Text: Matt. 15:21-28
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
She could hardly believe it when she heard the news. Here, in her town, in this notorious region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus had arrived. It had been a surprise to many, with the region’s dark and troublesome history—home to Baal worshipers, the most famous of which was the infamous Queen Jezebel herself. Even now it wasn’t exactly an area known for being pure as the driven snow. But she was one of the believers there. She heard about His powerful works—how He healed people that no one thought could be cured, how He drove out demons, the hope He gave—and she trusted that if anyone could help her poor tormented daughter, it was Jesus.
When she saw Him, still a far way off, she couldn’t help herself. She would let Him know that she believed He was the Messiah, even if the rest of the region held to their pagan ways. She called Him by the name given Him in the prophecies: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” He had to have heard her, with how loud she shouted, so she waited. And waited. And waited. And Jesus did not answer her a word.
So she shouted again. And again. And again. His disciples, those twelve men with Him, were starting to look uncomfortable as she followed them through the town. She could hear them trying to plead with Him, “Send her away; she’s following us and shouting.” It was only then that Jesus did speak up, but it didn’t seem like He was talking to her. It was only loud enough for her to overhear. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
In one last ditch effort, to make it so He couldn’t ignore her, she came right up to Him, decorum and pride flung aside, and she knelt at His feet. “Lord, help me,” was all she prayed. She held her breath. Jesus looked directly at her and for the first time spoke directly to her. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
It might be difficult for us to imagine our Jesus so sweet and Jesus so mild answering this poor woman in this way. Even today, bluntly calling someone a dog isn’t a compliment. Back then it was even worse. Dogs were unclean, eating dead things, rolling around in dirt and filth, scavenging through who-knows-what. They were literally unclean and ceremonially unclean, unable to enter God’s presence in holy places. This answer from Jesus seems too harsh, too sharp for the Jesus of softly-lit paintings and stained-glass windows. Yet, here it is. A woman at the end of her rope, hopeful, praying, trusting that this Messiah could help her and her daughter at last. But she’s only met first by His silence, then by His insult.
It challenges us to imagine this scene, but we can wrap our heads around what’s happening in it. I think I can safely say that everyone here has had repeated prayers—on Sunday mornings, during devotions, offered throughout a worry-filled day, lying awake at night—prayers that seem to have no answer. Jesus keeps walking and not a word is spoken in response. It really tests our faith, doesn’t it? Or even worse than the silence, there is an answer—but it’s not the one we want. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. It is not right to give you what has been given to someone else. What you are asking is not right for you.” And that test of faith is a test of fire, like metal from the ground passing through a furnace.
When we’re faced with that blunt answer that’s the opposite of what we wanted, there’s the temptation to try to prove Jesus wrong. The Canaanite woman could have tried that. “I am not a dog! I turned away from those unclean ways—I’m better now and good enough to deserve your help. I deserve what I’m asking for.” We might try it too. “I’ll stop doing this if you do that. God, if you just give me this one thing, I’ll never ask for anything again. I deserve that so much more than such-and-such.”
Another temptation is anger at God. The Canaanite woman also had that option, as do we. How dare He speak to her like that! Who does He think He is? Why would a good God not do this for me? Is He even good at all? This, of course, is connected to another temptation in these tests of faith: to give in to unbelief—or something that seems like unbelief, but is actually just anger at God. In fact, most of the vocal “unbelievers” that I’ve met don’t actually disbelieve in any kind of God. They’re angry at Him. They didn’t get what they wanted from Him and for that, they’ll pretend like He doesn’t exist.
The Canaanite woman could have done any of these. We could too, in those times when our faith is being stretched and tested to the point of agony. But what had her ancestors’ raging against God and the chosen lineage of His Messiah ever gained them? Queen Jezebel was cast down. The proud statues of Baal had been shattered. Tyre and Sidon became pawns in the wars of empires. Her peoples’ raging against God had won them nothing; their unbelief had won them nothing. So she takes a different path.
“Yes, Lord,” she replies, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Yes, Lord, it is as you say. I am a dog. I’m outside the house of Israel, scrounging around in the yard. I’m unclean. I’m a sinner. I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I’ve done and by what I’ve left undone. I justly deserve your present and eternal punishment. But I beg you, have mercy on me. Not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but because of who You are, Son of David, Son of God. You have more mercy and grace than anyone could ever imagine. Even the crumbs You’re willing to drop will be enough to save me and my daughter. I am a dog, but I’m Your dog.”
And Jesus loves this reply. Her faith was pushed and pulled and tested and tried, but it held. “O woman,” He exclaimed with joy, “great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus loves it when His beloved people—Jew or Gentile—catch Him in His mercy. He loves it when they look to His grace instead of anything else. He loves it when they appeal to His compassion and love as the reasons for Him to do something. That’s because faith, trust, is the only way to receive those good things we pray for. Trusting that it’s from God as a free gift—rather than anything we’ve done to earn it—that kind of trust and faith keeps our eyes and hearts open and focused on the One giving them. It opens our hands wide to receive even more. It melts our hearts in generosity and compassion so that the mercy and kindness that Jesus has shown us is reflected and shown to others.
That’s why we do what we do every week. We begin the service admitting that we’re sinful and unclean—dogs—and the best we can do is look to our Master to take care of us. We kneel or bow at the Communion rail, just as the Canaanite woman knelt at the feet of Jesus. We approach Him in prayer in the service, even when our prayers are repeated from week to week, asking Him in faith to hear us. Yes, Lord, we are your pack of mangy mutts, but we know that you have a big table with more to give than any of us could imagine. You’ll feed us, body and soul. You’ll give us more than crumbs. You’ll put a whole plate down here for us. You’ll give us daily bread. You’ll give us everything we need to support this body and life. You’ll give us your very self for our eternal well-being. You are our Master, Lord, and we couldn’t ask for a better one. In the name of Jesus, the Merciful. Amen.