READ : Matthew 15:21-28
Why would Jesus ever deny someone who begged him for help? One of the most troubling stories in the gospels describes an encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite mother that seems to show him rejecting her in her time of need.
Of all the many virtues Jesus displayed in his life, none is more attractive, I think, than his compassion. Jesus spent so much of his time and energy reaching out to the poor, to needy sufferers – in fact, literally reaching out. He readily communicated his compassionate healing with a touch, even to those who by reason of their illness or disability were considered “untouchable.” Lepers, gentiles, prostitutes, tax-collectors, they all found in Jesus a never-failing fountain of mercy.
A Disturbing Encounter
But listen to this story in Matthew 15 of another encounter that Jesus had with a sufferer, one that seems to undermine his reputation for boundless compassion.
Leaving [Galilee], Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Matthew 15:21-28, niv
The Jesus whom we know so well from the Gospels appears almost as a stranger here in this story from Matthew 15. The Lord whose compassion is so wonderful, whose mercy is offered so freely to all who seek it, appears strangely cold here and uncharacteristically hard-hearted. So what’s going on?
The exchange between Jesus and this desperate mother took place in the region of Tyre and Sidon, we read. So that means Jesus and his disciples have left Galilee and headed northwest into Phoenicia, in what is present-day Lebanon.
This is one of only two times in the gospels when Jesus travels to a foreign country. Perhaps he felt the need to get away for a short time, to escape the constant demands of the Galilean crowds and to relieve the increasing pressure brought to bear upon him by the hostility of his enemies, the scribes and the pharisees. Or maybe Jesus wanted some private time to spend with his disciples, a period of peace and quiet that he could devote to teaching them.
If that was the case, it was not to be because even in this foreign country Jesus’ fame had spread, and he was soon approached by yet another sufferer seeking help—in this instance a desperate Canaanite mother who came to plead with Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter.
The mother appeals to him directly and powerfully: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly.” And that cry for help shows a great deal of understanding on her part, even faith. While the word “Lord” could mean simply a polite term of respect on this woman’s lips, the phrase “Son of David” was definitely a Messianic title. Somehow this gentile woman has come to understand and believe in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the Savior. So she calls upon him for help. “Don’t worry,” we might have said to her, “you’ve come to the right place. No one has ever come to Jesus with such a plea and been denied.”
Wrong! Or so it seems. Look at how Jesus responds. At first he just ignores her, as if he hopes she’ll simply get tired and leave. Finally his disciples come and say to Jesus, “Why don’t you send her away? This woman has become a nuisance.” And at this point Jesus makes a comment that appears to justify his refusal to help her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” And as if all that weren’t enough, when the woman still continues to beg for him to help her, Jesus seems to insult her. “It isn’t right to take the children’s food,” he says, “and give it to the dogs.”
“Dog” was the most common epithet that Jews used in referring to gentiles. So Jesus’ speech here looks as if he’s endorsing this view. Not to put too fine a point on it, this sounds to our modern ears like a racist remark. So the merciful and compassionate Jesus not only appears to reject this desperate mother’s plea for help, but he does so in what seems to be a harsh and offensive style. How could he speak this way?
Crumbs for Dogs
The first thing I think we can say about this whole disturbing encounter is that it was intended to be exactly that – that is, it was intended to be an encounter that disturbs us. I believe Jesus’ original purpose was to make his disciples think. One key to understanding this story is to note both where it happened and whom it involved. It happened to a Canaanite woman, a member of the race of Israel’s ancient deadly enemies. And it took place on foreign, that is, gentile soil.
It’s true that Jesus’ primary ministry during his time on earth was to “the lost sheep of Israel,” as he says. That’s where he spent most of his time and energy. But he also knew both from the prophecies of the Old Testament and his own sense of purpose and calling that he would ultimately offer salvation to all the world’s peoples and races (see Isaiah 49:6, John 10:16). But this would be the task for his disciples to carry out after Jesus had died and risen again for the sins of the whole world.
So his encounter here with this Canaanite mother is a glimpse, I think, in preview of the greater healing which will soon be offered to lost and suffering people everywhere. But the question is: Will Jesus’ disciples follow through? Will they obey his Great Commission to take the gospel everywhere and make disciples of every nation? Will they be able to overcome their own natural prejudices against the “dogs” of other nations in order to reach out to them with the love of Christ and accept them as sisters and brothers in the fellowship of the body of Christ? It’s a great challenge. So one of Jesus’ reasons for this unusual encounter is to get the attention of his disciples, to plant a seed in their minds and hearts for what will eventually become their own mission.
A Test of Faith
A second thing to note here is that Jesus did grant this mother’s request. But before he did, he made it hard for her by using language that seemed to build a wall to keep her out. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. The point is that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. So he appears to put her off, and the woman persists in asking.
Answering Jesus in the same spirit in which he spoke, she picks up on his image and puts herself into it, throwing herself on his mercy. “Even the dogs get some of the children’s crumbs,” she says to him. It almost sounds as if they are joking together, as if there’s a playful tone to it. “So how about it, Jesus? Throw me a bone here.” Somehow this woman seems to have understood that Jesus, however harsh his words may have sounded, really does want her to come to him for help and really is ready to give it to her. “For that answer,” he says, “for that kind of persistent faith, I’ll give you what you ask.” And her daughter was healed in that very instant.
I found a very helpful insight into this story in the commentary of the great Reformer and theologian John Calvin:
Though [Jesus] appears to give a harsh refusal to her prayers, convinced that God would grant the salvation which he had promised through the Messiah, she ceases not to entertain favorable hopes; and therefore she concludes that the door is shut against her, not for the purpose of excluding her, but that, by a more strenuous effort of faith, she may force her way, as it were, through the chinks.
Isn’t that a wonderful image? When God seems to close the door in our face, he doesn’t do so to exclude us or to shut us out. He only wants us to come after him harder, to pray with all the more intensity, to force our way into his presence, to seize his blessing, to stick our foot in the door and push in toward him “through the chinks,” so to speak.
What this encounter teaches us is the importance of faith – bold, persistent faith. On one side we have God’s word, God’s promises. We have heard him described as a beautiful Savior. We have read about his love and mercy in his Book. Attracted to him, drawn by the hope of grace, we have entrusted ourselves to this compassionate Lord. We believe his promises; they are all we have to depend on.
But then over against all that comes painful experience. Life deals us a hard blow that seems to negate all our hopes and cancel all those good promises. We face trouble, or suffering, or death. Perhaps it’s the sickness of a child, like this woman, or some other calamity that befalls us, maybe even some mistake of our own that ruins our life and spoils our happiness. And we lose joy. Suddenly it looks as if God is frowning upon us, like he has closed the door in our face, as if he’s shut us out from all that we’d hoped for.
But this is the critical moment. Now we must choose what we’re going to believe: we’ll either believe that God’s promises still hold true, that he’s still good and kind and compassionate or we will succumb to the the evil appearance of our circumstances. So we have to decide what we’ll do, will we turn away from the Lord and sink into despair, or will we pursue him all the harder and ask for his blessing.
Remember this. When God seems to be frowning, when he has shut you off from his blessing, don’t lose faith. Don’t turn away. Keep on pressing toward him. Push your way into his presence and ask him for his blessing..