:18.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and here’s this Canaanite woman in desperate need of Jesus’ mercy. If the disciples set the priorities of Jesus’ mission, we know what they’d do: “Send her away.” But is that what Jesus meant by his being sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Does he mean for that mission to exclude Gentiles begging for his mercy? He’s getting his disciples to think for a minute about the priorities of his mission.
At this point in Jesus’ earthly mission, the Jews receive historical priority. That was the plan all along. God works his saving plan first through his promises to Israel. Romans 9:4-5 says, “to [Israel] belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises.” Romans 1:16, “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek.” We observe this same priority in Acts when Paul offers the gospel first to the Jews. Isaiah 49 anticipated that pattern. The Servant would come first to lead Israel back to God.
But that historical priority did not mean exclusive priority and Jesus is about to prove it. He’s going to prove it first by showing how this Canaanite woman grasps the mercy of his mission better than his own disciples.
Faith knows it deserves nothing but gains everything in Jesus.
Which brings us to the third part of this dialogue in verses 25-26—faith knows it deserves nothing but gains everything in Jesus. The woman has heard Jesus answer the disciples. She’s heard him raise the historical priority of his mission to Israel. And while that’s hanging in the air, of whether that’s all his mission is, she comes and begs for mercy again. “Lord, help me.” How many of you have been in situations where that’s all you know to pray? How many of you have been so desperate in the silence and this is all we know to cry? It’s a good prayer, one filled with faith that Jesus will answer.
Yet again Jesus answers in the most surprising way. The point he made to the disciples, he now says to her but in the form of a parable: “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The children seem to represent Israel, and especially the disciples here. The bread represents the blessings of Jesus’ kingdom. And the dogs represent this Canaanite woman.
But before we read too much into it, let me clarify one aspect that’s not immediately apparent (at least in English). Jesus has used “dogs” before—like in 7:6, when he tells the disciples, “Do not give dogs what is holy.” Dogs, in that context, represent people viciously opposed to the gospel. Paul uses the same word to describe false teachers in Philippians 3:2—“Watch out for the dogs.” In both contexts, the “dog” is more comparable to a jackal, a hyena, a nasty scavenger.
That’s not the “dog” Jesus has in mind with the woman. He switches to a diminutive form, which amounts to a house dog. You can discern this just by looking at the woman’s response: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She understands that Jesus means house dog, one that’s under the table just waiting for the crumbs to fall. So, while it’s still a hard pill to swallow, it’s not as offensive as it could’ve been. She’s inside the house. But Jesus is taking the point he made with the disciples and now seeing what the woman is going to do with it.
His parable reiterates that there’s a historical order to God’s saving work, and Gentiles are not first in line. Some of you might find that offensive; and to some sensibilities, perhaps it’s meant to be offensive. We live in a culture of entitlement where everybody gets a trophy. But it might be good to observe how this woman is not offended by Jesus. She embraces Jesus’ parable. She agrees with him.
She says, “Yes, Lord.” In terms of historical priority, she accepts her place in line behind the children of Israel. The ESV has “yet even the dogs…” But the better translations have “for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She goes there with Jesus and draws further comfort from it. She knows she doesn’t deserve anything from God’s covenant promises. But she also knows that the blessings of Jesus’ kingdom are so bountiful, there’s plenty to satisfy her needs as well.
Even the smallest of crumbs from Jesus’ table are enough. That’s how great her vision of Jesus is. The blessings he gives the disciples are more than enough to meet the needs of Gentiles too. She doesn’t need to be first in line. Even if she catches some crumbs under the table, she’s content with that. Because she knows that even a crumb of Jesus’ kingdom will meet her where she’s at. She knows that historical priority doesn’t mean exclusive priority. Her faith sees that Jesus’ mercy, while it goes to Israel first, it extends to Gentiles too. This is the kind of faith Jesus commends.
Faith is rewarded with the blessings of Jesus’ kingdom.
That leads to our last part: faith is rewarded with the blessings of Jesus’ kingdom. In verse 28 Jesus answers her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Remember that healings in Jesus’ ministry were all about the kingdom’s presence. Jesus’ kingdom was bringing a divine reversal of the curse. All that was broken would be made right through him. He gives the presence of his kingdom to this woman and her daughter.
I also love how Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith!” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus finds hardly any faith among the Jews. And the faith he does find is usually from his disciples, and five times he calls it little faith—“O you of little faith.” But here he commends this Gentile (a Canaanite!), for her great faith. In the place we’d least expect faith, there comes great faith. God’s grace always surprises us, doesn’t it?
So, in the end, what does Jesus teach his disciples in this? He certainly proves they’re more lost than they think: “Send her away.” They really are lost sheep in need of a Shepherd. They need Jesus to save them and open their eyes. The woman’s faith was tested too. But not in vain. She passes with flying colors. And in the process, we learn that while Jesus’ earthly mission prioritizes Israel, there’s mercy for us “unclean” Gentiles as well. Jesus’ mission of mercy reaches even the worst of enemies. Of all people, a Canaanite! But Jesus doesn’t send her away; he sends the demon away and brings rest to this weary mother’s soul.
Putting Faith in Action
I started this message describing the elements of saving faith. But God has preserved for us in this word here a great picture of saving faith. From that picture, I want us to consider a few ways it should impact us. First, come to Jesus for mercy, no matter your history or need. This woman belonged to a culture known for its idolatry and human trafficking. Canaan hated God’s covenant people. Yet Jesus doesn’t hesitate to show her mercy. He did it in his own timing and in his own way—but he proved that his mercy extends to anyone who comes to him like this woman.
