May 31, 2017
Listen to this Sermon
“It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).
This may be the strangest thing Jesus ever said.
It happened when he ventured outside the confines of Israel and entered the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. When Mark gives us his version of this story (Mark 7:24-30), he says Jesus retired to a house, evidently seeking rest from the rising tide of controversy with the Pharisees. But it did not work because Jesus could not escape notice.
Jesus could not escape notice
Word had spread far and wide that Jesus had supernatural power to heal the sick and raise the dead. Even in this Gentile territory, people knew about his ministry, and that’s why one particular woman came to see him.
She is called a Canaanite, meaning she descended from the Canaanites in the Old Testament who were mortal enemies of the Jewish people. She had many things going against her that day:
This woman had everything going against her
Jesus had come to her region to rest, not to minister.
She was a pagan, not a Jew.
She was a woman, not a man.
Although there was no reason to think Jesus would help her, she came because he was her last hope. The story as Matthew tells it begins this way:
Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that territory came to him and began to shout, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:21-22).
Every parent can understand this. If you have a sick child, how far will you go to help your son or daughter? To ask the question is to answer it. It’s not a matter of time or distance or money. When your son is sick or your daughter is ill, nothing matters except getting them well again. I remember talking with a gifted physician about this. He commented that when your child is sick, you don’t care about test results, x-rays, percentages, new medicines, research protocols, or anything like that. “People just want to know one thing: ‘Is my child going to be all right?’” Nothing else matters.
“Is my child going to be all right?”
We don’t know how this woman’s daughter came to be tormented by a demon. Somehow this little girl’s life had been taken over by a malignant evil spirit. It wasn’t a matter of medicine, for no medicine could cast out the demon. Because the problem was supernatural, only a miracle could cure her. That’s why the woman came to Jesus that day.
We love miracle stories because they have happy endings, but this one starts in a strange way. Jesus’ response to this woman seems peculiar and perhaps even cruel. Did our Lord not believe her story? Did he not care about her daughter?
The most obvious way to answer those questions is observe that our Lord varied his methods. He treated each person he met as an individual. He dealt with Nicodemus one way, another way with the woman at the well, yet another way with the deaf mute, and yet another way with Zacchaeus. He met people where they were and found a way to communicate divine truth to each one.
To understand how Jesus dealt with this Canaanite woman, let’s ask and answer two key questions about this story.
Why Was Jesus Silent?
Matthew is very clear on this point. When the woman came up to him begging for help, he refused to answer her:
“Jesus did not answer a word” (v. 23).
Nothing terrifies the soul like the silence of heaven.
Jesus dealt with people as individuals
It happens to all of us from time to time. We wait and pray and seek the Lord, and yet the heavens are as brass. When that happens, you must not let your feelings rule your heart. Jesus did not speak immediately to this Canaanite woman, but he heard everything she said. His silence was meant to draw out her faith. In the end, she got what she wanted, and her suffering daughter was healed.
God’s silence does not always mean God’s refusal. His “no” doesn’t always mean “no.” It often means “not this, not now, not yet.” In this case, Jesus wanted to bring out the woman’s faith, not only for her benefit but also for the disciples who were watching.
God’s silence does not always mean “no”
As far as the disciples were concerned, she was just some strange, sad, pagan woman who kept on bothering them. They had little use for a Canaanite woman. But every time they told her to “Hush!” she kept on crying out for mercy for her daughter. The more they brushed her off, the more determined she became. Perhaps personal prejudice played a part in all of this. Would it have been different if she had been a Jewish mother? Certainly they would have had more sympathy for her plight.
We can turn the question around this way. Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers the first time we pray them? If we always got immediate answers, we would soon take God for granted, as if he were nothing more than a celestial genie who granted our every wish.
Boiling prayers get God’s attention
James 5:16 reminds us that the “fervent” prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. The word “fervent” has the idea of “boiling.” It means to have your soul so stirred up that you can’t think of anything else. Who understands this better than the mother of a sick child? She will stop at nothing, she will not take no for an answer, she will carry her daughter from one doctor to another, she will ask her friends to pray, she will write about it on Facebook, and she will beg God with tears to work a miracle from heaven.
