Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
– Matthew 15:21-28
Good morning, Friends!
Whenever I study a passage of Scripture, I always want to ask the same questions that your high school English teacher told you ask. Do you remember those questions?
My English teacher always told me to ask, “Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?”
On the surface, this is another healing story. Somebody comes to Jesus for help, he helps them, end of story. Case closed. But actually, those questions my high school English teacher asked are important.
Let’s start with where. It says that all this took place outside the country of Israel. Jesus had just completed a major event where he fed several thousand people. And they were crowding him, hoping to see some more.
Jesus needed to get away from the crowd. He was tired, and he needed to recover. So he tried sending them all home, but they just kept coming. Jesus tried to get away, by walking across the lake at night, but they followed him there. They wouldn’t leave him alone.
So Jesus crossed the border. He went north, into foreign territory, up along the coast of Lebanon. He tried to lose himself among strangers. Far as we know, this was the first and only time Jesus had left the country since he was a baby and his parents took him away to Egypt when Herod was trying to kill him.
So, he’s in this foreign country, trying to rest up and lay low, when a woman came to see him. Right away we’ve got a problem, because in that day and in that society, women weren’t supposed to be alone with a man.
But she was desperate. Her daughter was terribly ill. We don’t know what the nature of her illness was – a couple of weeks ago, we looked at a story of a man whose son had epilepsy. This woman’s daughter may have had that, or something else – it really doesn’t give us a description of her symptoms.
What stands out is the who in the story. She was not one of the people Israel. She was a foreigner, one of the people the Israelites had driven out and deported from their country centuries ago. They were enemies. The Canaanites worshiped other gods – gods the people of Israel hated and despised.
This was not what anyone would call a natural healing relationship. Strange country, foreign woman, wrong religion, weird and scary disease.
But she addressed Jesus as Lord. She called him Son of David, which was the Jewish title reserved for the Messiah. This foreigner, this pagan, was someone who recognized Jesus, when a lot of Jesus’ own people rejected him.
Not what the disciples expected.
And at first, it says, Jesus didn’t say a word to her. Didn’t answer. Didn’t say yes or no. Nothing. The disciples told Jesus to send her away. But she kept asking for help.
This story is about persistence in prayer. Never stop. Never give up. Never quit asking. Even if you think God has turned you away, just keep on praying. That’s what this story says.
The woman who came to Jesus today was a foreigner. She was outside the caring zone the way most people figured it. She was the wrong race, the wrong place, the wrong kind of person to receive God’s mercy and love.
But she didn’t let that stop her. The bottom line of today’s Scripture is, “Never give up! Never stop asking! Never lose hope, even if you’re discouraged.” This woman who didn’t belong received God’s favor. This woman from outside the zone was given what she asked for. Never give up!
At first, Jesus didn’t say anything to her. Then he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” That meant he was only supposed to take care of Jewish people, people who belonged to the right religion.
If that were the case, we’d all be out of luck, because we’re not Jewish. We would all be outside the caring zone, ourselves. Every one of us.
God had promised to love and care for the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, above all the peoples of the earth. That promise was what kept the people of Israel going, during endless years of slavery and exile and conquest.
In spite of appearances, the people of Israel considered themselves a holy people, set apart, a nation of priests, the light of the world, the only true faith, the ones destined by God to receive the promises. They were special.
This morning’s story is important, not just because it shows the persistence of prayer, but because of the who and where of what happened.
It says that the woman got down on her knees and begged for Jesus to help her. He said, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food” – that is, food that belonged to the children of Israel – “and give it to the dogs.”
See, in spite of the fact that Israel was a conquered nation, they were prejudiced against everyone else. Many Jews considered people from other nations and other faiths to be dogs, not human beings.
I don’t think that Jesus really thought that way himself. In all the other stories we read in the gospel, Jesus shows compassion to everyone. But this story is important, because it shows the way people think about outsiders.
