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)
I know I’m still with Matthew’s account of Jesus. Matthew and John are eye witnesses, while Mark
and Luke are more investigative reporters but all four want the world to know about Jesus and that he
is worth knowing because Jesus changes people and he gives them – us! – a relationship, a
perspective, an attitude, that we take into ourselves – what we tell ourselves – and into the world –
how we behave in this world. The challenge we face – and the world looking at us faces – is that
when asked for the evidence for why Jesus is so important, why and how he has changed us, we can
struggle to provide evidence that seems to make sense – sure we can point to blessings and good
things but they are not universal every day and there are also those things – tough times, illness,
tragedy, deaths even – that suggest that there is no God at all – and so what we and Matthew, Mark,
Luke and John keep going back to are Jesus’ cross and empty tomb. That is the crucible, the centre,
the crux of our faith – and why following Jesus is worthwhile. But it isn’t easily seen or easily done at
times. And today’s account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a case in point.
If the Church was sensitive about Jesus’ public image – about his treatment of foreigners and of
women, it might have told Matthew to edit this story. But it happened and I think it had a profound
effect on these Jewish men and their mindset. People today, with today’s mindset, might have
different issues with what happened but that is what every generation faces – those who saw Jesus and
those who hear of Jesus – does he have to fit what we think he should be or does he stand and in effect
say ‘this is me – follow me’? People back then responded – some followed, some didn’t – and it is
still happening today as people read the Bible and respond – some follow, some don’t.
Back then Jesus breaks the social norms and propriety by engaging with a foreigner and a woman.
She’s a Canaanite and she is desperate. Somehow she knows of Jesus enough to seek help. She asks
for help for herself – and she says that her daughter is severely oppressed by a demon. Strictly she
doesn’t ask for healing or an exorcism, she is the one who wants help – perhaps it’s the burden and
burnout of the caregiver and yes, of course, her daughter’s restoration to health would do this but it is
‘Have mercy on me’ she cries.
We’re the ones today who have more of a problem, I think, with Jesus’ silence. Why isn’t he helping?
In the silence the woman perseveres she hasn’t been told no, leave; the disciples possibly are
wondering why hasn’t Jesus told her to leave; and we’re wondering why he’s not helping. The silence
gives us space to fill with words about Jesus and his reasons. Will he fit our view of what he should
We don’t have stage directions here but let’s assume everyone hears what Jesus says, “I was sent only
to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The disciples might nod. The woman might sigh – the usual
Jew – Gentile divide is not unexpected. But we don’t get it because we know the beginning and the
end of Jesus’ public ministry – that he has come for all people, for women and men, young and old,
Jews and Gentiles – he even said so in his opening sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth when he uses
as examples of faith and receiving God’s blessings the widow at Zarephath that Elijah helped and
Naaman the Syrian that Elisha helped. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all humanity – that’s
central to Christianity – but, at this moment, he talks about the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
The woman doesn’t back down. It is still not a ‘no’. ‘Help me, Lord’ we’d usually think ‘Sir’ here but
she is kneeling – we’ve got no idea who she thinks Jesus is but he is still someone who might help.
Perhaps the next line about crumbs and dogs doesn’t bat a disciple’s eye but our eyes and mouths
widen in shock. But it is still not a definite ‘no’. And she retorts picking up that the word Jesus used
for dog was the word for the house hold dog, the one under the roof in the home, not the wild
scavengers that roamed. And these dogs are fed and she wants her crumb!
Jesus only praises two people for their great faith and neither of them are from the lost house of Israel.
Both are foreigners – one a woman – this Canaanite woman – and the other an oppressor, granted he
seems to be friendly and caring, but he is still part of the Roman Empire – the Roman centurion who
didn’t need Jesus to come under his roof for his servant to be healed. Jesus praises the woman’s faith
and says that what she wanted has been done – passive tense – means God has done it. We have no
account of her checking, double checking with Jesus, why would she leave unless she trusts? We
know none of this moment only that Matthew records that her daughter was healed instantly.
What has happened is a living example of what Jesus said back in Nazareth and the disciples have
witnessed it. They have witnessed that whatever views they had about Jesus, about this woman, about
this situation, about who gets to talk to God, who should ask for help – they have all been thrown into
tension – maybe confusion. What we haven’t heard since last Sunday’s walking on the water is that
Jesus has been healing and disputing with the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who are accusing
Jesus of breaking the Jewish religious traditions. The disciples came out of the boat saying that Jesus
is the Son of God and now they are hearing the religious leaders almost calling Jesus a ‘heretic’. And
Jesus has been pushing back by saying that their religious traditions are all about twisting God into
their image so that they support themselves and ignore God and his plans. God chose the people of
Israel to be a blessing in the world so that the world would be drawn to the God of Israel and discover
that God loved and cared for the whole world. The lost sheep of Israel were lost in themselves and
also in the world and that would make the world lost as well.
Why does Jesus say and do what he does?
The answer to that question shapes how we react to Jesus. For the disciples, their answer emerged
over three years of being with Jesus and watching and listening and still they scattered in the garden
and only John and some women were at the foot of the cross watching Jesus die. The glasses we put
on when seeing or reading Jesus are critical in understanding who Jesus is. Such glasses may not let
us see all the answers but we see enough to trust Jesus.
Have we asked for help from Jesus? When do we stop asking? Why? How do we process whatever
has caused us to stop? Is Jesus uncaring, rude, and offensive to us? Why? Why not? Sometimes
people do walk away but for many who have heard about Jesus from creation to Christmas, from
baptism to crucifixion, from resurrection to his visible return, there is that quality and truth that we
don’t have to fully understand everything to follow Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the
words of eternal life!”.
Why ask Jesus for anything? Why did the Canaanite woman even try? Because there is always
something about Jesus that draws people – even still today – not as a teacher or moral policeman or
even a ruler but as a caring God, a Lord who serves – it’s just that he will do so on his terms, in his
way, and that’s the hardest thing to trust. But a cross and an empty tomb declares that Jesus is
- Matthew 15:21 - 28