A question of faith

The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman raises great questions - and also shows us great faith!

Full Text: 

A question of faith

August 17, 2014 – Matthew 15:10-28


            There are two great questions at the heart of this text – questions that theologians and Bible scholars of all types have been struggling with down through centuries, profound questions that strike at the core of everything we believe.

            The first question is: What’s up with Jesus?

            Jesus is not behaving the way we have come to expect him to behave.  What we expect is that the moment he hears the woman’s cries, he will go to her.  He will look on her with compassion.  And then he will grant her request.  But that’s not what happens.

Instead, Jesus ignores the pleas of a woman in trouble.  When the disciples question him about her, he says, “That’s not in my job description.  She’s not my responsibility.”  And when the woman approaches him he responds in such a way that insinuates that she is a dog.

So – what’s up with Jesus?

There are two ways that scholars have understood his words and actions.  On the one hand, some say that Jesus has set all this up as a way of teaching the disciples.  He himself has ventured outside of Israel, into Gentile territory.  He clearly articulates what his primary mission is – something that the woman acknowledges.  And, in the end, Jesus lauds her for her faith. 

For the most part, this is not the way I have read this text.  Even though it preserves our image of Jesus as the all-knowing Son of God, I have never cared for the way Jesus acts in this story.  This makes him seem way to manipulative.  If he does this to make a point with the disciples, it is a point that comes at the expense of the Canaanite woman.  But in studying the text this week, I have reconsidered this.  In part, because more and more I am coming to see that Jesus is a teacher par excellence.  

But even more, I think this episode is Jesus’ response to Peter’s question – “Explain this parable to us.”  In criticizing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Listen and understand: It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.”  Jesus goes on to explain: Whatever you put into our mouth and swallow will eventually pass through on the other end.  That doesn’t really harm you.  It’s garbage in; garbage out.  But what you really have to look out for is what comes out of your mouth, because that shows the state of your heart.  It’s the way you speak and the way you act that matters.”

As a teacher par excellence, Jesus not only explains to Peter the meaning of the parable.  Jesus shows Peter and all the disciples the meaning of the parable.  He demonstrates it through his encounter with the Canaanite woman.

On the other hand, maybe despite the fact that he is the Son of God, Jesus has some things to learn.  Yes, his first concern is the people of Israel.  There are people beyond those boundaries, beyond those limits, who need healing.  There are people even outside of his expectations that are people of faith.  Maybe this is something that Jesus needs to learn.  Maybe it’s even something that God needs to learn.  And in learning this new thing, God shows that he is responsive to human beings in a way that we rarely think and scarcely believe.

Somehow, this woman does believe. The disciples are still clueless, but she has what Jesus calls, “great faith.”  And that brings us to the second great question of this text – What’s up with this woman?

This woman is a Canaanite woman.  There are actually no Canaanites left.  They are an ethnic group that was wiped out long ago.  Yet, the designation is still significant.  Canaanites were the ones who occupied the Promised Land when the people of Israel arrived from Egypt.  They were thus the enemies of Israel.  And they worshipped false gods. 

Even so, the enemy of Israel recognized Jesus.  She calls in “Son of David” which is both a royal and a divine name.  Up to this point, the disciples have only called him Teacher and Master.  Peter won’t make his confession of Jesus as the Messiah for another chapter.  But this woman understands more deeply who he is and she calls out to him – Son of David.  And as a further sign of his sovereignty and her humility, she kneels at his feet when she comes to him.

Nevertheless, this woman is not afraid of Jesus.  She is not reluctant to spar with him verbally.  When he tries to brush her off, she doesn’t slink away.  She comes right back at him.  She recognizes his priorities.  She doesn’t ask for a place at the table.  She doesn’t demand a full-meal deal.  She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the master’s table.”  She only asks for crumbs.

Jesus exclaims – “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!”

So – what makes her faith great?  Is her faith great because she recognizes who Jesus is? Is her faith great because she thinks Jesus can do something to help her daughter?  Is her faith great because she asks for help?  Is it because she is persistent?  Is her faith great because she gets Jesus to change his mind?  Is her faith great because she is willing to go past boundaries – boundaries of clan, boundaries of religion, boundaries of gender?

If this is great faith, what is little faith?  Thanks to the disciples, we have a story about that too.  In the story that you heard last week – less than a chapter before – the disciples are out in a boat while Jesus is off by himself on a mountain praying.  A storm arises, making headway difficult.  Jesus comes out to them on the water – and they become afraid – because they think they see a ghost.  And Jesus says, “Take heart!  It is I!  Do not be afraid!”

Peter then says, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to walk on the water to you.”  So Jesus did.  Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus.  But then he gets overwhelmed at seeing the wind and waves.  He begins to sink. 

Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus reaches down and pulls him up

Jesus says, “You of little faith!  Why did you doubt?”

Why did he doubt?  Did he take his eyes off Jesus?  Did he feel threatened by his circumstances?  Did he not know what Jesus could do?  Did he feel like he’d gotten in over his head and taken too big a risk?  Did he not trust that Jesus would be with him in crossing all the boundaries of life and ministry?


I think there are a number of reasons why the woman has what Jesus identifies as great faith.  She recognizes Jesus, but even when he is silent, she persists.  Her faith is great because even when he gives her a good reason not to listen to her and grant her request, she answers him.  But I think her faith is really great because it starts in her heart.  It is her passion for her daughter. 

Why does she persist?  Why does she cross boundaries?  Why does she risk so much?  It is love, love that comes from the heart.  It is love that makes us clean.

Great faith is not about ceremonies that make us clean or commandments that set us right with God.  It is love.  It is our love for God.  It is our love for each other.  And it is god’s love – God’s great love – for us.  That is the love that has come to us in Jesus.