The Canaanite Woman
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Sundays
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)
The middle chapters of Matthew’s gospel have all been about faith. We’ve had parables about faith as small as a mustard seed growing to become a plant so large that birds can find a home in its branches. We’ve heard of the Christian faith described as being like a pearl of great value, and we’ve seen two miraculous events which have served to underline the role of faith in the life of the Christian. Five thousand were fed from five loaves and two fish, and the food was so bountiful that a dozen baskets were needed to collect up the left overs. As the disciples were still, no doubt, wondering at what they had witnessed they saw something even more startling: Jesus came to their boat as they were crossing the Sea of Galilee, and he was walking on the water.
The parables had pointed to the importance of faith, and the miracles had pointed to the one in whom we should have faith. I wonder if, when Peter saw Jesus on the water, a penny dropped in his mind? Did he suddenly put this all together as he called out to Jesus? Was he wishing to put this to the test as he called out: “command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28)?
Whatever was the case, call out he did and then - when Jesus summoned him - with one leg after the other he climbed out of the boat onto the water. Oh the elation! O the wonder! But then: O the wind! O the waves! And so Peter begins to sink and cries out to be saved, and as Jesus pulls him to safety the wet disciple is gently rebuked: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (14:31).
Perhaps you are sitting reading this, and thinking that you are one of ‘little faith’. If so, then take some comfort from this passage! Even one as pivotal as Peter suffered in the same way, and even denied Christ, yet he was mightily used of God as he preached the great sermon of Pentecost. Even a little bit of faith enabled Peter to respond to Jesus’ call, and to walk (for a while) on the water. Just that small bit of faith was enough for him to cry out “save me”, and for the Saviour to reach out his hand.
It is important to grasp the fact that even a little faith, as long as it is focussed in Jesus, is true faith. There is great benefit in reading about the heroes of the faith, but we mustn’t allow them to make us despise the faith we have. Peter’s faith wavered, but he still walked on the water. He was sinking, but still he had faith enough to shout to Jesus for help, I might only have an economy class ticket on an airplane, but I am just as sure of arriving at my destination as the chap with the top hat and monocle in first class.
What is important is the one in whom our faith is placed.
But let us now leave the Sea of Galilee and follow the disciples onwards. A little after this we find them in the region of Tyre and Sidon, outside the boundaries of Israel. In gentile country. A Canaanite woman rushes out, and says something extraordinary. The Canaanites were ancient enemies of the Israelites, and yet this woman comes to a Jewish teacher, expecting great things.
And now, as we read on, let’s keep in mind Peter’s experience of walking on the water. If we do this, we will begin to see some interesting parallels between the great faith of this woman, and the little faith of Peter.
Jesus seeks to increase the faith of both this woman and Peter, but does so in starkly different ways. Peter cries out: “command me to come to you on the water”, and Jesus says come. As the woman cries out, Jesus remains silent. Her faith is stronger that Peter’s, and so Jesus seeks to draw her out even further. This disciples want nothing to do with this, and implore Jesus to send her away.
But he doesn’t. He seeks to draw her out further: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Like the persistent widow, the mother once more brings her pleas to Jesus and this time kneels before him. Such is her compassion for her daughter, that she shares her distress: “Lord, help me”. The winds had caused Peter to sink, but this woman is made of sterner stuff and her faith means she remains before her saviour.
Jesus seeks to draw her out still further: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. The word used here is different from the one Jesus used earlier in this gospel when he said “do not give dogs what is holy”. The word here refers to household pets. It brings to mind a domestic scene, with a pet eyeing up the food on the table.
Still she doesn’t sink. Quick as a flash, this woman of faith responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. How easily she speaks with her Lord! How she persisted with her cause. Now Jesus grants her request:
“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
Peter was a Jew, reared in the faith. He would have known the scriptures, and had been taught by Jesus for years. He had seen Jesus undertake mighty works, and witnessed miracles. Yet it was this gentile woman who had the great faith, who persisted with her prayers. She recognised Jesus as her “Lord, the Son of David”, and placed all her trust in him - not giving up.
It is the quiet, persistent, entire faith which is ‘great’. Peter may have been called to walk on water, but it was this unnamed woman who had the great faith.