The disciples needed a break now more than ever. Two weeks ago, we noted that the disciples had just learned that Herod executed John the Baptist. This was a source of great grief for Jesus and the disciples. They had also been working very hard. Jesus took them to the wilderness on the other side of the Sea of Galilee for a little R&R. However, the crowds figured out where they were going and were waiting for them when they got there. Jesus spent all day ministering to those crowds and then He fed them in the event known as the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Then, last week, we learned that right after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus put the disciples back in the boat and told them to go back to the other side while He dismissed the crowds. The disciples ended up spending the entire night crossing the sea because of a brutal head wind. It was almost dawn when Jesus came walking to them on the water and they finally made it to the other side. The verses after that tell us that some early risers recognized Jesus and woke up the neighborhood and the crowds gathered as soon as they landed. Then the Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem and Jesus had to have a debate with them. Basically, it has been almost two days without sleep and a night full of hard labor since Jesus first decided that the disciples needed a break. If they needed a break then, they really need a break now.
The portion of the Gospel that we heard today informs us that Jesus finally took the disciples completely out of Jewish territory. Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. (Matthew 15:21) Tyre and Sidon are two cities on the Mediterranean coast in the territory of Phoenicia. This means that Jesus has taken the disciples about a day’s journey into the Gentile territory north of Galilee. Perhaps there, in Gentile territory, completely outside the borders of Galilee, they can finally get some rest and deal with the death of John the Baptist.
Well, not so much. 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.” (Matthew 15:22) What would you think if you were one of the disciples under those circumstances? I’d be thinking, “Oh no! Not again!” At first, it seems as if even Jesus is thinking that way. For the Gospel said He did not answer her a word. (Matthew 15:23) It almost seems as if Jesus is hoping that if He ignores her, she will go away.
Notice that the text does not say that she cried. It says that she was crying. This means that she continually repeated her prayer, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Over and over again, she repeated this prayer. She was getting on the disciples’ nerves. His disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” (Matthew 15:23) It is as if the disciples were saying, “Look Jesus, we’ve seen this kind of woman before. She is not going to give us any peace until you answer her one way or the other. Just drive out the demon. She will go away, and we can get some peace.”
Jesus knew something about this woman that the neither the disciples nor even the woman knew. He knew that somewhere along the line, someone had told this woman who He was. The Holy Spirit used this information to create faith in this woman. She referred to Jesus as the Son of David. This meant that she believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus saw a great and beautiful faith in this woman. Jesus wanted the woman, the disciples, and you to know how strong this faith was. Since only God can look at the heart, Jesus set up a few tests to demonstrate the strength of the faith in this woman.
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) Although Jesus was speaking to the disciples, I am certain that the woman heard what He said. Take a moment to put yourself in the woman’s shoes. Jesus has just said, “I was sent to the Jews. You are a Gentile. Too bad for you!” Be honest! Would you be angry? Would you be crushed? How would you respond?
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” (Matthew 15:25) This woman ran in front of Jesus and fell before Him so that He almost tripped over her. Then she kept right on praying, “Lord, help me.” The faith that the Holy Spirit has given this woman will not be denied.
But Jesus knew there was even more to this woman’s faith. This time He spoke directly to the woman and he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26) I’ll tell you right now that calling a woman a dog was no more of a complement back then than it is today. Again, how would you respond if Jesus called you a dog? Be honest.
She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27) This woman took Jesus at His word. “Yes, Lord, if you say that I am a dog, then I must be a dog. But ya’know, even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall. If you give me a crumb, it will be enough.” She knew that even a crumb from Jesus would be enough to drive out the demon.
I’m pretty sure that didn’t have fist pumps in the first century, but if Jesus were around to day, He would go, “YES!” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:28)
It is interesting that a few verses before today’s Gospel, Jesus was debating with Pharisees and scribes … some of the best educated people in the area. Jesus simply tore their case apart. Now here is this Gentile woman … probably uneducated, and she won her debate with Jesus. The Holy Spirit had given this woman faith to move mountains. Jesus put up some serious blockades and this woman’s faith knocked them aside as though they were soap bubbles on a light breeze. Now this woman could praise God for the wonderful faith He had given to her. She knew it. The disciples knew it. The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to record this account so that you would know it too.
Why is it so important for you to know about this woman’s faith? Remember that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written for Jewish converts to the faith. There was a great controversy in the early church. Many people believed that you had to convert to Judaism before you could become a Christian. The Gospel according to Matthew regularly puts that idea to rest. Matthew regularly recorded the faith of Gentiles throughout His Gospel account … the magi, Roman Centurions, the woman in today’s reading, and other Gentiles show that salvation is for all people in all places and times.
A Canaanite woman is about as Gentile as you can get. The Canaanites were on the list of people that the Israelites had to drive out of Canaan as the Lord said through His servant Moses, “You shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded.” (Deuteronomy 20:17) If a Canaanite woman can have the faith that causes Jesus to say, “O woman, great is your faith!” then that faith is for you too. The Holy Spirit can work saving faith in anyone. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (Romans 9:8) With these words, the Holy Spirit teaches us that the true Israel is not based on genetics, but faith in the promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation that we have in Jesus Christ. This woman has demonstrated that the Holy Spirit has given her a great faith. Jesus acknowledged her faith and in so doing proclaimed that, although she was a Gentile genetically, by grace she is a child of Abraham – one of the lost sheep of Israel.
Jesus loved this woman deeply. He loved her enough to suffer the offense of living among sinners and interacting with them even though He never sinned. He loved her enough to suffer an unjust trial and cruel physical torture. He loved her enough to lift up her sins and carry them to the cross. With His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death He earned a place for her at the table with the rest of the children of God. She now waits with Jesus for the Last Day. On that day Jesus will raise her body from the grave just as Jesus Himself rose from the dead. On that day, she will join the true and eternal Israel at the wedding feast of the Lamb. She does not deserve this, but she has it because Christ earned it for her.
Like the Canaanite woman, we do not deserve to be at the table of the Lamb. Never the less, the Lamb offers His table to us. Not only did Jesus sacrifice Himself to earn eternal life for this woman, but He also did that for you. When the Holy Spirit plants faith in you, He makes you a part of the true, eternal Israel … the Holy Christian Church. He cleanses you with the blood of Jesus and covers you with righteousness. You deserve none of it, but it is all yours because the Holy Lord, Jesus Christ earned it for you. You also have a place at the table with the rest of God’s children. It is all yours by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen
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