Archive | February, 2012

Crumbs, Cries and Conversations (Matthew 15:21-28)

23 Feb

The Faith of the Caananite Woman: Crumbs, Cries and Conversation
A Sermon by Matthew Hundley (February 2012)


Matthew 15:21-28

21             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.
            He 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.

Do you sense an odd tension in this passage?

Jesus’ actions seem a little out of the ordinary…
…His unwillingness to answer the woman’s request because she was a Caananite, a Gentile;
…the woman calling Jesus out on his stance;
…Jesus recanting because of her great faith…and ultimately healing her child.

Reading the passage, we’re left to ponder…
Could Jesus have actually been wrong?
Why would God allow a Gentile woman to correct him?
(I can see the headlines now: Gentile Woman Corrects King of Jews)

After further reflection, I would offer that Christ’s response here is very deliberate.
He allows this scene to play out in order to send a message.

What we need to ask is, “Who is Jesus sending this message to?”
Which leads us to discover who it is are we are to identify with in this passage.

To discover the answers to these questions it will help to step back a few verses and review the events leading up to this moment.

In Matthew 15:1-9 the Pharisees and scribes call Jesus to task because the disciples are not washing their hands properly when they eat. Keep in mind the Pharisees and scribes are extremely zealous, religious men. Jesus responds by explaining how they have put too much emphasis on tradition and man-made religious rules.

3 “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

He explains that hey have broken God’s law: dishonoring their mother and father by disregarding their instruction; and, channeling their energies into enforcing rules over honoring God. Know that in Judaism to honor your mother and father is to honor God. According to the Torah, striking or cursing your parents was punishable by death. So this is a serious accusation that Jesus is waging against the Pharisees.

8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”

He then presents the Pharisees with a parable—which frustrates and offends them all the more. As they walk away from this scene he utters another parable to his disciples:

13 “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.
14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

The disciples too, fail to comprehend Jesus’ parables and ask for an explanation. Jesus questions them, “Are you so dull? … Don’t you see?”

The Gospel writer shifts our focus from the Pharisees to Jesus closest companions—his disciples; for they are starting to waver in their enthusiasm and commitment to Christ. In this passage we catch them in one of these moments where they are backsliding. They are still with him, but their hearts are starting to slip away. Jesus recognizes this. In their defense, they have ample cause for concern.

Imagine that a group of local church leaders (pastors, ministers, priests) from a variety of denominations started showing up at your church each week solely for the purpose of verbally attacking your pastor, questioning his teaching, and asking for proof of his calling. Now imagine those attacks carry into the public sphere, your pastor being ridiculed and questioned while he’s in line at Starbucks, Walmart, the local Quick Trip, wherever he happens to be. Even when he’s volunteering in the community—doing something good—he is attacked. What happens to your thoughts when respected community and religious leaders are attacking your pastor’s teaching, his theology and his actions? You might start to doubt; to wonder if there isn’t something to these attacks; to lost trust in your pastor. This could certainly impact your faith and belief in God.

That’s what’s going on here with Jesus disciples.

The same heart condition he just diagnosed the Pharisees with is starting to well up in his own disciples.

As we examine this passage closer, ask yourself: Who is Jesus sending a message to in this passage? AND Who do we most identify with in this passage?


Turn to: Matthew 15:21-28

21             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.”

The way I picture it you’ve got Jesus up in front. Most likely conversing with Peter, John and James. The other disciples are following behind him. There are twelve men in this caravan, so they stretch out a ways on this path. The woman has heard that Jesus and his disciples are in the region, maybe she saw them pass by, she catches up to them and begins to cry out, “Lord have mercy on me.”

We do not know much about this woman other than she is a Caananite and that her child is sick and believed to be possessed by a demon. The agony and the burden of this situation must have been great, for this woman of low estate to be convicted to cross class and cultural lines; to approach this prophet, teacher, healer who some were saying was the son of God; and to be relentless in her pursuit of his healing.

It is significant that the Canaanite woman uses the title “Lord” which is an expression of great respect. Like the woman at the well, she does not fully realize what she is saying or fully who this is that she calls the “Son of David.” However, in doing so, she shows that she has some knowledge of Jewish thought. She also would have known about the temple of Eshmun, a pagan god of healing, that was just a few miles northwest of Sidon. But she has heard great stories of Jesus, she believes these stories, she has faith that he can heal her child and goes to him instead.

I wanted to quickly address the fact that she is a “Canaanite.” This location might prick our ears. While not mentioned often in the New Testament, we find Canaan and Canaanites referenced often in the Old Testament: God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham; Moses led the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan; Joshua’s battle at Jericho as the first battle in the conquest of Canaan. In the context of this passage it is used to describe this woman as a non-Jewish pagan person living in the region.

So, the woman approaches, the disciples begin to cry out, and…

23a             Jesus did not answer a word.

In not answering Jesus says much. This is one of those “pregnant pauses” which should cause the disciples to consider their situation; consider the consequences of their refusing to serve this woman.

23b             So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

I wanted to quick illustrate of this scene in modern terms…

Imagine a family with four kids on a road trip in a mini-van. The husband and wife are up front engrossed in conversation; meanwhile in the very back their daughter is whining and annoying her older brother making the car ride unbearable. The middle two children have their headphones in and are doing just fine. The daughter, realizing no one is listening, ramps up the volume of her cries. Now all the kids are distracted and finally the three appeal to mom and dad in unison:  Make her stop whining!” Now chances are, with some basic negotiation skills they could’ve settled this issue among themselves. However, they are young and don’t think about diplomacy and thus call for the parents to step in.

