“Jesus and the Canaanite Woman” (Matthew 15:21-28)
What kind of faith do you have, in what kind of God? That is the question that our text today will help us to answer. For what we will see in our text is this: What kind of faith? A persevering faith. In what kind of God? In a merciful Lord. Persevering faith in a merciful Lord–that is the story of “Jesus and the Canaanite Woman.”
The story begins with Jesus going up to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are cities outside the boundaries of Israel–they’re up north, along the coast. This is Gentile territory that Jesus is entering. The people who lived there were not Jews; they did not follow the religion of Israel. They were Gentiles, “pagans,” we might say.
A Canaanite woman from that region came to Jesus, it says. It’s interesting that Matthew uses the word “Canaanite” to describe her. We sometimes call her the “Syrophoenician” woman, based on how Mark describes her in his account. But Matthew calls her a “Canaanite.” That’s an old-timey word, an Old Testament word for the people living in the land of Canaan back when the Israelites moved in. The Canaanites were Gentiles, pagans, outside of the covenant the Lord had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet they were in close enough contact, close enough proximity, to have some knowledge of the religion of Israel.
And this woman apparently did. For she comes to Jesus, crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Notice the title she uses, “Son of David.” That’s a messianic title. The Messiah whom God had promised would be the Son of David–a physical descendant of the great King David, and the greatest one of all, even greater than David himself. The Lord had promised David that one of his sons would reign on his throne forever. And this Son of David, this Messiah, this Christ, would usher in a glorious reign of blessing for Israel and–and this was the point that was often forgotten by Israel–a glorious reign of blessing for all the other nations, too. When Messiah comes, his blessing would extend to the Gentiles as well as to Israel. The nations would come running to Israel, to receive the Lord’s blessing–much as this Canaanite woman is doing now, in coming to Jesus.
So this woman must have known the prophecies about the coming Messiah, the Son of David. She knew something of those promises, and it gave her faith. She was waiting and looking for the coming of the Christ. And she recognized in Jesus the one who was fulfilling those prophecies. She saw in him the promised Son of David. Faith looks to Jesus as the fulfiller of God’s promises. The Canaanite woman must have heard what Jesus was doing, his healings, his miracles, his acts of mercy. That emboldened her now to come forward with her request.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” “Lord, have mercy”: Several times in the gospels we hear people crying out to Jesus with those words. Blind men asking for their sight. A father seeking help for his demonized son. And this woman, a mother seeking similar help for her daughter, who was suffering terribly. So she cries out, “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie, eleison,” is the Greek for that. That’s the cry of the church in all ages. We say it at the beginning of the Divine Service, don’t we, in the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” Kyrie, eleison! The Kyrie is the church calling on her Lord and asking for his mercy. We come before God with all these needs, you see, all kinds of suffering and misery in our lives and in the world. We need God’s help, we need his mercy.
And that’s what God gives us–his mercy. God’s power is made known chiefly in showing mercy. That’s why Christ came. All the misery we pile up in this world–sin, sickness, death, a guilty conscience–the answer to all of it, ultimately, is in the mercy that took Christ to the cross. By his all-availing death you and I will be delivered, finally, from all the misery that there is. The mercy of God is his answer to our misery. He visits us in our distress and gives us relief from the ravages and effects of sin in the world. This world is in a mess. Human beings are suffering, in misery. Thank God that he has mercy on us! He wants us to call upon him in our day of trouble, like the Canaanite woman did. Kyrie, eleison! “Lord, have mercy.”
Now notice Jesus’ response–or should I say, his lack of response! “But he did not answer her a word.” That’s surprising. It’s not what we would expect. “He did not answer her a word.” What’s going on here? Is Jesus being cold-hearted? How do we explain his silence? Come to think of it, how do explain the silence of God in our lives? Sometimes when we pray, we don’t get the answer we’re looking for. Does God not hear our prayers? We’re met with silence. This is a mystery to us. But God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. The silence of God is not his cold-heartedness but rather our inability to see what God is doing. He may have a better plan in store than the one we have in mind. So at first the Canaanite woman is met with silence. “He did not answer her a word.” The timing is not right yet. Jesus is waiting a bit before he answers. He wants this woman to exercise her faith, to stretch it out.
And maybe he has something he wants to teach his disciples, too. The disciples, you see–maybe there is a little cold-heartedness in them. They don’t understand what Jesus is wanting to do. So they say, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” They’re saying, “Get lost! A lousy Gentile like you doesn’t deserve any help.” And at first it seems that Jesus is going along with this. He tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And that’s true. In his earthly ministry, Jesus the Messiah was sent principally, primarily, to the house of Israel, that is, to the Jews. The lost sheep of Israel needed to be gathered in. For the Lord had made a covenant with Israel, and Jesus was sent to fulfill it. His ministry, for the most part, was among the Jews. Long ago the Lord promised to bless the descendants of Abraham, and now Jesus was keeping that promise. To the Jews first.
