This series of lessons have been submitted by friends who were asked to write about moments that matter to them from Scripture, stories of faith that help them or inspire them. This week, Adam Noles, a friend of mine who works as the Pulpit Minister for the Green Forest Church of Christ in Poplar Bluff, Missouri writes about Matthew 15:21-28.
From the very outset of this encounter, Matthew creates tension. He tells of Jesus withdrawing to Gentile territory and, out of nowhere, a Gentile woman pleading for help to heal her demon-possessed daughter. To a first century Jew, any story describing the interactions between a Gentile and Jew would have drawn their attention. Their minds could have easily gone back 1400 years prior to the time when Joshua led the Israelites to war against their ancestors. Now, as this Canaanite woman approaches a new Joshua (in Hebrew, the name Jesus is Joshua), it seems He is still holding onto the conflicts from the past.
At first, Jesus did not respond to her pleas for help, and when He does eventually answer, His words seem harsh. He responded to His disciple’s urge to dismiss her with this statement, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Those words of Jesus appear to indicate a lack of compassion for this woman and her daughter because of their race. That doesn’t sound like Jesus. I must ask the question, how offensive would it be in our time for a doctor to refuse care because of someone’s race?
In an unexpected turn of events, those words and actions did not deter her though. She continued to beg, “Lord, help me,” in 15:25. Then Jesus answered her directly, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” in 15:26. In a surprising statement, Jesus related her Gentile heritage to that of a dog. I feel its necessary to tell you that in the First Century, dogs were seen as vile, unclean scavengers, not loveable pets. Dogs were the last animal someone would want to be compared to and it could have easily been taken as a great slight. Because of these things, I must ask the question, why did Jesus speak to her in this shocking way? Just like everything else done by our Savior, there was a purpose that unfolds with the rest of the story.
Once again, we notice (rather remarkably), that she did not let Jesus’ words discourage her or stop her from seeking His help. Instead, she responded to Jesus’ seemingly demeaning words with humility. She said in 15:27, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In the midst of insulting language and pronounced indifference, she refused to give up. Even though she was a Canaanite, she believed Jesus could help her. On top of that, it seems fairly evident that she truly believed He was her daughter’s only hope. Seeing her persistence and humility, Jesus replied, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” in 15:28. Instantly, her daughter was healed.
Jesus’ words were harsh, however, when you combine them with this final statement, the whole conversation makes sense. I believe Jesus’ words were meant to challenge her belief in Him. They were meant to see if she truly believed in the Jewish Messiah.
In the end, this story matters to me because of my struggles to remain faithful. I, like so many others, have come face to face with the difficulties of believing. There have been times when my circumstances made me question what God was doing. There have been times when I struggled with the hard sayings of Scripture that make very little sense to me. There have been pleas I made to God that seem to go unanswered and in those moments it would have been easier to give up. It would have been possible to lose my trust in God.
However, this Gentile woman reminds me that faith in Jesus is not always about understanding what He’s doing or even knowing all of the answers. Instead, faith is believing even when things don’t make sense. Faith is the humility to say “I do not know it all, yet I trust that God will make it right.” Faith is the determination to keep coming back to God armed with the knowledge that He is our only hope for the healing of our souls. Even when I am confused with God’s actions or God’s Word, this moment reminds me to keep my faith in Him – for His ways are higher than my ways.
Painting by Jean-Germain Drouais entitled The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ, 1784. Public Domain, housed at the Louvre, Paris.