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10. The faith of a Canaanite woman

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 6: Episode 10
Matthew 15:21-28 Mark 7:24-30

Jesus endeavoured to take a break from his ministry in Phoenicia. A woman there showed great faith and persistence and her daughter was healed.

Jesus endeavoured to take a break from his ministry in Phoenicia. A woman there showed great faith and persistence and her daughter was healed.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 6 and Episode 10, this is ‘The Faith of a Canaanite Woman.’ This story is recounted in Matthew and also in Mark but we're going to look at in Matthew 15: 21 - 28, which we'll read in a few moments. This is a remarkable incident and takes the story in a really different direction from where we've been in previous episodes.

Introduction and Recap

Series 6 is now coming towards a conclusion which describes the third tour that Jesus made of Galilee, with lots of dramatic events which we've been looking at steadily as we've been going through the narrative, starting of course with that great moment when the Apostles were sent off two by two (Matthew 10 and parallel passages). They toured around the whole of Galilee, had a big impact as far as we can tell (many miracles, many people receiving their message). Then we had the execution of John the Baptist - that was a dramatic and rather sinister event from the point of view of Jesus and his disciples. Then we had the great event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and all the things that followed: Jesus walking on water and the discussion in the Capernaum synagogue about Jesus' identity.

In the last episode, we looked at further conflict with the Pharisees. A very difficult encounter took place between Jesus and some of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who came down from Jerusalem and were targeting Jesus with trick questions about the obedience of his disciples to different religious laws and traditions that they followed. They were trying to trip him up and Jesus counter-attacked to say that true faith wasn't about external rules and regulations so much as a change of heart. God works from the inner person outwards, rather than from the outward person inwards through rules and regulations. Looking at all those events, we can see a number of interesting things that lead to a quite sudden and unusual action that Jesus took in this particular episode. We can see popularity at the Feeding of the Five Thousand but we can also see that popularity beginning to decline. People are beginning to drift away from Jesus; they were troubled by some of his teaching, as recorded in John 6 after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and troubled with his teaching about dying for the people and being raised again. They really wanted a conquering Messiah to overturn the political system and bring a new era of peace and harmony for the Jewish people. Jesus' popularity hangs in the balance, just at the moment, and there are some strong indications of a rising tide of opposition.

There is of course the very clear action of King Herod Antipas who has now killed John the Baptist and the question arises: what will he do to Jesus? He is the political ruler in Galilee; he's got easy access to Jesus; he's got his own army - there's all sorts of things that he could do against Jesus. The conflict with the Pharisees and the religious establishment is very severe. They have already ruled Jesus to be a false messiah, operating by demonic power and they're now continually attacking him. Jesus is under pressure, not only from the crowds, but also from opposition.

Jesus Takes Time Out

It's been an intense experience and, when he travelled over from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other in order to go to Bethsaida, in order to get some time out, the crowd followed him and then he fed the 5000 people on the mountainside. That didn't work out as a real break - he just spent a few hours in solitude on the hillside before returning back to Capernaum. For a second time, in a fairly short period of time, Jesus decides to take a break and to withdraw from the public eye and from public ministry. He's obviously tried to do that once but the crowd followed him. This time he is successful, by and large, in doing that and that's the story we are going to read today. That's the context and during this period of retreat, getting out of the public eye, Jesus makes a surprise encounter with a woman with great needs who asks him urgently for help. That is the issue and the story that we're going to talk about in this episode. Matthew 15: 21 - 28:

‘Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26He replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” 28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.’

Matthew 15:21-28, NIV

This is a very unusual situation. Jesus, quite deliberately, is taking time out. He withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is an area which is called Phoenicia; it's north of Galilee, north of Israel. It's a Gentile kingdom and Tyre and Sidon are two of the major cities. They're both on the Mediterranean coast and this area was not populated by Jewish people and outside the region of Jesus' direct activity. It's fairly obvious that if he goes to Phoenicia, or to Tyre and Sidon, then he's trying to get away from his public ministry. In fact, in Mark's account he goes even further and says in Mark 7: 24,

‘He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.’