I heard a man tell about how his three-year-old son had a terrible accident that resulted in an implement plunged into one of his eyes. No one knew if the eye could be saved. In the long months that followed, the father said he laid on the floor and begged God to take one of his eyes and give it to his son. “Make me blind in one eye, Lord, if only my son’s eye can be healed.”
Every parent understands this. Nothing renders us more helpless than watching our children suffer. We beg and plead and bargain with God for our own flesh and blood. What else can you do when your children are suffering? In those dreadful hours, we don’t care what others think or say or how they whisper behind our back or attempt to stop us.
Nothing matters except seeing our child made whole again.
Jesus is putting this woman’s faith on trial. Will she turn away in despair or will she keep on asking? Delay does not always mean denial. There was a ‘yes’ hidden under the ‘no,’ but she had to show the faith that would get to it.
Faith only grows when it is tested
Faith only grows when it is tested. Her faith was made stronger by the travail of her soul because when God delays a blessing, he does not thereby deny it. The denial may be the necessary preparation to receive it later.
Pray on, child of God! Our Lord hears the tiniest cry of your heart. When the time is right, the answer will come.
Why Did Jesus Call Her a Dog?
This is no doubt the greatest challenge of this story, and we must face it squarely. Jesus called this Gentile woman a dog. Look at what he said in verse 26:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
The word translated “dogs” refers to household pets and not to wild dogs. You could even translate it as “puppies,” which sounds better to our ears. But ask yourself a question. Would you rather be considered a child at the table or a puppy fighting for crumbs?
Was Jesus being cruel?
Two truths stand behind this statement. First, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. He came in fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises made to Israel. That’s why Jesus said he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (v. 24). Paul alludes to this in Romans 1:16 where he talks about the gospel being “to the Jew first.” We make a mistake if we try to dilute Jesus’ mission as the Messiah of Israel. He came first for them, but he did not come only for them. That’s why Romans 1:16 includes the phrase “and also to the Greek,” meaning to all the Gentiles. God always intended to include the Gentiles in his plan of salvation. The Lord starts with the Jews, but he does not stop there.
Second, Jesus wanted this woman to understand her true condition. No one has any claim on the goodness of God. No one deserves heaven. That’s been a major problem from the beginning. We all like to think we’re better than we are. We like to compare ourselves to the fellow down the street whose sin seems worse than our own. But God doesn’t grade on the curve. When Jesus compares Gentiles to dogs, he is asking this woman to admit her true condition:
“Do you understand you are completely outside the covenant of grace and that you have no claim on me at all? I can heal your daughter, and I’m willing to do it, but only if you acknowledge you don’t deserve it. You can get your miracle, but it must be by grace or it won’t happen at all.”
You come to God by grace or you don’t come at all
What seems like an insult turns out to be a probing question. It’s another way of saying, “Do you admit you are a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace?” If the answer is yes, then you can do business with God. As long as you hold on to the flimsy rags of your self-righteousness, you can never be saved.
Poodles and Basset Hounds
Here’s the shocking truth of the story: You’re a dog, and so am I.
You might be a poodle, and I might be a basset hound, but we are dogs nonetheless. We are like puppies under the table, begging for crumbs.
If you think you deserve grace, you can never have it.
If you admit you don’t deserve it, you can have as much as you need.
You’re a dog, and so am I!
That’s where this story become so powerful. The woman doesn’t dispute what Jesus said. She agrees with him! “Yes, Lord!” she exclaimed (v. 27). She could have gotten indignant and said, “Don’t talk to me that way. I’m no dog!” Many would have responded that way. But she didn’t. She agreed with Jesus. If we want to end in the right place, we have to start in the right place. Agreeing with Jesus is always the right place to begin.
Think about what this woman did. She never gave up, never got angry, never contradicted Jesus, and never accused him of unfairness. She never took offense at being called a dog. Instead of disagreeing with his premise, she in effect says, “You’re right. I am a dog. I have no claim on your grace. You have no reason to listen to me at all.” Then she clinches her argument this way:
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27).