It becomes an important to the Pharisees of the previous passage. They try keeping themselves pure by mere ritual and remain cut off from Jesus’ kingdom. This woman casts herself on Jesus’ mercy and is brought in to Jesus’ kingdom.
Some of you have shared with me some dark things from your own past. Others of you, I don’t know as well. But I can imagine we’re all plagued with regrets over past choices. We hung with the wrong crowd far too long. We’ve hated where we should’ve loved. Our priorities have been out of whack and not aligned with God’s kingdom. Perhaps some of us have even been so bothered by the needs of others, we, like the disciples, have wished they’d just go away. Listen, Jesus came for sinners of all kinds. No matter your background or history, you too can come like this woman. God’s grace isn’t handcuffed by your sinful past. Even the crumbs of Jesus’ kingdom are enough.
This woman also has a daughter oppressed by a demon. As a mother, she carries a great burden as the girl’s caretaker. Some of you right now are facing great burdens as you care for ones you love and hold dear. The weight that rests on your shoulders is great. The agony you feel because you just want them well again—it’s sometimes overwhelming. All you have left is, “Lord, help me.” You too, come to Jesus for mercy. God intends our afflictions to drive us nearer to Jesus; and Hebrews tells us that through his death on the cross, Jesus opened the way for us to the throne of grace, that we might find mercy in time of need. Don’t hesitate to pray and ask his help.
Something else we should consider, stay humble when Jesus puts you in your place. Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson about his mission. But he also tests the woman’s faith. At first, she gets no answer. Then twice she hears something about Israel’s historical priority, and the last one compares her to a house dog getting leftovers. But never once does she say, “That isn’t fair! You can’t talk to me like that! I deserve to be first in line just like them!” No, she agrees with Jesus. She goes there with him.
Charles Spurgeon once said of this passage, “If the Lord reminds you of your unworthiness and your unfitness, he only tells you what is true, and it will be your wisdom to say [like this woman], ‘Yes, Lord.’ …Great faith is always sister to great humility. It does not matter how low Christ puts her, she sits there.”
But that’s not the attitude we often find in our culture, or even in some Christian sub-cultures. God’s word teaches that salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone, and people say, “That’s not fair.” God’s word teaches that he elects some to salvation and passes over others, and people say, “That’s not fair.” God’s word teaches that the office of pastor is limited to qualified men, and people say, “That’s not fair.” The thief on the cross will get eternal life as much as those who’ve served Jesus for years, and people say, “That’s not fair.” God chose Israel first from all other nations to accomplish his saving plan, and people say, “That’s not fair.” But the attitude of this woman is one of humble acceptance of her place in God’s plan. She says, “Yes, Lord.”
Talking about Israel’s historical priority, I was reminded how Paul exhorts Gentile Christians in Romans 11. He’s explaining how Israel experienced a partial hardening, so that Gentiles might be grafted in. “But,” he says, “if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it’s not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.” Gentile, you’re not the good tree. You’re the wild tree.
Again, that puts us Gentiles in our place. We don’t say, “That’s not fair!” We say, “Yeah, and whatever sap I get from that tree, it’s enough! Thank you, Jesus! I don’t deserve anything! I was once alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, a stranger to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. I was once far off but now I’ve been brought near by the blood of Christ.” That’s how faith talks. Jesus’ word puts us in our place. We say, “Yes, Lord.”
Also, embrace the priorities in Jesus’ mission. Jesus proves to his disciples that his mission will stretch beyond the house of Israel. In the Old Testament, it’s imbedded in God’s covenant with Abraham—“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Here and there, a Gentile enters God’s covenant people—like Rahab, the Gibeonites, Ruth, and so on. The prophets anticipate an even greater day; Israel would have to spread the tent pegs out to encompass all the peoples. The root of Jesse will come, and in him will the Gentiles hope. The Psalms anticipate all the peoples praising the Lord and extolling him. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, that Gentile mission is still like a small trickle; and this woman is part of that.
But after Jesus dies for our sins and rises from the dead, that trickle becomes a massive river bringing life to all nations. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.” He is not just Son of David, he is Son of Abraham—the blessings come through him. The plan was for Jesus to come first for Israel; and then, after he fulfills the promises given to the patriarchs, blessing would flow to the Gentiles far and wide.
Is that your priority? Do you see that he’s pouring out mercy to Gentiles right now? Are you on board with that? Are you on board with that when he brings someone to you that, at first, you’d rather not deal with? How are you arranging your life to participate in that flow of mercy to all peoples, no matter their background or need?
Pray that God would use you to help others know the mercy found in Jesus. Pray that God would give us courage to speak to someone about the saving mercies found in his cross. Pray that the peoples of Fort Worth would extol the Lord, and then ask God to use you to help others see the compassion of our Savior.
Perhaps, he’s already preparing some of you to speak of his mercies to others. This woman didn’t know it. But as her faith was being tested, Jesus was at work to open the eyes of others to his saving work. Her story is still being told to help others understand the mercy of Christ. Perhaps your faith is being tested right now. Some of you feel like Jesus isn’t answering soon enough; and the answers you do receive are hard to hear. But as your faith is being tested, know that Jesus is at work to reveal himself to others. Stay true to Jesus like this woman. Keep coming to Jesus for mercy; and Jesus will use your story as well to show others a few things about his mission.
[i] E.g., Matt 3:3; 12:8.