A Woman of Faith: Matthew 15:21-28

A sermon preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on Sunday, August 16, 2020. To see the author preach this sermon follow this link. The sermon begins at the 13:30 mark. https://www.facebook.com/105243486193626/videos/226735448650031/

Our scripture lesson this morning is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand it has Jesus saying something very offensive.  He insults a desperate mother who has come to him asking him for healing for her child. First, he gives her the silent treatment and then he implies that she is “a dog” who is not worthy of his attention.  Ouch!  Jesus, what would your mother say?  My mom would probably grab me by the ear and send me to my room.

On the other hand, Jesus also gives this woman the highest compliment he ever paid anyone.  He says, “O woman, (which is better translated as, “You remarkable, you incredible, you unbelievable person you!”) Great is your faith!”  When you consider that in the Gospel of Matthew on three different occasions, Jesus calls his closest friends and disciples, “little-faiths,” this compliment is even more amazing.  When Jesus was sleeping in the boat during a storm and the disciples are frightened, (Mt 8:26) he calls them “little-faiths.” When Peter sinks while trying to walk on water (Matt 14:31), again he calls him a “little-faith.” When the disciples, after having witnessed two miraculous feedings, argue about not having enough bread in their boat, Jesus calls them “little-faiths.”  But this woman, who wasn’t even a part of God’s people, who hasn’t even met Jesus before this very encounter, who had only heard of him by word of mouth—this woman, Jesus calls a woman of great faith.

In less than 1 minute Jesus gives the woman both the lowest insult and the highest compliment. Why?  Why this sudden reversal? That’s the answer I want to give you at the end of this sermon.  However, before we can get to the answer we need to dig a little deeper.

Let’s begin by looking at who this woman is.  Verse 22 tells us that she was a “Canaanite” woman.  RT France notes, “The term Canaanite by this time in history is not a current ethnic term, but a part of the traditional biblical vocabulary for the most persistent and insidious of Israel’s enemies in the OT period (NICNT The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 2007, p.592).” The Canaanites were the people who opposed the Israelites in their occupation of the promised land in Joshua, and they were considered a threat to lead the people of Israel away from their faith in the LORD, the God of Israel. And so they were both physical enemies, and spiritual enemies who were always threatening to lead God’s people away from faith.

In Mark’s gospel, this woman is called a Syrophoenician which is a more accurate description of her ethnicity. But Matthew deliberately chose the archaic name of one of the Israel’s greatest enemies to make this woman unsympathetic to his Jewish readers.  I suppose it would be like calling someone a “red coat” or a “lobster back” to use an American example. There are no red coats today, but if you called someone a “red coat” you would be signalling that they were an enemy.

RT France says, “That a ‘Canaanite,’ of all people, should receive the compassionate ministry of Israel’s Messiah would be a potent symbol to Jewish readers of the universality of the gospel. (ibid., p. 592)” So at the beginning of the story, Matthew is already hinting at a great reversal. This woman’s story will take her from being an enemy of God to being commended as a woman of great faith.

Second notice how perceptive the woman is.  She calls Jesus both Lord and Son of David which shows her insight into Jesus identity.  Professor Carla Works says

She somehow recognizes him, not just as a roaming healer but as a rightful king. She does something that is significant in this Gospel: she kneels before him. The author of Matthew uses this action as one befitting a king. The magi, who are also Gentiles, are the first to offer worship to Jesus in this way (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11), and the mother of James and John kneel before Jesus as a king of a kingdom (Matthew 20:20).

Working Preacher, August 17, 2014

Third notice how desperate the mother is.  Our translation has the woman saying “my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  However, the original Greek actually says she is “badly demon possessed.”  RT. France points out that this is the only time in the NT where the verb for demon possession is qualified with the adverb kakos, “badly.”  This suggests that there is something extraordinarily unusual and extraordinarily awful about the girl’s condition. 

Furthermore, the woman is so desperate that she ignores social convention.  Ordinarily her husband should have been the one to approach Jesus, but this woman is so desperate that she throws caution to the wind and takes matters into her own hands. A mother’s love compels her to take great risks.

Fourth, not only is she is desperate, she is persistent.  As she approached Jesus from behind she was shouting at him to get his attention. She created a scene “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  The verb form indicates that this was not a one-time request, but something she shouted repeatedly. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  When Jesus gave her the silent treatment she redoubled her efforts and kept shouting.  Her persistent and loud shouts apparently got under the disciples’ skin, because as it says in verse 23, “his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’”

RT France has an interesting observation about the disciples’ request

[The disciples] are not simply concerned to protect Jesus, but actually display an even more self-centered annoyance.  Twelve strong men could have presumably driven the woman away themselves, so the fact that instead they ask Jesus to take action suggests that by “Send her away” they meant “Do what she wants, so that she will go away.”

op cit

When even the disciples are unable to sway Jesus, the woman makes one last desperate appeal. To quote RT France,

The woman who has hitherto been shouting from a distance now comes up to Jesus with a personal approach.  As yet there is no argument, simply an emotional appeal.  It is backed by a deferential posture and demeanor.  She bows down and addresses him as kyrie, “Lord, help me.”

op. cit.

The Greek word for “help me” is very strong word that is formed from two words.  The first word is boē which is a “battle cry” and the second is “theō” which means “to run.”  So taken together they literally mean “run to my cry.”  There is an urgency and desperation about this word. 

