People Jesus Praised: The Canaanite Woman

English service - November 19, 2023


Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison


Matthew 15:21-28


People Jesus Praised: The Canaanite Woman


              Hello, everyone taking part in today’s worship online, as well as everybody here at ODC.  I’d like to return with you to our message series, “People Jesus Praised.”  I say that even though, according to my records, I’ve already spoken here about this Bible story at least two times in the past.  I think there are some valuable things to learn here that we have not explored before.  So let’s hear the word of God once more with open minds and hearts.


              This story seems offensive to many people for one reason in particular.  Jesus seems to be very rude to a woman in a very difficult situation who comes to him for help.  He seems to call her a dog when He says in v. 26, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to their dogs.”  It is true that Jesus lived in a time and culture when many people in His ethnic group did not like those from others and used the word dogs to talk about them.  So how could He possibly say something so racist and hateful? 


              Some people have said this proves that Jesus sinned.  He could not be the sinless Son of God as the Bible claims because if He were, He would not have said this.  Others have said that Jesus is modelling for the disciples how foolish and hateful it is to take these racist attitudes.  The story is teaching them (and us) how not to be.  No, that couldn’t be the point, still others argue.  That would just be cruel—using her suffering to make a point to them.  Many have the understanding that Jesus knows from the beginning how this woman of great faith will respond, and He is only using these terrible words to test her, believing she can handle it.  If we could be there to see the look in His eye and the tone of His voice, we might see clearer how this woman was able to realize that there was kindness in Jesus’ heart beyond His choice of words.  That is basically how I’ve said I understand it.               


              But today I’d like to approach the story with a little different goal in mind.  In this woman’s model of faith as she speaks with Jesus, she shows us some valuable lessons about prayer.  Prayer is at the heart of our life with God because it is the communication which forms the foundation of the relationship.  Without prayer, we will not become people of fully-formed character, people whom God can praise.  That’s the larger goal of our learning about people Jesus praised.  So let’s go through the story again and ask, What can we learn here about our prayer life with God?


              We might tend to think of prayer as an activity set aside for special times.  Sunday morning worship, Tuesday morning prayer meeting, before meals—these may come to mind first when we hear the word prayer.  But it is remarkable to me how often, even in very secular cultures, I hear people talk about their prayers.  Several weeks from now in so-called “religion-less Japan,” large crowds of people will go to local Shinto shrines and pray for financial prosperity in the new year, success on upcoming entrance exams, or whatever. 


               Some of you may have heard recently of the death of the actor Matthew Perry, from the comedy Friends.  He said not long ago in an interview that he was not a person who prayed, but one day he decided to get down on his knees and talk to God. 

He said, “Please, God, make me famous.  You can do anything you want to me—just make me famous.”  Three weeks later, he received an offer to play the part of Chandler Bing in Friends, and soon he was famous, rich, and very popular.  But he also quickly learned that all that success was not making him a happy human being.  It was not setting him free from the need he felt to drink alcohol and do drugs in ways that damaged his life as a whole greatly.  He was very open in talking about his addictions for many years.  I have not read whether they led to his death or not.  But even in a life with deep pain in it, prayer had an important part.




               Who is the woman who comes to Jesus for help?  Mark tells us she is Greek (7:26), but that doesn’t mean she is from Greece.  In this context, it means that she is a non-Jew and part of the larger culture conquered by the Greek Alexander the Great long before and now dominated by Rome.  She was born in Syrian Phoenicia, in the general area where the story takes place, near Tyre and Sidon (southern Lebanon today). 


               We don’t know this woman’s name, though I somehow wish we did.  I would also love to ask her how she has heard about Jesus and become hopeful that He can help her daughter.  Of course, word about the miracles of Jesus and all He is doing will get around quickly, and she is not geographically so far from His hometown.  But we don’t get the details of how she has become interested, tracked Him down, and found Him in the “house” where Mark tells us He is (7:24).


