21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 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.
29 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31 so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. – Matthew 15:21-31 ESV
At the beginning of this chapter, Matthew presented an encounter between Jesus and a group of Jewish religious leaders who had traveled all the way from the capital city of Jerusalem to Galilee. The purpose of their journey had been to try to expose Jesus and His disciples as rebels and lawbreakers. They wanted to discredit Jesus and His ministry by accusing Him of teaching His disciples to disobey the tradition of the elders – the man-made rules and regulations passed own by the rabbis and religious scholars of Israel.
But their attempted assault on Jesus ended with Him accusing them of putting their own oral laws ahead of the written commandments of God. They were more concerned with outward appearances than they were with the inner condition of their hearts, and Jesus labeled them as nothing more than hypocrites or play actors. They were simply going through the motions, giving God lip service, but refusing to honor Him with their hearts. And their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah was the greatest proof of the condition of their hearts. Their verbal condemnation of Jesus and His disciples revealed the defiled nature of their hearts.
Now, Matthew reveals that Jesus left the predominantly Jewish region of Galilee and headed to Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of the Mediterranean. These two cities, while located within the land originally promised by God to the Israelites, were primarily occupied by Gentiles. This departure by Jesus from the land of the Jews to the land of the Gentiles is filled with symbolism and will provide Jesus with a unique opportunity to teach His disciples a powerful lesson about the kingdom of heaven.
As soon as they arrived in the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus and His disciples found themselves confronted by a Canaanite woman. This description is important because it reveals her to be a descendant of the very people group who had occupied the land when Moses and the people of Israel had arrived from Egypt. The Canaanites were not only non-Jews but pagans and the long-standing enemies of Israel. As Jews, the disciples would have had a strong hatred for this woman because of her ethnic background, and their animosity for her shows up quickly in the story.
Her purpose for confronting Jesus stands in direct contrast to that of the Pharisees and scribes. They were out to condemn Jesus, but she was looking for His help. She made her need known from the outset.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” – Matthew 15:22 ESV
It should not escape our notice that this woman referred to Jesus by His Messianic title: Son of David. Here she was a Canaanite, acknowledging Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of David. This woman had heard the rumors concerning Jesus and, even as a Gentile, had come to believe that He was who He claimed to be. And, most likely, she had heard about the miracles of healing Jesus had performed and sought to bring her own pressing need to Him, appealing to His mercy and compassion.
Her daughter was suffering from demon possession and she desperately desired that Jesus would use His miraculous powers to release her. But Jesus responded with silence. He said nothing. It seems that He was simply giving His disciples an opportunity to reveal their true opinions about this woman, and they did not disappoint. Annoyed by her incessant cries for mercy, they begged Jesus to send her away. And Jesus seems to have shared their view, telling the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 ESV). His somewhat caustic response must have made the disciples smile. As far as they were concerned, she was getting exactly what she deserved: Nothing. After all, she was a Gentile and, not only that, a despised Canaanite. In their minds, she was no less than a dog in value and worth.
But the woman, persistent and undeterred by Jesus’ words, knelt at His feet and cried out, “Lord, help me.” She was determined. But, once again, Jesus responded in a way that must have brought great pleasure to the disciples., telling the woman, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He seemed to be confirming their own views of this woman, relegating her worth to that of a dog. But what was Jesus doing here? Why was His response to this woman so harsh?
It is important that we recognize the key players in this little scene. We have Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and His 12 Jewish disciples. They were each proud members of the house of Israel, the chosen people of God. They were descendants of Abraham and recipients of all the promises made by God to Abraham. But this woman was a non-Jew, a Gentile from a pagan people group who, for generations, had been a thorn in the side of the people of Israel. God had made it perfectly clear to Moses how the people of Israel were to have handled the Canaanites and other pagan people groups occupying the land of promise.
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you. This is what you must do. You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols. For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-6 NLT
But the Jews had failed to obey God. They never fully removed the Canaanites from the land, as this woman’s presence makes perfectly clear. And Jesus stressed that He had come to the house of Israel. He was the Hebrew Messiah, a descendant of Abraham and David. But, as we have seen, His own were methodically rejecting His claim to be their Messiah. The Jewish religious leadership saw Him as a renegade, not their Redeemer. The majority of the Jewish people, while enamored by His miracles, were not willing to recognize Him as their Messiah.
Yet, here was a Canaanite woman acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Messiah. And seemingly nonplussed by Jesus’ responses to her, the woman simply said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27 ESV). She didn’t take offense at Jesus’ words. She didn’t deny her own unworthiness. In fact, she was well aware that as a non-Jew, she had no right to come to the Jewish Messiah and beg for mercy. But her tremendous need drove her to do so. Her desperation overcame any feelings of unworthiness and undeservedness.
And notice what Jesus said in response: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28 ESV). This should bring to mind the words spoken by Jesus to Peter when he had stepped out of the boat and walked on the water, but began to sink when he took his eyes off of Jesus. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 ESV). Peter’s faith was little, but the Canaanite woman’s faith was great. Peter had doubted, but the woman had believed. And her faith was rewarded. Her daughter was healed.
Matthew follows this story with Jesus’ return to Galilee. As soon as Jesus and His disciples made it back into Jewish territory, they found themselves surrounded by crowds of people desiring to see Jesus perform miracles.
And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them… – Matthew 15:30 ESV
But notice how Matthew describes the reaction of the people to what they witnessed. He simply says, “the crowd wondered.” They were filled with awe and admiration. And Matthew goes on to say that “they glorified the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31 ESV). But they did not acknowledge Jesus as lord. They did not refer to Him as the Son of David. There was no recognition of Him as their Messiah. And there is no indication of anyone expressing faith in Jesus. He provided them with healing, but they refused to worship Him as their Lord and Savior.
Jesus was slowly revealing to His disciples that, in the kingdom of heaven, faith was far more important than heritage. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah was going to carry far more weight than membership in the Jewish race. Remember what John the Baptist had said to the Pharisees who had come to him seeking to be baptized.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:7-9 ESV
The kingdom of heaven was going to be an all-inclusive kingdom, containing people from all walks of life and from every tribe, nation, and tongue. And Jesus was slowly revealing this important news to His disciples, preparing them for what was to come.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.