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 15:28
One of the things that set Jesus’s ministry apart was the way He interacted with women. Each encounter teaches us something about Jesus and our relationship to Him. It is important to notice in each case, Jesus treated these women with dignity and respect that was unheard at that time and in that culture. That in itself is instructive as we interact with people now.
So far we have looked at an exchange between Jesus and His mother at the wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee, His conversation with the woman from Sychar who had come to draw water from the well and a woman who reached out to Him in a crowd. This week we’ll consider His exchange with a Canaanite woman.
At the end of Matthew 14, Jesus is in Gennesaret, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. After a confrontation with the Pharisees in the beginning of chapter 15, Jesus and his guys slip over to the area around Tyre and Sidon for a break. (Incidentally, if you check the map, both of these cities are Mediterranean port cities, that is, beach towns. I can totally understand why Jesus would head here for a quick respite.)
A woman from that area approaches Him in desperation and calls Him by His messianic title. The woman is not Jewish. Matthew calls her a woman of Canaan. This would have triggered many cultural memories in the minds of his Jewish readers. She was one of the wicked people who forfeited the Promised Land, whom God judged. Jezebel was from Tyre, after all. Ezekiel tells us the king of Tyre exulted in the destruction of God’s people. Mark calls her a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician, tipping off His Gentile readers that she was one of them.
The woman begs for mercy, and for healing for her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus’s reputation had spread beyond the borders of Israel. Whatever the woman may have known about Jesus, she at least knew He was her only hope. The Sidonian gods brought no help or relief.
Jesus did not respond. Sometimes silence teaches as much as words. In this case the silence reveals the hearts of the woman and of the disciples.
Do we typically see God’s silence as an opportunity for us to examine our hearts before Him?
Finally the disciples respond, “Send her away. She is annoying us. She is interrupting us on our day off.” Jesus says He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. This ties the encounter to the most recent debate with the Pharisees and it forces the disciples to consider who is worthy of salvation and, by extension, His intervention. Is it a matter of genuine faith or of national heritage?
Do we ever determine some are worthy of salvation, while others are not?
The disciples would one day carry the gospel throughout the world. Right now, they can’t see past their deeply rooted prejudices. The woman, watching this exchange, senses that in spite of the words spoken, she still has hope. She throws herself down at Jesus’s feet and begs for His help.
Jesus responds to her plea with a parable, but I believe He says it more for the disciples’ benefit. It is not right to take the children’s ( that is, the Jews’) bread and give it to the dogs (that it, the Gentiles). Jesus doesn’t use the common pejorative Jews used for Gentiles, but the point is unmistakable. “We can’t take precious ministry energy, reserved for our people and spend on people like this, right guys?”
Is the kingdom of God only for those in a certain race, or class, or station? Or is it open for everyone who seeks it?
The woman, understands the question. Her answer is, in essence – the kingdom of God is for those who draw near to receive it. “Bingo!” Jesus replies. Well, something close to that. He praises her great faith, and with that her persistence and humility.
Do we ever stand in the way of those who are seeking the kingdom? Are our prejudices and preconceptions off-putting rather than welcoming?
Jesus heals the woman’s daughter and then spends several days in the Gentile region healing and teaching, including a miraculous feeding of 4000 Gentiles mirroring the feeding of the 5000. It all began with this Canaanite mother helped Him demonstrate to His disciples what true faith looks like.