Mark 7:24, NIV

He really was trying to be in private. This reminds me of the plight of modern-day celebrities who are followed by the media everywhere - I'm sure this is something you're very familiar with - and their privacy is reduced to an absolute minimum. Sometimes it hardly exists at all because wherever they go, people find out they're there and they want to know about them; they want to photograph them; and they want to meet them, et cetera. For different reasons, Jesus suffered from a similar type of difficulty. His reason was the tremendously great impact of his ministry; tremendous popularity; huge geographical coverage - people had come from far and wide to hear him speak and to experience his miraculous powers. He chose to go north to Phoenicia. This area is roughly equivalent to the modern day nation of Lebanon.

The Canaanite Woman

This lady is called a Canaanite woman - which, basically, is another way of describing a Phoenician, since there was no particular country called Canaan at the time. Mark's Gospel identifies her as a Phoenician lady. Jesus is obviously going to get some recuperation and some rest, maybe to teach his disciples, to train them for the next period of their ministry but his presence is discovered - particularly by this lady and presumably discovered by other people but we don't hear about that at all in the story. We just hear about this one woman. Verse 22:

‘A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”’

Matthew 15:22, NIV

There are many interesting things about this particular situation. First of all, she was very clear, even though she was a Gentile, that there are evil spirits in this world and she attributed her daughter's illness, whatever suffering it was, which we're not fully clear about from the narrative, to the oppression and the dark powers that were coming against her. This was a common belief in all ancient cultures: evil powers existed that were operating against mankind and, in that, they had a similar belief to the Jews. The interesting thing is, why did she come to Jesus when she heard he was there? She must have known quite a lot about him and she also called him the Son of David - which is very interesting. Here is a woman who knows quite a lot. In Mark 3: 8, in an earlier situation, Mark describes the fact that, when there were large crowds gathering in Galilee, they came from Judea and Jerusalem, Idumea and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. This district, Phoenicia, is identified in Mark 3: 8, as a place from which people came. We can imagine that many people would have paid a visit to Galilee to see this Jewish prophet and healer called Jesus of Nazareth. Was this woman one of those? We don't know. Had she heard about this? Most certainly. Was she convinced that he had some power to help her daughter? Most certainly. As a Gentile, without any Jewish background and not a follower of the Jewish religion, as far as we know, she seemed to possess a very clear view of who Jesus was.

Son of David

Not only did she come to him directly, not only did she obviously know what had gone on in Galilee from people who had come back to Phoenicia from there, but she addressed him, very interestingly, as ‘Lord, Son of David.’ She is one of the first people individually, in the Gospels, who are described as using this title. Although Matthew does describe the response of the crowd to an amazing miracle as asking the question: could this be the Son of David? (Matt 12:23) People later on in the narrative use the terminology Son of David (like blind Bartimaeus and others) and it's used when Jesus enters into Jerusalem in triumph, when they welcome him claiming him as the Son of David: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ This isn't just a general title. Every time we've come across this title in our episodes, we've paused for a moment to remember the significance of the title. Son of David is a very powerful title and it indicates a belief that King David, with whom God made a special covenant that he would have a permanent monarchy or dynasty (2 Samuel 7:16). King David's descendants would ultimately lead to a descendant who would be a king like David but an even greater king, who would be a Messiah, a religious leader for the nation of Israel for the benefit of the world. That generic belief existed amongst the Jewish people and they were always looking for this Son of David; they were always looking for this Messiah. No one had been ruling on the throne of David as King of Israel in the old-fashioned, Old Testament sense, for hundreds of years and they were waiting for that moment. To some extent this Canaanite woman must have understood that. It seems very strange that she uses this expression - such a Jewish expression - she didn't just call him teacher, healer or a more common title. She called him ‘Son of David’ and also as ‘Lord’. This term, which trips off the tongue, for us, very easily, indicated real respect and possibly an understanding that this was the Son of God himself. This lady had a lot of understanding of who Jesus was. How did she get this understanding? We don't know. This point is very rarely noticed when people comment on this passage but this woman wasn't a Jew; she wasn't in Galilee; she wasn't living in any part of the land of Israel; and, therefore, we need to ask questions. How did she know this? Maybe she was one of those people who are described in the New Testament as ‘God-fearers,’ who look at the nation of Israel, Yahweh (the God of Israel) and the Jewish Scriptures and they are drawn to that faith and they study the Old Testament. Maybe she is one of those people who have done that. We can't answer these questions fully but it's really interesting to try and work out what motivates this woman who comes with such clarity, such urgency and such determination.

