Theme: Care for All
In this week’s lesson we learn to despair of no one.
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
What might we think of Jesus’ first words to the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” How harsh! How cruel! How parochial! In that day Jews were accustomed to speaking of “Gentiles dogs,” “infidel dogs” and later “Christian dogs.” But William Barclay reminds us of two things, no doubt rightly. First, “The tone and the look with which a thing is said make all the difference. Even a thing which seems hard can be said with a disarming smile. . .We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness” (p. 135). Second, Jesus did not use the word for the wild dogs of the streets, but kunaria, which referred to house dogs or pets. It was a clever play on the “dog” idea, and it was not lost on the woman who immediately picked it up as an encouragement to her appeal.
Still, Jesus did use the word “dogs,” and it is not terribly nice even to be called a household pet. The only reason I can see for Jesus’ harsh language is that he wanted to emphasize her Gentile status. She was, as Paul would later write to the Ephesians, “excluded from citizenship in Israel . . . [a foreigner] to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 3: 12). Yet she did have faith! She believed in Jesus and was helped by him. The story teaches that if she found grace, there is hope for you, whoever you are and however hopeless you may feel your cause to be. Instead of turning from Jesus, turn to him as this Gentile woman did.
The story says that Jesus helped the woman in response to her great faith; he healed her daughter (v. 28). So what we want to ask next is what made this Canaanite woman’s faith so great? What were its characteristics? The greatness of her faith is certainly an important emphasis since, although Matthew uses the word “great” often, this is the only place where he joins the word to “faith.” Only this woman, a Canaanite, and the centurion of Matthew 8:10 are publicly praised for their faith by Jesus.
Here are several things to notice about the woman’s faith.
1. Her faith was in Jesus. She called him “Lord” and “Son of David” (v. 22). In fact, the word “Lord” introduces each of her three recorded statements (vv. 22, 25, 27). In an earlier study I emphasized that genuine biblical faith contains three elements: content (notitia), agreement with that content (assensus), and trust in or commitment to Christ (fiducia). All are here. The woman knew who Jesus was, believed that he could help her and placed her confidence in him. If you would be helped by Jesus, you must put your faith in him too. No one else can really help you.
2. She appealed to Jesus solely on the basis of his mercy. She cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.” And later, when Jesus spoke about Gentiles being “dogs,” she gave an even stronger proof of her awareness of any lack of claim upon him by agreeing with his statement (v. 27). This is how everyone must come to Jesus: asking for mercy, laying aside all self-righteousness, making no claim to entitlement, making no demands. Are you willing to come on that basis? It is the only way you will ever receive a positive answer from Jesus since, as Paul told the Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9).
3. She was persistent. She would not allow herself to be easily turned away. The story says that she kept “crying out after” him (v. 23) and “came and knelt before him” (v. 25). Even after Jesus had spoken about Gentile dogs, she replied, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27).
Were Jesus’ words intended to insult? What could be the reason for his harsh language?
Explain What the Canaanite woman has in common with the centurion of Matthew 8:10.
What can you learn from this woman’s faith?
Describe your faith. What do others, particularly younger people, see in you?
The story teaches that if she found grace, there is hope for you, whoever you are and however hopeless you may feel your cause to be.