Matthew 15:21-28: *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. *
In Nomine Iesu
She was desperate. You could see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice. The urgency, the fear verging on panic, the despair. Her little girl was suffering from demon possession. We don’t know more than that. How long had it been? What were the symptoms? But our idle curiosity will not be satisfied. Matthew tells us only as much as we need to know. She was a desperate Canaanite woman seeking help for her daughter.
Jesus was in town. He’d gone to the coast with His disciples, to the region of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean. This wasn’t Israelite territory, it was Canaanite land. Canaanites were named after the descendants of Cain, the son of Adam who had murdered his brother. Canaanites were those people that were supposed to have been purged from the land under Joshua. Israelites hated Canaanites, and the animosity was mutual in return. The Israelites called the Canaanites “dogs.” Filthy dogs, if you really wanted to drive home the point. We don’t know what the Canaanites called the Israelites.
She heard that Jesus had come to town. She’d heard the reports that were going around about His power to heal and cast out demons. There was a faint ray of hope. . She sees Jesus and goes running after Him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Son of David is an Israelite way of speaking. The Israelites knew that the messiah would come from the house of David to establish his throne. Son of David, she called Jesus. A Canaanite speaking like an Israelite. Maybe if Jesus mistook her for one of His own countrymen He would help her.
It’s kind of clever, actually. Talk like an Israelite and maybe Jesus will do you a favor. Some people think in those terms. Do you? Some people try to transact with God in prayer, trying to negotiate a favor. Do you? People like to get all “religious” when they pray. Pile on those religious phrases higher and deeper thinking God will be impressed and do what you ask. Do you?
Jesus meets her pleas with stony silence. “He did not answer her a word.” Nothing. Silence. And she keeps on calling out to Him, over and over again. “Son of David, have mercy on me. Son of David, have mercy on me. Son of David, have mercy on me.” To the point where the disciples who are with Jesus say, “Lord, she’s driving us nuts. Tell her to get out of here!”
What would you have done? Jesus, your last hope, greets you with silence. He turns His back on you in your need. He turns a deaf ear to your heartfelt prayer. He slams the door in your face, and His buddies give you a kick for good measure. What would you have done? Left? Maybe shoot an obscene gesture? Go and find another healer, another religion, or at least another congregation? What do you do with this sort of Jesus?
Jesus speaks. He doesn’t really speak to her directly. He just speaks, reminding her of who she is, and who she isn’t. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Ouch! It doesn’t get much harsher than that, does it? Sorry, I’m busy. Sorry, I’m not here for you. Sorry, you’ll have to go somewhere else, I can’t be bothered with you and your problems. If His silence didn’t do the trick, that should have settled it for this woman. It’s a dead end. Jesus isn’t going to help you.
But she keeps persisting and pressing and praying. She comes up to Jesus, this man who had just said He hadn’t come for her, and she kneels down at His feet. “Lord, help me.” No more Son of David pseudo-Israelite talk. Just a simple Kyrie eleison. Lord, help me. It doesn’t get more basic than that. No religious fluff, no charades.
Jesus seems unmoved, hard, cold, uncaring. “It’s not right,” He says. “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! His silence was bad enough. His harsh statement about His being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel was even worse. But this was worst of all. A dog. He called her a dog. A “little doggie,” yes, but a dog nonetheless. She’d heard that slur in the marketplace, on the street corner, from the mouths of the Israelite men as they spit. But from Jesus?
And what about this Jesus? What do you think of Him? What would you have done if He called you a little lap dog in your hour of need? This isn’t the kind of compassionate Savior we picture in our minds and our hymns and our kitchy art. This Jesus is mean, uncaring, unmoved. This woman isn’t even asking anything for herself, she’s asking for her helpless little girl, and the only thing that Jesus seems to notice is that she isn’t an Israelite.
But she is undeterred. She won’t let Jesus off the hook that easily. His calling her a little doggie gives her the opening she is looking for. “Yes, Lord, Canaanite dog I may be. Call me whatever you wish. It’s true, there’s no way around that. I’m a dog. I’ll accept that. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Did you hear that? Did you catch that unreasonable line of reasoning? She accepts Jesus’ word on her, that she’s nothing more than a yapping dog bugging Him on His way and that He really wasn’t even sent to the likes of her, and yet she finds in all that a handhold for faith. Even the dogs get to lick the crumbs off the floor. And what glorious and wonderful crumbs they are when they fall from this Master’s table!
The next word from Jesus is praise. He loves it. This is music to His ears. Faith talk! Trust! “O woman, great is your faith.” No longer as a dog, now Jesus addresses her with dignity and respect. “O woman.” He commends her faith, in the hearing of His disciples who do not yet understand faith. They think they’re the big men hanging out with Jesus. They don’t get it. She does. Faith clings to Jesus even when Jesus seems to have turned His back on you. Faith clings to Jesus even when He looks you in the eye and says, “I haven’t come for you.” Faith clings to Jesus even when He calls you a dog. Faith hears “yes” inside of God’s “no” and trusts. Faith holds Jesus to who He is - Savior and Redeemer. O woman, great is your faith. O baptized child of God, great is your faith as it clings to Jesus.
This is not meant to get you to look at your faith and size up your believing. It’s intended to get your eyes off yourself and onto Jesus. Your faith is only as good and as strong as the Jesus it clings to. The woman’s faith, her trust in Jesus, was vindicated. “Let it be done for you as you desire.” He is for her, and for her daughter, after all. Though she’s a Canaanite, yet through faith she is a daughter of Abraham, as Paul explains in Romans. Jesus is Son of David, even for her. And His Word is solid and sure. Her daughter was healed instantly.
Some daughters aren’t. Sons too. Prayer isn’t like instant oatmeal. Some get put on hold. But when God puts you on hold, as Jesus put that poor woman on hold, it doesn’t mean He has abandoned you. It means instead that Jesus wants to put your faith on display so that the world would understand what faith in Jesus looks like. It looks like a little dog lapping up crumbs falling from the master’s table. And if that comes as a blow to your ego, good! Our ego, that old Adam in us, needs that. We call it repentance, that change in mind from self to God.
Most of you know who Tony Snow was, the conservative commentator and White House press secretary. He was also a Christian. Tony Snow died last month of cancer. A year before, he wrote a wonderful essay in Christianity Today called “Cancer’s Unexpected Blessings.” Here is one paragraph from that essay:
“God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease—smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see—but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension—and yet don’t. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.”
There really is no shortcut to faith like that of the Canaanite woman. There is only going off-road with Jesus, together with all the twists and turns that life under His cross entails. It may be the unexpected surprise of sickness or demonized daughters or silence or a harsh “no” or being humbled. It may mean waiting patiently for the resurrection while feeling like a dog most of the time. To the world’s way of looking at things, life under the cross of Jesus can be a dog’s life, but the crumbs that fall from that table are rich indeed - His Body and Blood giving you forgiveness, life, and salvation. A dog never had it so good.
In the name of Jesus,
Pr. William Cwirla, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church