But this woman didn’t let that answer get her down. She had a comeback line that turned it around. She said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table!”
How many of you here have a dog at home? I know that Springfield is a pretty doggy group of people.
Our family has a big black Labrador retriever, named Bitsy. Some of you have met her. At meal times, Bitsy doesn’t act up. She doesn’t beg. She just sits by the table, very quietly, and watches.
We don’t give Bitsy a lot of table scraps, but she just watches us, with those big, dark brown puppy dog eyes, and you can just feel her saying, “You won’t forget me, will you? Hmm?”
I always say that dogs believe in the law of gravity. Sooner or later, dogs just know, something will fall off the table. You just have to be patient. You’ve just got to believe. Something delicious will wind up on the floor.
Anyway, this woman wasn’t asking for a place at the table. She wasn’t expecting to be accepted as one of the people of Israel. She said, “But dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall off the table, don’t they?”
She took a rejection, and she turned it around. She took a prejudice, and she turned it back into a promise. She knew that if she didn’t give up, that even a crumb was all her daughter needed.
This story tells us so many things. It tells us never to give up. We’re all apt to give up too soon and too easily. If your prayer isn’t answered right away, don’t give up. Just keep on praying. If it seems as though things are going against you, don’t give up. God is still listening.
If you feel like you’ve been turned down, don’t give up. Your day will come. This story is all about persistence. And that means, keep on trying. Keep praying. Never quit. Never despair. Never lose hope.
Jesus once said that a mustard seed of faith was all that it took. Today, the story says that even a crumb of faith can make things happen.
You may not feel that you have a lot of faith. You may have doubts and disappointments of all kinds. But listen to your faith, and not your fears. As the man said to Jesus a couple of weeks ago, “Lord, I believe – help my unbelief!”
The woman in today’s story was close to despair. Her daughter was so ill. This woman knew that she was the wrong person, in the wrong place. But she kept on asking. She didn’t wait for things to be perfect. She didn’t wait for the prejudice against her to go away.
She kept on asking. She kept on praying.
And Jesus recognized her faith. He saw the depth of her hope in him. He said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed immediately.
I’ve talked a lot this morning about persistence in prayer. But the other thing that’s important about this story, is the way it opens the door to spread God’s love and mercy into whole new places.
Was Jesus changed by the encounter in today’s story? I don’t think so. In many other places in the gospel, Jesus breaks the rules about who is acceptable.
Jesus heals the servant of a Roman officer – and you have to remember that the Romans were the enemy, the occupying army in Israel at that time. Jesus healed lepers, who were considered totally untouchable. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, when nothing was supposed to happen.
But here, today, Jesus is healing outside the physical borders of Israel. He’s healing a foreign woman, an ancient enemy, someone who worships a different god, someone who Jews would call a dog.
That’s serious rule-breaking. And I think that one of the things we’re supposed to take home from this story is that if Jesus did this, and we’re Jesus followers, and if we’re supposed to do the same things Jesus did. . .well, you figure it out.
This story is one of the places where we see that Jesus isn’t just the Jewish Messiah. This is one of the places that opens the door to the whole world.
There’s an old hymn that says,
In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no north or south,
But one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth. . .”
It must be some kind of a human tendency to try to limit the love and mercy of God to just our group, to just our people. But that isn’t the way it is. God is not limited. God loves people we’ve never met and never heard of, who don’t speak our language or share our customs. The borders we draw and the walls we put up are not God’s walls and borders.
Jesus reached out to someone who wasn’t part of “God’s people”, and shared God’s healing and grace. If we are Jesus’ followers, we will do the same.
And as I said before, if this story and a few others like it hadn’t taken place, we would not be here this morning. We are the outsiders who have been accepted. We’re not Jews! We are not the people of Israel.
Never, ever forget that. We are here, because God accepted us, too. And we can never forget that God’s love and mercy are great enough to reach out not only to us, but to a whole world of other people.
Keep praying. Never give up. And don’t be a stranger.