              Why has Jesus gone to this region in the first place?  Matthew tells us that when King Herod had John the Baptist killed, the news impacts Jesus.  It seems to hit Him hard.  “Jesus heard what had happened to John. He wanted to be alone. So he went in a boat to a quiet place. The crowds heard about this. They followed him on foot from the towns” (Matthew 14:13).  Even though He needs some time alone with God to process what has taken place, Jesus does not turn away people who come to Him in need.  He feeds thousands of them. 


              Then He does take some time alone, sending the disciples ahead in a boat while He stays up on a mountainside to pray (Matthew 14:22-23).  In the middle of the night, they get in trouble when a sudden storm hits, and Jesus walks out across the water to help them (Matthew 14:24-33).  Then when they get to the other side of the lake, soon all kinds of sick people are again being brought to Christ, and He heals them. 


              So is Jesus now “recovered” from the shock of losing John?  Maybe not.  Is He physically exhausted from all the walking necessary to do the things recorded in these stories?  Probably.  Even if He’s not, the Pharisees are ready to wear Him out with the way they mislead God’s people by misusing His teachings.  He confronts them in 15:1-20, just before today’s story begins.  Jesus has got to feel ready for a vacation at this point.  He has told people He healed not to tell anyone about it.  But they have done it anyway, and now huge crowds are following Him pretty much wherever He goes.  He doesn’t turn them away, but because He is fully human, He has to be feeling some fatigue.  He does not just ignore this.  


              Now when we get to today’s story, it’s no surprise that Jesus is trying to get away for a little “R and R” (rest and relaxation/recreation/recuperation/rehabilitation).  Mark 7:24b says, “He did not want anyone to know where he was.” 


              Nevertheless, life intrudes.  It has a way of doing that with plans for down time, doesn’t it.  If you’ve ever had charge of raising a child day to day, for example, you know what I mean, don’t you. 


              What is the woman’s problem?  In v. 22b, she says, “A demon controls my daughter. She is suffering terribly.”  In Mark 7:25 it’s an evil spirit.  It might be something that we would call a mental illness.  Or maybe she is living with hate or fear or jealousy filling her heart and mind every day.  In a case like that, she would clearly be controlled by something evil or demonic.


              What is the mother’s request (her prayer)?  In v. 22b we read: “She came to him and cried out, ‘Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me!’”  She calls Him “Lord! Son of David!”  She does not say “Son of Mary and Joseph” or “Son of God” or “Son of Man.”  She knows the name that people are using for Jesus, “Son of David.”  It means that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the long-awaited Savior who has been promised to come and set God’s people free.  “He’s the One Who can help.  I’m going to Him.”  That seems to be her thought.


              “Have mercy on me!”  She does not present her own merit as a reason Christ should help her.  “Look how good a mother I’ve been.  Can’t you see how hard I’m trying to help my daughter?  I’m not just doing this for myself.  I should get some credit for that, shouldn’t I!”  No, that’s not her request. 


              She does not come threatening Jesus, “If you don’t give me what I need here, it proves that you’re a fake and your God is not real!  If you don’t heal my daughter, I’m never going to believe in you!”  No, she has a different prayer in her heart.


              She comes appealing to Christ’s goodness and compassion.  “Have mercy on me!”


              And, notice, she does not make specific demands about how Jesus must help her.  She leaves that to Him and only asks for mercy.  When it doesn’t come quickly, her prayer later will become, if anything, simpler (v. 25b): “Help me!”  Let Him make the decisions about how and when to do it.


              The British minister and author from the 1600s and 1700s, Matthew Henry, wrote:


              It is the duty of parents to pray for their children, and to be earnest in prayer for them, especially for their souls; “I have a son, a daughter, grievously vexed with a proud will, an unclean devil, a malicious devil, led captive by him at his will; Lord, help them.” This is a case more deplorable than that of a bodily possession. 


              Jesus in the end will call this woman’s faith “great” (v. 28) and heal her daughter.  How can you measure faith?  If it is a sport, like high-jumping, say, you can see clearly what is excellent and what isn’t.  We’re already less than a year away from the next Summer Olympics (in Paris), aren’t we.  If we watch the high-jump competition there, there’s one key object that we have to have to know greatness when we see it.  What is it?  It’s a ___, of course. 