But the promise of blessing to Israel when Messiah comes–this did not exclude those Gentiles who come into contact with Israel. They can “rub up” against the blessing, so to speak. That’s what this Gentile woman is doing. Jesus came for the lost sheep of Israel, and it was not until after his resurrection that the mission would be expanded in a major way to the Gentiles. But even now while he’s busy ministering to the Jews, Jesus will not withhold his blessing from this Gentile woman. Although, for a moment, it looks like he will. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But Jesus is just making clear that he’s not going to change the focus of his ministry and shift his turf up to Tyre and Sidon and the Gentile regions.
In spite of this seeming rebuff, the Canaanite woman persists. She perseveres. She kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me.” But again, another obstacle is placed in her way. Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” That is to say, “It’s not right to take the blessings promised to the children of Israel and give them to the Gentiles,” i.e., “the dogs.” Oftentimes the Jews referred to the Gentiles as “dogs,” as a term of disrespect, a derogatory insult. However, there’s something interesting in the way Jesus says it. In the Greek language, there are two words for “dog.” The most common one is the word that Jews would use to insult Gentiles. But that’s not the one that Jesus uses. Instead, he uses a word that can be translated as “little pet dogs,” “doggies.” An affectionate term, used for dogs who got to live in the house and were taken care of. That’s the word that Jesus uses, a kind and inviting word. And the woman picks up on it. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Aha! She’s got it! Faith hears what the Lord is saying and latches onto it. Jesus was not putting her off. Rather, he was giving her a word she could latch on to and cling to.
The woman came, not claiming anything as her right, but simply throwing herself on the Lord’s mercy. She was willing to be a dog that eats the scraps off the table. That’s why I like to call her not just the “Canaanite woman” but the “Canine-ite woman.” The “Canine-ite woman”: She was ready to be a little dog, if it meant being around the Lord’s table. For that’s where the blessings are. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, blessed are those who come as beggars–or even as dogs–to the Lord of all mercy.
The Canaanite woman did not give up when obstacles were placed in her way. She perseveres. Luther says, she battles Christ: “She catches the Lord Christ in his own words. Yes, still more, with the rights of dogs she gains the rights of a child. Now where will he go, the dear Jesus? He has caught himself and must help her. But know this well: He loves to be caught in this way. If only we had the skill of this woman to catch God in his own judgment and say, ‘Yes, Lord, it is true. I am a sinner and not worthy of your grace. But you have promised forgiveness and did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ Behold, Christ must then through his own judgment have mercy on us.”
The Canaanite woman is not deterred. Think of the obstacles that her God-given faith fought through: She was not deterred by Jesus’ initial silence, when he did not answer her a word. She was not deterred by the comment of the disciples, “Send her away.” She was not deterred by Jesus’ comment about being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Nor by his remark about the dogs eating the bread of the children. This woman simply does not give up. She perseveres. Her faith–again, her God-given faith, produced by the Spirit working through the Word–her faith overcomes all these obstacles.
And, my friends, God wants you to have that same kind of faith–persevering faith in a merciful Lord. God wants you to come to Jesus, time and time again, in spite of any obstacles you may face. It’s so easy to give up. People do it all the time. When there is suffering in their life, they give up and think that God doesn’t care. When something goes wrong in their life, people give up and stop coming to Jesus. When something at church doesn’t go the way they like, people give up and stop coming to church. But God does not want you to give up. He wants you to persevere, in faith, like the Canaanite woman did, and to seek and find his mercy. The Canaanite woman did not give up. And Jesus commends her faith: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” He grants her request. Her daughter is healed.
Jesus here demonstrates his authority over the demons of hell. He has authority over sin and death and the devil. Jesus won the victory for us over those things. But he did it in a most mysterious way. Moved by his mercy, the Son of God came down from heaven, came into our mess, and suffered our misery with us. He entered into it, fully. Jesus suffered the ravages of sin when he was nailed to the cross. He himself suffered the silence of God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But God then vindicated his Son by raising him up from the dead. God has shown his mercy in the greatest way. His mercy in Christ forgives our sins, delivers us from the power of the devil, and gives us the sure hope of everlasting life. His mercy endures forever.
My friends, this is the merciful Lord in whom we are trusting. And today God is strengthening you in your faith. He is building in you a faith that perseveres. Persevering faith in a merciful Lord. Faith like that of the Canaanite–or “Canine-ite”–woman, who was willing to come like a little dog to eat at the Lord’s table. Great was her faith because great was her Lord, the one who called forth that faith. He is the Lord who has mercy on us, even when it looks like he doesn’t. Kyrie, eleison. “Lord, have mercy.”