Jesus Tests Her Faith

She really did need that determination because Jesus tested her faith. Some people have been quite troubled by the answers that Jesus gave her. Let's read them again and see what is going on as Jesus appears to be testing her. As she cries out to him in verse 23, it says:

‘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.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26He replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” 28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.’

Matthew 15:23-28, NIV

What's going on in this situation? Jesus is literally testing her sincerity. He's waiting to see if she gives up when, first of all, he's silent and, secondly, he states that his mission primarily is to the Jews. That is something the disciples understood, because when they went out on their first tour round Galilee, as recorded in Matthew 10: 5 - 6, Jesus particularly says,

‘“Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.’

Matthew 10:5-6, NIV

The priority, at that point, was to the Jewish mission and he's saying, “My priority now is to the Jewish mission, rather than to the Gentiles.” She pressed on and he also said, “It's not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.” The dogs is a derogatory term for Gentiles and she may have understood that to be the case. He tested her by apparently being rude to her and putting her off but, quite suddenly (in verse 28) he said, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” He then respects and honours her because he sees that she is not willing to be put off by anything - she genuinely believes who he is (Lord, Son of David), she genuinely believes he is the Messiah and she genuinely believes he has the power to heal her daughter and, indeed, ‘her daughter was healed at that moment.’

It's a remarkable story and this woman's determination is a tremendous example to us. It's interesting how sometimes the Gentiles in the New Testament show great faith - I wonder if you remember the centurion? The Gentile centurion, the soldier who pleaded with Jesus to heal his greatly suffering servant and Jesus said of him, through his persistence, that he hadn't found such faith in all Israel, as was expressed by that man. (Luke 7:9) We could say something similar of this woman. It was really outstanding faith that led her to put her trust in him and plead with him so urgently.

Reflections

What can we learn from this rather unusual and intriguing story in the Gospels? First of all, I want to reflect a little about the question of holidays and taking a break from the routine of life and the pressures of giving to other people. I have no doubt that this represents Jesus' deliberate attempt to take what we would call a holiday - not in exactly the modern sense but in the sense of going to a different environment and getting away from the front line of work and his public ministry. If Jesus took holidays, then all of us need those moments of relaxation and a break. In the Old Testament, the provision for this was given by the weekly Sabbath where work was strictly forbidden; it was a quiet, restful day, and also by the three religious festivals in the year, where people left their work and were invited to go up in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They didn't go on every occasion but it provided a break. Jesus is indicating that it's good for him and his disciples to get out of the front line. He was away from Galilee and even though it became known that he was around in this place, in Phoenicia, I'm sure he didn't experience the level of crowds that he'd experienced in the recent past. We must remember that on one occasion, just before the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Gospel writers tell us that they were so busy, with so many people crowding in, they couldn't even find the time to eat! That's the sort of context we're talking about. Taking a break from our main working life and our main Christian ministries (if we're involved in those ministries) is a very important discipline and, if Jesus did it, then there's every reason why we should do it as well.