              The woman coming to Jesus in “prayer” first has to clear the bar on Level 1: prayer when God is quiet.  She makes her need known, but in v. 23a “Jesus did not say a word.”  Have you ever talked to the Lord honestly about something that was important to you and simply not been able to sense that you were receiving an answer? 


              I have a friend whose wife died.  He went through a period of deep sadness, and part of that was talking with God about it.  But he told me, “I don’t hear anything.  Just silence.”  That’s a deep loneliness, isn’t it.  Gladly, he has come to better times in his life since then and, I believe, a deeper relationship with God through that.  But dealing with the silence of God is a difficult part of our life of faith, isn’t it.


              We have an encouraging word in the woman’s response.  She clearly does not give up and go away.  Mark says that she comes and falls at Jesus’ feet (v. 25b), then begs Him to drive the demon out of her daughter (v. 26).  He isn’t clear whether this happens right at this point or after Jesus says it’s not His job to deal with non-Jews.  But this much is very clear: she keeps going. 


              Let’s remember one important point. Every prayer accepted by God is not an immediately-answered prayer.


              The Canaanite woman next has to clear the bar at Level 2: prayer when God seems not to care.  In v. 24a, “Jesus answered, ‘I was sent only to the people of Israel.’”  Have you ever gone to some business to get help with a problem and asked person after person for help, only to be passed around from office to office until you gave up and stopped asking? 


              “Not my job” is not the response the woman came to Jesus to receive.  And, gladly, it’s not one she was willing to accept.  Her response shows what is really in her heart (v. 25b): “Lord! Help me!”


              She reminds me so much of a woman I heard about somewhere in news the other day (I can’t locate it now).  Her child is being held hostage in Israel by Hamas, and she is desperate for help.  She says she had not prayed before this crisis, but she has since it began.  Now she is coming to the U.S. government with a very simple and heart-felt message: “Please help.”  Let’s join her and others like her in seeking not only political leaders’ help but, even more, God’s as well.


              Finally, this woman of great faith has to clear the bar at Level 3: prayer when God seems cruel.  In v. 26 “He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to their dogs.’”  When people use this term in an insulting way, as I mentioned before, they are generally talking about wild dogs that would roam the towns and cities, almost like wolves.  There was a different word that they would typically use for cute puppies, ones some people would keep in their homes. 


              Yet when Jesus uses the word here, He doesn’t use the one for wild dogs you would expect if He was trying to be insulting.  He calls her, in effect, a cute puppy.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  That’s not an excuse.  Please, please, do not leave here today thinking that if you don’t use the rudest possible word for someone of another ethnic group, it’s pretty much OK to use other rude words.  No.  But Jesus’ using the unexpected, softer word here may be something this perceptive woman picked up on as a hint that there might be something kind and welcoming behind the hard, offensive words.


               For whatever reason or combination of reasons, the woman comes up with a brilliant response (v. 27).  “Yes, Lord,” she said. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners' table.”  “Crumbs.”  Crumbs are small.  But Jesus is OK with small.  Small is no problem to Him because it’s enough—and more—when it is the gift God wants to give.  The woman gets this, it seems. 


              In Matthew 17:20b, Christ says, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is enough. You can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’ And it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  The greatest gifts of God are small sometimes.  In Matthew 13:45-46 Jesus pictures God’s kingdom as a little pearl.  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a trader who was looking for fine pearls. He found one that was very valuable. So he went away and sold everything he had. And he bought that pearl.”


              The woman’s answer is like what “the prodigal son” says to his Father when he finally comes back from the far country (Luke 15:19): “I am no longer fit to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired workers.”  But the Father is not content to make His son a hired worker, and Jesus is not content to give this woman just a little. 


              He gives everything she asks for and raises her up as a model for people throughout the centuries to take for ourselves as we decide how to live our lives.


              When God doesn’t answer in the time or way we expect Him to, we can react by becoming discouraged.  We can respond by becoming depressed.  We can let this kind of trouble lead us to be angry at God.  This answer to God when He seems silent or unconcerned or mean may happen especially often if we have one mistaken but common view God.  In that idea, God is like a divine vending machine and prayer is putting in the coins.  If you just say the right words in the right situations, God has to answer in a certain way.  People often find some part of the Bible and try to turn it into a legal contract that God is required to follow as we expect Him to in our daily lives.  When things don’t go the way you imagine and want, you can end up feeling about God the way you may feel about that vending machine that doesn’t work the way you think it should—shouting, blaming, kicking, and walking away angry.