That’s the situation we’ve got here. Jesus is carrying on in conversation up front. This woman is crying behind. The disciples had been given the power to heal and cast out demons (we read about his in Matthew 10) and could have helped the woman and sent her on her way. But instead of helping her, they are merely annoyed by her. After all she is not a Jew. She has a sick child with her. She may smell a bit. And they simply would like to pass her by.

Hmm…Maybe, they hadn’t hear the story of the Good Samaritan yet. Or maybe we should be asking ourselves, “Is this how Christ followers behave?” If someone came to you begging to know Jesus, would you turn them down?

Next,  Jesus pipes in saying exactly what the disciples in the rear want him to say.

24             “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Certainly, at this time the focus of his ministry was on Jews and their spiritual need—though later Christ’s message will go to the Gentiles. But what about the Centurion (Matthew 8), what about the woman at the well…certainly there had been Gentiles he had healed. And the one who needs healing now is a child…how often had Jesus expressed his love for children. So we have to see that he is using this opportunity to teach his disciples. His answer echoes their thoughts, but his intent is to teach them a lesson.

25             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 the dogs.”

You might think of Matthew 7:6 “Do not give dogs what is holy…” Jews frequently insulted Gentiles by calling them, dogs, which in ancient Palestine were wild, homeless, scavengers. Note, however, that the form of the word Jesus uses here translates “little dog” which would be a more affectionate term used for domestic pets. Jesus is not insulting the woman but testing her faith.

Also worth noting is what follows in Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you…” this woman has come before Christ and is now asking for his help.

26             He 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.”

The woman presses Jesus by alluding to the extended blessings promised to the Gentiles through Abraham (Genesis 12:3) which she knows about.
28             Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Although God’s plan was to bring salvation first to his chosen Israel and then to the Gentiles, he responds to all who call on him in true faith. This Gentile woman’s demonstration of humility and  faith allows Jesus’ healing ministry to operate. He commends her for her “great faith”—something not demonstrated by the Pharisees; something not being demonstrated by his own disciples.

So what do we do with this? What are the disciples supposed to gain from this experience?

There are 3 things that stand out to me in the area of application. I’ll call them…


As Jesus and his disciples roamed from city to city, fragments of his teachings would travel (like Twitter posts) from mouth to mouth, village to village…and people would get crumbs of Christ’s words to feed on. Some developed a hunger for Christ that spurred them to cry out for the Savior—the Caananite woman would be one of those. Her thirst for the Gospel lead her to a life changing decision follow (literally) Christ—which led to a life-changing conversation with him.

I don’t think the disciples realized the extent of the impact that Jesus’ teaching was having on other people—particulary Gentiles. To the disciples—the crowds were a nuisance…mouths to feed, bodies to heal—they kept wondering when Christ would assume a throne, build up his armies, make them his leader. But that was not the plan. Jesus was already planting seeds—dropping crumbs if you will—for a greater kingdom. Loving people, teaching them, healing them, listening to them, feeding them, serving them—this was not the behavior of an earthly king. But it was the behavior of a heavenly king.

Christ left crumbs for the crowds, and they returned clamoring for more. These people didn’t always know who he was; but they recognized he was an extraordinary man and that he was a servant of God. They called him prophet, priest, rabbi, master and Lord.

We who call ourselves Christian are supposed to leave crumbs as well—when we are with our families, our co-workers, our friends. Christians everywhere are leaving crumbs as well. And when people are in need of Christ—when the crumbs have instilled a hunger, a longing for something more—they cry out for their savior. It is up to us to listen for their cries.

I had a co-worker, a sales rep for the ad agency I was working for, who once asked me to pray for him. He was not a practicing Christian, but he knew I was, and we had spent some time on the road together and had talked about faith. So when he was having some health issues he asked me to pray. This is a simple example, but there had been crumbs from our conversation that had led him to ask for prayer. And led us into conversations about faith.

More generally, there is a longing for a savior that we see in pop culture. In superhero movies. In pop songs. On reality TV shows. Movies…Superman is probably the most obvious allegory we find: a child with no earthly parents comes down from the heavens and has powers to save the world for destruction. Songs…there are too many to list, ”What if God was one of us…” “You’re staring at me with that Jesus Christ pose…” Reality TV…if you watched any of the last two seasons of Survivor you’ve seen faith emerge in a major role. Two season ago, a young man is stuck on redemption island with his Bible to give him strength to win challenges. This season the winning team was all about praying together before challenges and drawing upon Christ for inspiration to keep going on.

So my question to you: Are you listening for the cries of those who long to know more? Those who have tasted the crumbs and are now hungry to know more.

Ultimately the crumbs lead to cries, which lead to CONVERSATION.

I have an artist friend who was creating a piece that required for him to understand the Old Testament. He knew I was a Christian and that I was taking seminary courses and we had many long discussions about the Bible and about faith. And ultimately he wanted to know more about Jesus and the message of the Christian faith. He would not have asked had I not left a trail of crumbs before him.

Don’t make conversations harder than they have to be. When someone comes to you with an interest in learning about your faith—why you believe, what is it that you believe in—they do so with vulnerability. They are affording you the opportunity to speak change into their life. Just as Christ spoke change into the life of the Canaanite woman.


If you are here today and you have not embraced Christ as savior. Then you might have found yourself more closely relating to the woman. You know that there are other religious options out there, but you are here today in the company of Christ’s flock. I invite you to engage in the conversation starting today.

If you are here today and you profess Christ. Then you should identify with the disciples, the ones who seek to follow Christ—but are experiencing a lull in their faith.

Christ gives us gifts to serve, to teach, to heal, to comfort, and to guide those around us. When we are approached by someone asking for help—whether they are part of our flock, part of another flock, or not part of any flock at all—we must respond. We must reach out to them and serve them as though they were are own brother or sister.

That they may know the love of Christ that we are called to express. May God bless our hearing and application of His Word.