Rev Aly Tunstall
Reading: Matthew 15 21-28
Let me start by asking a few questions.
- Do you have faith?
- What is your faith in?
- How strong is your faith?
- And what does having faith achieve?
I ask this because our passage tells the story of a woman’s faith and what happened because of her faith, but let’s first have a look at the passages before.
Jesus was again in conflict with the Pharisees over the ceremonial traditions and why the disciples were not obeying the traditions. After he’s had these conversations he decides to leave and go to the cities of Tyre and Sidon to be alone and this is where he meets with the Canaanite woman.
I don’t think this is a chance meeting – this is God very much at work in someone’s life.
The question I asked at the beginning “do you have faith?” might sound a little strange, because if you go to church and are reading this, one would assume you have faith. For me, I believe everyone has faith in something: some people have faith in God; some people have faith that there is no God; some people put their faith in someone or something else, maybe a celebrity or football player; some people put their faith in the church building; maybe even in money. This list could be added to.
So, what is your faith in? I believe the only thing to have faith in, that is capable of changing lives, is faith in God. All the other things are manmade, and while they might feel good for a while, they’re only temporary. They aren’t capable of changing lives and not only in this life but in the life to come for all eternity.
Faith in God however is capable of changing lives and we can see this in the whole of chapter 15 because for the first part we have the Pharisees putting their faith in the laws that that they had taken from God’s commands, but made their own by changing them to suit themselves.
Conversely, from verse 21, the faith the Canaanite woman had in Jesus the Messiah was a strong faith and was enough to change lives. Interestingly this faith turns everything upside down, because it’s the Jewish leaders you would expect to have the faith in Jesus as they were Gods chosen people, and Jesus was sent to save them first. However, they just would not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God. On the contrary the Canaanite woman, a Gentile did, and yet she would be the one you would expect not to believe – but instead, she had a strong faith and was not letting her faith go for anything or anyone.
This is not an easy passage to read because all through our lives we hear how much Jesus loves us and how he always welcomes us and answers our prayers – sweet Jesus meek and mild. But as we read this passage, that’s not what we see. It’s actually quite uncomfortable to read.
You see the passage starts with Jesus leaving the place where he was at odds with the Pharisees and go into the cities of Tyre and Sidon to be alone. But while he’s there, whether she saw him from afar or whether she was stood there as he walked past, we don’t know – the important thing is that she recognised him as the Messiah and knew she needed him and so she cries out:
“son of David have mercy on me Sir… my daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition”.
There are a few things surprising with this. Jesus as I said earlier came to the Jews first and so because Jews and Gentiles didn’t mix, she wouldn’t have been with the Jews when Jesus was preaching or healing. Therefore, she must have heard about him from somewhere or someone else. Also, in that day and age women did not approach men – this was because women had no value and were seen as the lesser gender then. And most Gentiles at the time would not have seen Jesus as the Messiah or the son of David as she did. And as she was not one of the chosen people, more of an outsider in fact, it’s even more impressive that she has this faith in what Jesus can do. Not only for her but for her daughter as well.
I also asked at the beginning how strong your faith is, because when this woman came to Jesus he didn’t make it easy for her. At first he doesn’t even answer her. Now whether that’s because he didn’t want to or didn’t hear or even was trying to teach the disciples something, the passage doesn’t tell us, but it does tell us that they beg Jesus to send her away because they don’t want her following them and they certainly don’t want all the noise that she is making.
I think that must have felt awful for the woman. If it was me at this point, I’d have felt unloved and unwanted, and even worse you find the disciples complaining about you. Then to make matters worse you have Jesus in verse 24 replying:
“I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel”
At this point, if you didn’t have a strong faith in what you had heard about Jesus the healer you probably would have given up, but not this woman. Now she comes and falls at his feet and says: ‘help me’. She’s not giving up for anything – wouldn’t you think though at this point Jesus would have said ‘okay I’ll heal your daughter’ – but no because now he insults her by saying ‘it isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’.
Here Jesus seems to be implying that she’s no better than a dog, but we need to understand the context because in those times the Jews saw the gentiles as ‘dogs’, ceremonially unclean and the lowest of the low… so he was making the comparison relevant so she would understand that his focus and energy was at this time with the Jewish people.
This is a phrase the woman would have been familiar with and she may have even known that she was putting Jesus in an awkward position, but instead of giving up, she comes straight back at him… she so tenacious…!! She says in verse 27:
That’s true Sir … But even the dogs eat the leftovers from their Master’s table
She’s saying to Jesus that she has enough faith in him that even the crumbs would be enough for her daughter to be healed, other people would still be fed and Jesus’ ministry to the Jews wouldn’t be affected.
What lovely humility this woman has, there’s no arrogance there, just pure humility to say I’ll have what little you can give me because I know that will be enough.
Was Jesus trying to teach his disciples something about real faith, or the importance of what, or who, we put our faith in? Was he testing to see how strong the woman’s faith was? Either way the strength of her faith in Jesus and all he could do, healed her daughter. Jesus says in verse 28:
You are a woman of great faith what you want will be done for you – and at that very moment his daughter was healed.
What does this mean for us? Today I started by asking you the question do you have faith, and if you do, what is your faith in? You see the Pharisees faith was in the laws and all the trappings like the temples, but sadly this didn’t change their lives and did them no good. However, the Canaanite woman had faith in Jesus and that faith was not going to fade, no matter what hurdle she had to jump. Her eyes were fixed firmly on Jesus and because of this he gave her the desire of her heart. And so we have a decision to make. We can be like the Pharisees or the Canaanite woman. Sadly though, when we don’t get what we want straight away we tend to fall out with Jesus because we think as Christians, we shouldn’t have to wait. We can be very arrogant in expecting God to give us what we want, when we want it. Or we may even feel that God is ignoring us or doesn’t love us but that’s not what we learn from this passage. You see, we need to understand that God knows what we need and his plans for us are the best, no matter how long it takes. We need to keep our faith in Jesus, just like the Canaanite woman did. Only then will our lives change and our faith grow.