For the past few weeks, we have been following Matthew’s account of Jesus’ travels as he seeks some time of rest. We witnessed Jesus feeding the crowds of thousands along the shore of the sea of Galilee. Last week we watched Jesus rescue his disciples from a terrible storm that arose on the Lake. Today we shall witness Jesus heal the daughter of an unnamed Canaanite woman, a Gentile, a despised foreigner, from the storms of her life.
Today we travel with Jesus as he makes a two-day journey to visit the Mediterranean Coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon. This is the first mention of Tyre and Sidon in the Gospels. Tyre and Sidon were part of the Canaanite territory given to the people of Israel by God as part of the promised land, but it was never conquered. For most of Israel’s history, the Canaanites were enemies, worshipers of foreign gods. As they are making their way to Tyre and Sidon, Matthew tells us that Jesus, is walking scribes and Pharisees, carry on a debate about what makes one clean or unclean in Jewish Law. Jesus insists that what comes out of the heart is what defiles, evil intentions, murder, adultery fornication, theft false witness, slander. So, after this debate, Jesus deliberately enters the land of Israel’s foe, considered unclean land, gentile land. Foreign land.
To make the situation more amazing, a Canaanite woman almost immediately approaches Jesus crying out, she’s shrieking, screaming, almost incoherent in her despair, shouting, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me, my daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” Here we have the unheard-of situation of a woman, a gentile woman no less, addressing a Jewish man, a rabbi. It was unheard of for a woman to address a strange man, let alone a foreigner, and a rabbi to bout. She is not asking anything for herself, but for her suffering daughter, her daughter who is in grave danger from a demon. What parent would not give their right hand to see their child whole, out of great love?
This gentile woman, has the presence of mind to address Jesus respectfully as Lord, she acknowledges Jesus as the Son of David, using the messianic title, never heard on the lips of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew and here the only gentile. This mother has a child suffering terribly from demon possession. We do not know the effects of this possession, but we can imagine the terror the mother witnesses, she has probably tried every cure under the sun every priest in her own religion and the situation has gotten worse. She takes a chance at this Jewish rabbi, whose reputation has somehow proceeded him.It is shocking to us that, Jesus, who looks upon the crowds and is filled with compassion, refuses to respond to this desperate, mother. To us it seems absolutely heartless. What is going on? Nowhere in the gospels do we see Jesus ignoring someone in distress. The only time Jesus remains silent is during his trial before the chief priests and elders, the governor, Pontius Pilate, before his enemies trying to trap him. When interrogated, he said nothing. When facing a pleading mother, he says nothing. Jesus either is heartless or as some think he is testing her, knowing the reservoirs of her faith, and is setting up an example for his disciples, whom Jesus frequently calls, “you of little faith!” How often we feel God is silent when we are crying out.
In face of Jesus’ silence, the woman redoubles her pleas, so much so that the disciples also plead with Jesus “Send her away, give her what she wants and be done with it, she keeps crying after us.” It reminds us how recently the disciples advised Jesus to send the crowds away, to get something to eat. The disciples tried to send the children away. When a situation gets to be too much, no answer seems to be found, the disciples solve the problem by dismissing it. The disciples grow impatient not compassionate with the woman’s cries. Get rid of her Jesus.
Jesus responds not with the same annoyance but with a clear, hard boundary he had set with his disciples earlier when he sent them out on their first mission journey: Jesus told them: “Do not go onto the road of the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the loss of the house of Israel’ Matt. 10:6-7. Yet in Gentile territory, Jesus confirms it is just not the time to reach out to the Gentiles. How ironic. That will come later. But for now, it’s tough luck. Why did Jesus go to Gentile land if he wasn’t going to help? To flaunt it over them? Quite the contrary as we see as this exchange with the Canaanite mother unfolds.
The woman hears Jesus’s blunt explanation. But this does not deter her. She kneels before him, worshiping him, and says another prayer, short and important, that we should remember: “Lord, help me” Remember when Peter was sinking in the waves of the storm and shouted, “Lord save me?!!!” Here’s another prayer we need in our distress, “Lord help me.” Lord help me. I ’ve turned everywhere I can. Only you can make a difference. Only you Jesus can heal my situation. Before receiving an answer, before Jesus does anything, she worships him, contrary to the disciples, who we saw last week worship Jesus after the storm ends. After the miracle happens. This mother worships Jesus in the midst of her storm, before any sign of change, any sign of hope. We need to worship Jesus no matter how we are feeling no matter what we are going through.
Despite her amazing efforts, Jesus still ups the ante. Jesus pushes the exchange to the extreme. He tells the Canaanite woman, in her own land, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” Dogs was a derogatory term for a gentile, the echo of the insult is here. However, the term here is really little dogs suggesting perhaps Jesus just acknowledges that gentiles did indeed keep puppies in the house. Still in the comment Jesus once again pushes her away. Is Jesus just showing us Jewish prejudice. Or is he preparing to expose the amazing faith the woman possesses? By this time most of us would have given up. Three strikes and you’re out. But not for this Canaanite woman.
From the center of her personal storm, she remains steadfast. This mother delivers her knock-out pouch: “True Lord, but even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.”
This woman went round and round with Jesus. Nothing Jesus said made her back down. Jesus, all you say is true. But all I need is a crumb to heal my daughter. All I need is to touch the fringe of his garment. All you need to do is say the word. A crumb. A word. Would our faith be so great to know that we recognize that a crumb is all it takes, God’s power is so great and mighty, the tiniest speck, the shadow, a little morsel is all that is needed.
Jesus finally reveals his purpose. Woman great is your faith! Jesus declares, in front of disciples who are continually reprimanded for their lack of faith. Never in the gospels are the disciples for their great faith. Only their lack. And here is a woman, a foreigner, an outsider, who understands what faith is about. And Her daughter in instantly cured.
We are called to have persistent, the faith of a gentile woman. Jesus says do not give up when God is silent. Do not give up when things are not going your way. Do not give up when you feel criticized or put down. Do not give up. Be persistent. Jesus insists, [a]Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you (Luke 7:7), Paul says: 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray without ceasing" We don’t know God’s timing, God’s will, God’s greater good at work. We are called to trust, in our personal storms, especially when all the signs seems against us.
Does God seem silent to you sometimes? Is there something you have brought repeatedly to the throne of heaven and silence seems to be the only answer you get? Keep praying. Do doors seem to be shut in your face? Are you crying out for something for something or someone and getting no response? Are you interpreting this all as a No, a negative reaction from God? Sometimes a negative reaction is a test of perfection, to make our hearts ready to do God’s will. Or it is a test of protection, to save you from some unforeseen consequence. You will not know unless you persevere, unless you kneel and worship in the midst of your trials.
Keep crying out to the Lord. Do circumstances seem to be against you? Get on your knees, worship God and pray even harder. Does the answer you get seem to put you off? Despite it all, remember that God loves us unconditionally, and acts on our behalf. He is there to bring forth what is best for us. We are called to a bold faith, a persistent faith, to trust God enough that we will go round for round, confident that all we need is a crumb, a crumb is an answer to our prayer. We have this Canaanite woman as an example of prayer and faith.
So, pray for your crumb. Your crumb of healing. Your crumb of hope. Your crumb of grace. You crumb of promise. At the right time, it will certainly fall from God’s table, and your great faith will be a reassurance that there are abundant crumbs for all who are crying out to the Lord. Amen