Canaanite Woman

When we recognize that we are sinners, that we are in desperate need of Jesus, but with no right to ask anything of him, then we can receive the only grace that will save us. I don’t mean that we should spend a lot of time feeling guilty. But the truth is, we cannot receive grace until we believe that we are in desperate need, and yet we deserve nothing. And in this situation, faith inspires us to ask anyway, assures us that there is grace for the humble and repentant.


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Matthew #49 . Matthew 15:21-28

This is one of those places in scripture that is very troubling when you read it through quickly. It just doesn’t sound like Jesus, at least, not until we stop and consider it more carefully.

Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, the area, where long ago, Elijah healed the dead son of a Gentile woman, while the nation of Israel suffered under famine. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her demon possessed daughter. Now, I would think this would be right up Jesus’ alley. He has delivered people from demons before and there is no question that he has the power to do what she asks. It is in the tradition of the great prophet, Elijah. In addition, demonization represents the one power that all Christians would call “the enemy.” It seems obvious that Jesus would want to strike a blow against this sort of thing. Not only that, but we have come to see Jesus as a person of great compassion, and this is an opportunity to combine that gracious mercy with a blow against the enemy.

And yet, when this Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, he flat-out ignores her. And when he finally does pay attention to her, his words are almost insulting, and appear to be designed to send her away in shame. But I do not think that what we see on the surface truly reflects the heart of Jesus. In fact, in this incident I believe, we have again an example of how he sees into the heart of each one, and endeavors to give each person what they truly need.

The woman continues her pleading until the disciples are so distracted that they ask Jesus to do something. Jesus’ reply, when it finally comes, sounds harsh: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Somehow, the woman gains admittance into Jesus’ presence and again she begs him to heal her daughter. Again Jesus’ reply is appears unsympathetic, quoting what some commentators believe was probably a common proverb. In any case, it certainly sounds severe. The woman replies, comparing herself with a dog licking the crumbs from the children’s table. Jesus, apparently satisfied, grants her request.

How shall we understand this incident? Is Jesus truly so uncaring? Why did he deal with woman as he did? Ole Hallesby offers some insightful words about this incident:

Every time Jesus sees that there is a possibility of giving us more than we know how to ask, He does so. And in order to do so He often has to deal with us in ways which are past our finding out……

Jesus had somewhat the same thing in mind with the Canaanitish woman when He delayed and postponed the answer to her prayer, first by remaining painfully silent and then by using some sharp, harsh words. he wanted to give her more than a healed daughter. He wanted to give her something for herself besides.

Jesus is seeing something here that we don’t initially see: the heart-need of the Canaanite woman. In his response, he is seeking to address that need. I’m not sure the woman herself was aware of the need in her heart until Jesus got her attention by responding so strangely.

She comes to him initially because she has an obvious external problem: her daughter is tormented by a demon. I think most sensible people understand her position. She has a problem. It’s a serious one; a spiritual one, and here is Jesus who has shown himself willing and able to deal with issues like this. That’s all she wants from him: to heal her daughter. To her (and, I suspect, to us) this seems fairly simple and straightforward.

But Jesus wants to do more than simply fix her problem. This is another aspect of something Jesus said earlier:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

The woman is looking at the here and now. What she wants is not bad, but it is not eternal. The healing of her daughter is not a treasure that would last forever; in fact, we know this for certain, because both the woman and her daughter are now dead. Jesus wants to give her something that will last forever, a treasure that will neither spoil nor fade.

Let’s look at the progression. I admit, I am reading between the lines a little bit here, but when we are done, I think you’ll agree that looking at the passage in this way gives us a satisfactory understanding of why Jesus would behave like this.

At first, the woman is upset about her daughter. Her mind is focused almost entirely on her daughter’s situation. When she comes to Jesus at first, she is not interested in him for his own sake; she simply wants her daughter to be healed.

When Jesus does not respond at all to her request, it creates tension for the woman. Now, for the first time, she is thinking about something besides her daughter’s condition. She is now also wondering why Jesus won’t even speak to her. In this way, by ignoring her, Jesus is beginning to get her attention. She was upset about her daughter; now she is also upset about Jesus. He has started the process of moving her focus away from her problem and toward himself.

