THE FAITH OF THE CANAANITE WOMAN
By Betty Young
Molly, our dachshund mix, stations herself under baby’s highchair every mealtime—the better to catch the crumbs that fall from baby’s tray. Dogs have no pride. Molly is satisfied to catch the food scraps that fall to the floor—grateful for even the crumbs, no matter how small. Our grandson eats at the table until he is satisfied. Molly, however, is satisfied with the crumbs that fall under the table.
As I watched Molly eagerly lap up the crumbs, I was reminded of this story in Matthew.
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
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.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Jesus and His disciples often withdrew to Gentile regions to escape the schemes of the scribes and Pharisees and the overwhelming crowds that followed them everywhere in Judea. They often did not even have time to eat. Here in Matthew, a Canaanite woman approached and begged Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter. At first Jesus ignored her and when she persisted, He tells her that He was “sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” His purpose, He tells the woman, is to preach and teach only to the Jews. She was not disheartened by Jesus’ response. She knelt before Him and asked again for Him to help her. In verse 26, Jesus calls her a dog (“It is not right to take the children’s read and toss it to their dogs.”)
We know about the Canaanites from the Old Testament. Canaanites were a thoroughly pagan and corrupt people. They were the ancient enemies of the Israelites, slated for destruction during Joshua’s time. Their presence in the land was a threat to the purity of Israel’s religion and morality. There is a long history of spiritual and military conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites.
Matthew uses “Canaanite” in describing this woman to emphasize her pagan ancestry. The Jews were the chosen people, loved by God from the days of Abraham. All others were Gentiles, including this Canaanite woman. The Jews had the covenants, Moses and the Law, the prophets, the Temple and the promised Messiah. The idol worshipping Gentiles had no claim to any of Israel’s blessings. God’s covenant promises are given only to Abraham’s seed. This Gentile woman understood all of this and yet, knelt before Jesus in desperation and asked Him for the crumbs.
She does not talk about how much her daughter was suffering or accuse Jesus of being uncaring. But this wise Gentile woman knelt before Jesus and said, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” After all, she reasoned, children and dogs both eat at the table. Children eat the bread and dogs receive the crumbs that are left. Not only did she accept her identification as a dog (a derogatory term used by the Jews) but she accepts that she was undeserving of the bread that belonged to the children of the household. But even dogs eat the crumbs from the table is her humble defense. Jesus commended her humility and faith and then healed her daughter.
When Jesus came to His own people the religious leaders rejected Him and sought for a way to destroy Him. Jesus, bread of heaven, was rejected and thrown out by the Jews, but He is received by Gentiles—as reflected by the faith of this Canaanite woman, once an enemy and now a recipient of His mercy, grace and salvation.
Just as this mother with Canaanite ancestry was saved by crumbs, so it is by these same crumbs that I am saved today. When the children have eaten the bread, there is more than enough leftover in the crumbs for me.
When our family travelled to visit the villages of our parents many years ago, I was stunned to see in their homes, altars dedicated to the worship of ancestors prominently displayed. I was confronted with my very pagan past. I suspect if my parents had not immigrated to the US, I might very well not be the Christian that I am today. But God had a plan. He not only used our circumstances but a small, nondescript neighborhood church to save me.
Little did we know when we moved to San Francisco Chinatown that we had moved into a mission field claimed by the Chinatown churches. Unknown to us, it was hallowed ground. Earnest Christians had dedicated this part of town to God, had plowed the hard ground and had irrigated it to soften it so that seeds of salvation could be planted. It was the churches that opened their doors and welcomed the children who were often neglected while their parents worked long hours. Day camps, summer camps, after school homework clubs, Chinese schools, youth groups, etc., were all evangelistic tools used to persuade parents to trust the churches to care for their children. This was the way I became a Christian, and my brothers and some of my school friends.
The crumbs from the bread are enough to save the whole world. Indeed, the Heavenly Father made a plan for me and for you (if you are Gentile like me) so that we might humble ourselves and be a part of His salvation plan. God is jealous not only to save His chosen people, the Jews, but also the rest of the world. What a glorious God we serve! Praise to Him forever and ever! Amen!