              The Canaanite woman, when Jesus gives her three different responses besides the one she needs, could blow up in anger.  She could say, “So this is the so-called Messiah?  People said he was kind, but that’s not what I see here.  Why do they get help and my daughter and I are left to suffer?  I should have stayed home and not wasted my time coming here!  At least I wouldn’t have been called a dog!  Forget you, and forget your people.  You won’t see me again!  I’m leaving!” 


              That would be an honest “prayer,” but not one that shows the humility and wit and character that this woman has.  She will not give up on coming to Him in hope based on faith.  No matter how great an obstacle is put up before her, she continues to seek His help, in humility and expectation and trust.


              Why would God choose to make His people wait or give us an answer that doesn’t meet our needs?  We can only find some hints by looking at various cases in the Bible.  They do not give us something like a mathematical formula that we can “plug in” to any situation and know what to expect to happen next.  Yet they do show us some things about the way God’s mind, heart, and plans work.


              In Daniel 10:13-14, the prophet Daniel has a vision and asks God to help him understand it.  An angel comes and does so but doesn’t arrive until 21 days later.  He says that the delay was because there was spiritual opposition.  We don’t know how often something like that might happen in our lives, or exactly how it worked then or would today.  But the point is that God has reasons we may not be able to see or even understand. 


              In Luke 11:5-10, Jesus tells us to be like a person who goes to his friend’s house in the middle of the night, wakes him up, and won’t leave until he has lent him some bread to feed his guests.  Persistence to the point of being annoying to God!  Sometimes the Lord won’t answer quickly because He wants to build in us the will to keep going.  Christ is talking about prayer mainly when He promises (11:9b), “Ask, and it will be given to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.”  (A-S-K: Ask, Search [or Seek], and Knock.).


              In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells His disciples a story with the goal, “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1).  He tells them to be like a widow who went again and again to a corrupt judge and asked for him to help her.  She wouldn’t leave him alone until he finally gave up and did his job.  That’s the spirit of the Canaanite woman!  That’s what He wants you and me to be like, too.


              In II Corinthians 12:7-9, Paul talks about a physical problem he had (maybe with his eyes).  He’s asked God again and again to take it away, but God decided to let it remain.  Paul says that this happened to keep him from becoming too proud of himself.  In his case, it seems that Paul’s being free from pride was even more valuable than his having good eyesight.


              One final example.  In James 1:2-4, we are taught that our faith will be put to a test.  We will face all kinds of trouble.  But “when that happens it will produce in you the strength to continue. The strength to keep going must be allowed to finish its work. Then you will be all you should be. You will have everything you need (vv. 3b-4).


              So, in closing, let’s notice that those whom Christ intends to honor the most, he allows to be in difficult circumstances.  In this way, He builds humility in us.  This freedom from pride is absolutely necessary for us to pass the kind of tests that came to our faith role model for today, the unnamed Canaanite woman.  Let’s learn from her to turn our disappointments and troubles and deep needs into requests to God for help.  Every one of them can become an occasion for us to move closer to the Lord, love Him more, and learn to trust Him more as we receive His blessings in our lives.


Let’s pray.


              God of compassion for every suffering human in every part of your world, thank you for teaching us again today to come to you persistently in prayer.  Give us the kind of never-quit spirit that the Canaanite woman showed.  We know you want that in us, too.  We see that it is not the emotional depth of our faith or the intellectual soundness of our faith but the object of our faith—you yourself—that counts more than anything.  Help us not just to seek an outcome we think we need but to seek you.  Strengthen our faith in your goodness, compassion, and power.  Forgive us when we let our circumstances influence our view of you and your character.  We know we are showing immature faith when we do that.  Help us to make the choice day by day not to let our circumstances but the character of Christ tell us what is real, true, and worthy of our trust.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 





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