As I believe Jesus had hoped, the woman does not give up, and keeps asking for help. I think, however, that now she was interested not only in the help of Jesus, but also in his behavior. The disciples appear to have less patience than Jesus, and finally they plead with him to respond to her, if for no other reason than to simply get her off their backs.

Jesus’ response, when it finally comes, must have been very unsatisfactory to the woman:

He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

However, this does not deter her. She kneels before him, and says simply, “Lord help me.” Again, this is reading between the lines, but this is not the same as her initial request. She does not mention her daughter this time. She simply asks him to help her. I think she is beginning to see that she has a bigger need than simply the healing of her daughter.

I think Jesus sees the change in her. However, he wants to make sure she really understands, so his response is still apparently very callous:

He answered, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”

Jesus is trying to help her understand grace. She has no more right to ask anything of him than the dogs have to the food of children. The first lesson of grace is that we desperately need it; the second lesson is that we do not deserve it, cannot demand it, and could never earn it. Her response shows that she gets it:

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table! ”

She understands that she has nowhere to turn but Jesus, and no hope apart from him. She understands also that Jesus owes her nothing, and she has no right to ask. The greatness of her faith is that with this understanding, she asks anyway.

When she acknowledged that she was indeed in the position of “the dogs” – completely dependent on the grace and favor of the Master – then she received the very unmerited grace and blessing that she desired. And because Jesus had brought her to this place by her harsh words, she received God’s grace not only in the healing of her daughter, but in the healing of her soul, as a helpless, needy sinner. Though his response seemed harsh, he succeeded in giving her not only what she wanted, but what her deepest need required.

This is one of the reasons it is so important for Christians to remember the seriousness of sin. If we do not recognize that we are sinners, that we are in desperate need of Jesus, but with no right to ask anything of him, then we cannot receive the only grace that will save us. I don’t mean that we should spend a lot of time trying to make people feel guilty. But the truth is, we cannot receive grace until we understand that we are in exactly the same position as that Canaanite woman: we are in desperate need, and yet we deserve nothing. And in this situation, faith inspires us to ask anyway, assures us that even though our Savior sometimes gets our attention with harsh words, there is grace for the humble and repentant.

There’s something else about this passage that I think is quite important. If we walk with Jesus long enough, sooner or later he will appear to us in the same way that he appeared to this Canaanite woman: unresponsive, distant, and even harsh. We might want something from him that appears to be simple, straightforward and like something he would obviously want to do for us. And yet, sometimes he doesn’t seem to respond at all, and at other times he appears to respond with a harsh or callous answer. When this happens, I want us to remember this Canaanite woman. From Jesus’ response she learned and acknowledged her true position of dependency upon grace; and yet her faith led her to keep seeking Jesus, in spite of the disappointment with how he was initially.

I think it may help for us to remember that sometimes Jesus has a vision that is bigger than our vision, that he often wants to give us much more than the small things that we ask for. The Canaanite woman was not looking for saving faith. She wasn’t looking for eternal life, even though that was so much better than the temporary healing she sought for her daughter. However, because she persisted in faith, she received both things. Sometimes, the Lord appears distant, or even harsh, because he is trying to get our attention. Our focus is so often on present things that will not last, while He wants to give us something eternal. He’s trying to get our eyes off of our problems and onto himself.

Will you allow him to do that in your life today? Allow him to remind you of your desperate need, and the fact that you deserve nothing from him. Allow the Scripture to strengthen your faith however that even when we have no standing, the Lord is gracious, and his heart goes out to those who seek him in humility and repentance.

Hallesby is a source of rich application for this text. How many times have we stormed heaven with an unanswered prayer request, crying out again and again, in distress, because the Lord says not a word to us? How often the Lord’s response to our prayers seems delayed so long, or harsh when it comes. Yet, we see in the way he dealt with the Syro-phoenician woman that his intent is always to give us more than what we ask for. He desires not only that are needs are met, but that we live in greater and closer reliance on Him and His promises. He wants us to see that we have no other hope.

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