It is not only Jesus’ silence that seems to be a problem in Matthew 15. It is also the words He used when He spoke to the woman. His first words were, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and He followed that “politically incorrect” statement with the explanation, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
How harsh! How cruel! In that day Jews were accustomed to speak of “Gentile dogs,” “infidel dogs,” and later “Christian dogs.” But 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.” 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” (Ep.2.12). 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 is. 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. 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 he joins the word to faith. Only this woman, a Canaanite, and the centurion are publicly praised for their faith by Jesus.
There are several things to notice about the woman’s faith. First, her faith was in Jesus. She called Him “Lord” and “Son of David” (v. 22). 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.
A second observation, 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 that she had no claim to Him by agreeing with His statement. 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.”
She was also persistent. She would not allow herself to be easily turned away. The story says that she kept “crying out after” Him and “came and knelt before Him.” 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.”
Persistence in prayer was important to Jesus because He referred to it often. On one occasion He told the story of a persistent widow who kept coming to an unjust judge to get justice. What that story teaches is that when we ask rightly, God does hear and will answer in His own proper time.
There is not much of this strong persistent prayer in our day, at least not in affluent Western lands. We are too busy to pray and too self-confident. It was different in previous centuries. The Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards began with his famous call to prayer, and it was carried forward by prayer. The work of God among the North American Indians under David Brainerd, Edwards’s friend, began in the nights Brainerd spent in prayer asking God to effect that great work. In the eighteenth century a revival began in a small town in Ireland that eventually spread through the entire country. It started with seven ministers who committed themselves to pray regularly, fervently, and persistently for revival. When John Wesley and George Whitefield began their work, England was in spiritual stupor, a moral abyss, but a little group of believers began to pray, and God sent a revival that transformed England and even spilled over into the New World. One reason we do not have great blessing today is that there is not much of that dogged prayer and persistent faith seen in the Canaanite woman.
This is the nature of all true faith. It was the faith exercised by the man who came upon the pearl of great price and the one who found the treasure in the field. They did everything in their power to possess those treasures. It is the faith of those “forceful men” who lay hold of the kingdom and will not be turned aside.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org