Her vulnerability makes Jesus response so much more difficult for us. Jesus’ response seems demeaning and insulting. He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  We are shocked and offended.  If this were a post on social media everyone would be calling it out. 

But I want you to know that there is more to this than meets the eye. How we react to these words all depend on how we conceive of Jesus demeanor and his purpose in engaging the woman in this conversation.  RT France has something helpful to say,

Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in check, and it may be that Jesus’ demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not be his last word on the subject.  Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? [And I would add, even surprised?] May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start?  A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teachers own view…

…when eventually her appeal is granted, there is no sign of reluctance on Jesus’ part, but rather an exceptionally warm commendation of her faith.  It is only when the story is read as a whole that it is properly understood, and the harsh racial language of the earlier part of the exchange is put in its true context, not as independent propositions but as thrusts in a verbal fencing match.

op. cit., p. 591

Jesus is playing the “devil’s advocate” in order to help the woman come to deeper understanding of her right to be at the table. He pushes her buttons so that she will push back and find a deeper faith.

And that’s exactly how the woman responds.  She rises to the occasion and makes a profound statement that shows just how deep her faith is. 

Let me ask you a question.  How do you think the woman held her shoulders when she replied to Jesus? What was her demeanor?

  • Were her shoulders hunched and her eyes averted in shame?
  • Were here shoulders heaving as she sobbed, eyes filled with tears and voice quavering?
  • Were they thrown back, shocked, insulted, face defiant?
  • Were they askew, left shoulder lifted and head tilted to the right, as she chuckles with humor in her eyes, ready to make her witty response.
  • Or did she sit erect looking straight ahead, confident that Jesus will give her the answer she wants? (source: Richard Swanson, “Provoking the Gospel”, August 20, 2017)

Most interpreters suggest that the woman was demur and submissive in her response.  But I think our translation, once again does us a disservice.  Most translations would have us understand that the woman is saying. “Yes, Lord, your right; I’m a dog, but even the dogs eat the crumbs.”  However, the Greek does not contain the word “but.”

Instead the word, the word that our version translates as “yet” (in Greek “alla”) actually means “because” or “for this reason.” (in Greek, “gar”) This conjunction is not adversative, but explanatory.  So what this verse actually means is not “Yes Lord, you are right, I am a dog, but please cut me a break.” Rather, it means “Yes it is right!!! that the dogs get to eat the children’s food.  For, as everyone knows, the dogs sit under the table where the children sneak them food or they scarf up anything that happens to fall on the floor.  You’re wrong in that regard, Lord, the dogs are just as much a part of the family as the children.  And my daughter and I are just as much a part of the family of God as anyone else.” In the kingdom of God there are no dogs. Only children who belong to the family of God.

In my opinion this is exactly the answer Jesus was fishing for. All of this is a set up to get the woman to realize how important she is to God. It is the woman’s bold assertion that the gospel is for everyone that causes Jesus to say. “You’re a remarkable person! Your faith is great!”

Part of the reason that Matthew includes this story in his gospel is to counteract the ultra-orthodox who believe that belonging is only for the “chosen people.”  At the beginning of this story Jesus seems to be on the side of those who want to exclude others and limit the gospel only to a chosen few.  These folks would have seen the Canaanite woman as an enemy (or should I say an undocumented worker) who had no rights.  They would have silently applauded when Jesus ignored her cries.  They would have approved when Jesus said that he had only come for the lost sheep of the Israel.  And they would have been ecstatic to hear Jesus insulting the woman by comparing her to a dog. 

So when Jesus turns the tables, when he grants the woman her request, when he gives her the greatest compliment given in the whole gospel, and lifts her up as an example of faith, they would have been befuddled, insulted and angry.

But the Canaanite woman and all her spiritual descendants will rejoice in the good news that the kingdom also belongs to them.  This story is disturbing, but it’s ultimate target is not the Canaanite woman, but those who would exclude others.

As Professor James Boyce puts it, “In the Kingdom of God, we are not to assume the role of greedy bouncers at the door checking IDs.  Rather we are to take our place on our knees, shoulder to shoulder with this woman of great faith, pleading ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord.’” (Working Preacher, August 14, 2011)

2 thoughts on “A Woman of Faith: Matthew 15:21-28

  1. I always especially love it when someone is “willing” to see Jesus as full -figured, and totally versed in human responses from humor to sarcasm to as you say here playing devil’s advocate to angry to struck down by grief. I love my Savior who was not some namby-pamby “nice” guy but wise beyond belief, loving beyond measure, and brilliant and creative in his communication. Nice sermon. We must be freed as Jesus was (is) to speak truth, to not “throw pearls to swine” who have no earthly use of them, but to also understand that we learn best when words and lessons have power and meaning and specificity and creative license. Our ability to communicate is perhaps the greatest thing separating us from the beasts (dogs included!) — to assume Jesus did not know this has been a tragedy on many levels. Thank you for a wonderful illumination of this text, this story, and our Savior (who could be quite a card now and then!) .

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    1. Thanks, Jane. One of the great things about being a pastor is the opportunity to study scripture in depth. Most of the insights in this sermon were also new to me. I’m glad that they were able to help make Jesus less of a cardboard cut out.

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