Everyone knows how this works. Dogs hang around the dinner table hoping someone will throw them a scrap. After the family eats, the dogs get the leftovers.
The dogs may be dogs, but they get fed.
Dogs may be dogs, but they get fed
She’s asking for “crumbs” of grace that will heal her daughter. She accepts her position, admits her need, agrees with Jesus, and never gives up. That leads to the remarkable end of the story in verse 28:
“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
When Jesus said, “Great is your faith,” he used a Greek word whose root is “mega.” He was saying, “Woman, you have Mega-faith.” This is the only time Jesus used this particular Greek word to describe someone’s faith.
He said it to a Gentile, not to a Jew.
He said it to a woman, not to a man.
He said it to an outsider, not to an insider.
He said it to a pagan who believed, not to a priest.
This woman had “mega-faith”
What are the chances a woman like that would have mega-faith? But she did! That’s why Jesus praised her. Her desperation drove her to Jesus. Not even being called a dog could keep her away.
Most people would have turned away after the dog comment.
But she didn’t!
Most would have given up in anger or despair.
But she didn’t!
Most people would have given up
She understood what the Jews missed:
Jesus was the true Son of David.
She needed the mercy only he could supply.
She would not be denied.
She accepted her position and argued from it.
She received what she asked from the Lord.
The focus of this story is on the woman and her faith, not on her daughter. We are simply told in verse 28 that she was healed “from that hour.” As far as we know, Jesus never met her daughter. He healed her based on her mother’s mega-faith.
Let every parent take this story to heart. Pray for your children and your grandchildren because your prayers have great power with God. Sometimes when our children rebel and walk away from the Lord, we feel so hopeless. But as long as we can pray, we have Almighty God at our disposal.
Pray for your children!
When Tim Keller preached on this passage, he pointed out that it contains the essence of the gospel. In the little parable Jesus told, there are children around the table, and then there are the dogs. We like to think we are the children of privilege, but in truth we are dogs who deserve nothing. We are outsiders to the grace of God, cut off from the blessings of heaven. But Jesus died as an outsider that we might be insiders. He died like a dog (rejected, despised, abandoned) that we might be welcomed as children at the table of the Lord.
In 1548 Thomas Cranmer wrote a prayer based in part on this story. Called the Prayer of Humble Access, it is meant to be said before taking communion. It begins this way:
We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own goodness, but in your all-embracing love and mercy. We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy.
That is exactly how we are to approach the Lord. We’re not entitled to anything, not even to the crumbs under God’s table, but it is in God’s nature always to have mercy. The Canaanite woman got the main point right. She needed mercy, Jesus is the source of mercy, and when she came on Jesus’ terms, she received the mercy she needed.
It is in God’s nature to be merciful
Isn’t it wonderful that the one example of mega-faith comes from a woman like this? With everything against her, she comes again and again until she received the desire of her heart. The lesson here isn’t just about the value of perseverance (though that certainly applies). It’s just as much about coming to Jesus based on grace alone.
What we need, we don’t deserve.
What we deserve, we don’t want.
Let’s summarize a few things we learn from this story:
1) No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace, even people who today seem hopeless and far away.
2) When we come to God, we must come on his terms, not on ours. As long as we think we deserve salvation, we will be turned away.
3) Jesus invites us to come to him for the mercy we need, whenever we need it.
4) Anyone can have “mega-faith” if you will come to Jesus on his terms and never give up.
When Charles Spurgeon came to this story, it must have gripped his heart because he preached no less than ten different sermons on it. At the end of one of those sermons (“A Prayer for Everybody”), he makes the point that we ought to imitate this woman’s simple prayer: “Lord, help me” (v. 25) because it is truly a gospel prayer:
This prayer will take us home to heaven
“Lord” means we recognize who Jesus really is.
“Help” means we need what only Jesus can give.
“Me” means we admit our helpless condition.
After giving several examples of people who need this prayer, he says, “This prayer will do to live with; this prayer will do to die with.” He’s right. Here’s a prayer that will take us safely through this life and all the way home to heaven.
So, then, let us keep on praying, “Lord, help me!” because as he helped that Canaanite woman, he will certainly help us too. Amen.