Thinking about this woman, I would say that our desperation is often God's opportunity. He moves powerfully in people's lives when there is real desperation. A very common theme of the Gospels - which is very noticeable to me as I'm working through the text very closely, looking at every incident - is the sheer desperation of people who come to Jesus and the urgency and the persistence. I've commented on this in quite a number of other different contexts and this is a very good example of this process. This woman was desperate and she was persistent. Sometimes God is looking for that urgency, that desperation and that persistence. Jesus tested her faith by appearing to be uninterested and unconcerned and even a little rude to her. He saw that she was not going to be put off and he quickly rewarded her faith. This reminds me that Jesus teaches, very explicitly, in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer (and elsewhere). We can't go to Jesus in person. Our access to Jesus is through the New Covenant, the new and living way into God's presence that Jesus has made open and the Holy Spirit ushers us in and leads us, through prayer, to draw close to him. Jesus said, very explicitly, in Matthew 7: 7 on,

‘“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,”’

Matthew 7:7, NIV

He goes on to describe that sense of urgency implied in that. God rewards urgency and persistence when seeking him for genuine human need and for the advance of the Kingdom. That's something we can draw from the extraordinary story of this lady - “You have great faith (and) your request is granted.”’ If she has great faith, that means she is also experiencing salvation herself. This woman is entering into God's Kingdom even as she's pleading on behalf of somebody else.

This is also a prophetic event because Jesus makes clear in this passage, but it is also clear from various parts of the New Testament, that the primary ministry of Jesus is to the Jewish people. In fact, his whole missionary strategy is based on the fact he wants to saturate the land of Israel with Kingdom proclamation. That's why he saturated Galilee, first of all, with his own presence and then he sent the Twelve around Galilee, as described in Matthew 10. Luke 10 describes a bigger mission with 72 (which includes the Twelve) sent out as he was travelling further south towards Jerusalem. They travelled all the way through the country. Jesus is clearly focused on the Jewish people - but there are many hints in the Gospels that this was only for a season. “Go to the lost sheep of Israel for this season,” was really what Jesus was saying to his disciples and that's what he was focusing on in Galilee. We see, very clearly, that this Gospel message is very shortly going to go to all the nations of the world and many, many people of different nations are going to sit down in the eternal banquet, in the end times and in the Kingdom of God and the Messianic Age and enjoy the presence of God because they have had faith. In a similar situation with the centurion whose servant was healed, Jesus commented on the faith of the man: ‘“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”’ Matthew 8: 10) but then he goes on to say:

‘“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west,and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”’

Matthew 8:11-12, NIV

There's a prophetic trajectory here that some of the Jews, indeed many the Jews, are going to fail to enter the Kingdom because there is such a strong resistance to Jesus which is building up at this time and the door is going to be opened up to the Gentiles. The centurion (in Matthew 8) and the Canaanite woman (in Matthew 15) are just two examples of Gentiles we see emerging in the narrative - those who are adopting faith in Jesus very early in the process - and they are prophetic signs of the fact that the Gospel is going to come to the Gentiles in a much fuller sense once the mission of the Church is launched. In Acts 1: 8, Jesus said to his Apostles that they were going to be witnesses not just in Jerusalem, not just in Judea and Samaria, but also ‘to the ends of the earth,’ Here we see an early example of salvation coming and that process. That's been going on for 2000 years now and it's affected me and it's affecting you, whichever nation you come from, because this Gospel is now thoroughly international. God's plan is to create a worldwide family of those who put their faith in Jesus. This Canaanite woman was one of the first non-Jews to enter into the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. I hope that her persistence, her faith and her ethnic origins will give encouragement to you because she had no particular significance as a person: she was a woman, not a man; she was a non-Jew, not a Jew; she didn't live in the nation of Israel; she didn't have any apparent privileges at all; but she found her way into the Kingdom by seeing who Jesus was and following him with determination; and you and I can do just the same. Thanks for joining us.

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