21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon." 23But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us." 24He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25But she came and knelt before Him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26And He answered, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs." 27She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." 28Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
In this text, we see a number of things: rebuke; rejection; modern minds may see ethnic bigotry; persistence; love; disdain; unwavering faith; miracles; reward; affirmation; prayers answered; acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.
Verses 21-22: 21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon."
A Canaanite woman – Women were not, to put it mildly, highly esteemed in 1st century Palestine. They were, at best, second class citizens. Jesus, as we have seen in other places in the Gospels, acknowledged womens' important roles in the kingdom and affirmed them as blessed and beloved of God. Ultimately, we see that pattern repeated in this story, but not in these verses. That she was a Canaanite hints at the rejection – or apparent rejection – we see in the next few verses.
The Canaanites were dispossessed of their land as far back as Abram. Genesis 15:17-21 tells us that the “Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates...'”which included the land of the Canaanites.
Both before and after the covenant in which the land of the Canaanites is given to Abra,, God promises children to Abram – later Abraham – and promises he will be the father of many nations, with descendants numbering as the stars. See Genesis 15:5; 17:6-8. In fact, in 17:8, the land of Canaan is promised to Abraham. This “everlasting covenant,” as it relates directly to the Canaanites, is repeated in Psalm 105:10-11.
The Canaanites had a long history of struggle with God's people. The Canaanites were descendants of Canaan, son of Ham. Abraham's descendants, both through Ishmael and Isaac, were descended from Noah's son, Shem. Historically, they had been devotees of Baal and even sacrificed children to that idol. Apparently by Jesus' time, some level of enmity existed even though Israelite Jews and Canaanites lived in close proximity.
Verse 23But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us."
What is the significance in Jesus not answering her plea? Some commentators suggest that pattern seen elsewhere in scripture, and born out in our own lives, is that God does not always “answer” when we call, at least not in the short term. Others suggest that the silent was actually communication. John Calvin, in one of his commentaries on this chapter, supposed that Jesus, while silent, “spoke within the mind of the woman.” He added:
In this way the Lord often acts towards those who believe in him; he speaks to them, and yet is silent. Relying on the testimonies of Scripture, where they hear him speaking, they firmly believe that he will be gracious to them; and yet he does not immediately reply to their wishes and prayers, but, on the contrary, seems as if he did not hear.
The deafening silence in response to our supplications can be one of the greatest tests of faith. Waiting for an answer also reminds us who is in charge. What is one of the first things we deal with is parents? We struggle to find the appropriate balance between promptly caring for our children's serious, immediate needs – food, changing a diaper – and being at their beckoned call. God, assuredly, does not struggle with that but there is, nevertheless, a parallel. Sometimes He, as father, makes us wait because that is best for us.
Other commentators suggest Jesus was simply steeling the resolve of the woman. Faced with his initial silence, she had to choose between pressing forward with her petition or giving up hope, maybe rejecting God altogether. Earle, Sanner and Childers, in the Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol 6, p 149 cite Carr: “Jesus, by his refusal, tries the woman's faith that He may purify and deepen it.”
When Jesus does answer, without directly granting or denying her specific request, i.e. that her daughter be delivered from demonic possession, He explains His purpose is to minister to His own people. As the woman did in verse 22, she reaffirmed His lordship. This, to me, has several interesting facets. First, one not a member of the “house of Israel” recognizes the Messiah. “Son of David,” according to John Calvin, was (to paraphrase) a messianic marker. Thus she, a foreigner, perhaps even a pagan (as opposed to a “God fearer” Gentile), acknowledged the lordship of the Jewish Messiah. Second, she personally acknowledged His lordship over her! She gave herself over to Him, surrendering herself, calling on His saving mercy.
Remarkable in this story is the tie-back to the covenental theology of the Jews. I am certainly no scholar and know little or nothing about the intricacies of that belief structure. But it's hard to miss Jesus showing Himself to be a good Jew steeped in the Old Testament. As various commentators have noted, Jesus' ministry really never reached beyond Judea. The Apostles, of course, carried the message to the Gentiles, spreading it all over the Roman Empire. Jesus, though, really ministered primarily to His own people. Here He expressly refuses – or at least hesitates – to extend the blessings meant for God's people to Gentiles.
A fascinating parallel is Abram/Abraham's “everlasting” blessing with God at the expense, if you will, of the Canaanites and others. Jesus' blessing, tied up in His Father's covenant with Abram/Abraham, was refused to this lowly Canaanite woman...or so it first seemed.
Verses 26And He answered, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs."
Little disagreement is found over Jesus' meaning when He responds by telling her it is not right to cast “the children's bread” “to the dogs.” If He didn't call this poor woman a dog, a major insult in that culture, He certainly compared her to one. Earle, Sanner and Childers argue that Jesus actually might have uttered this with a nudge and a wink as something of a rebuff or rebuke to His disciples. The original Greek does not refer to a “dog” like a filthy street dweller despised by that culture, but as a “little pet dog” with which children would play. If so, there was no rebuke in His response. It was an inside joke between Him and the woman.
We tend to see Jesus in a terrifically serious light. Some of that is because we have only text, without benefit of facial expressions and body language. Any modern day American who tries to communicate by text and email knows that meanings can be completely obscured, indeed lost, when all you have to go by are words on a screen. Mark Driscoll, in his book Religion Kills, argues for a funny Jesus, a man with a great sense of humor. If some of the minority commentators are right, this might be one example of our Lord busting some chops.
Covenantal theology reappears. John Calvin explains the significance of the “children's bread” as:
To make the meaning plain to us, it must be understood that the appellation of the children’s bread is here given, not to the gifts of God of whatever description, but only to those which were bestowed in a peculiar manner on Abraham and his posterity. For since the beginning of the world, the goodness of God was everywhere diffused—nay, filled heaven and earth—so that all mortal men felt that God was their Father. But as the children of Abraham had been more highly honored than the rest of mankind, the children’s bread is a name given to everything that, relates peculiarly to the adoption by which the Jews alone were elected to be children
Thus, Jesus was not being distantly metaphorical. Children were God's chosen ones; His adopted kids.
Verse 27She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."
This one verse is packed full of theological punch! It is heavy and rich, like spiritual cheesecake. The next verse gives this one its full weight and meaning but I will still address them separately.
Crumbs are “small fragments, especially of something baked (as bread.)” One could not live on crumbs. Usually they are discarded. Here, they are left for the dogs. Not given to but left for the dogs. They are so small as to amount to almost nothing. These crumbs have fallen to the floor. It is hard to know what importance this idea held in that culture but we, in a society of overabundance, where our poor are fat, it's hard to conceive of being pleased with crumbs on the floor.
Moreover, consider how the Canaanite woman's willingness to take the crumbs contrasts with our 21st century conception of Christianity. Think of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that we hear preached on cable TV. God, we are told, wants to give you everything your heart desires because He loves you! But is that what we see in this story? No. We see a master that wants us to want and be happy with only the crumbs!
It must not be ignored whose crumbs are being lapped up; the crumbs from the master's table. His crumbs – whatever they might be – are better than abundance from other sources.
Verse 28Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Dovetailing nicely with the discussion on verse 27 is Jesus acknowledgment of this woman's “great faith.” She was willing to take a little – even after apparently being rejected or at least put off for the moment due to her race. She endured what may have been great personal insults. Yet she persisted in calling on Jesus to save her child.
The crumb concept is fitting in an ironic way. She and Jesus saw her as asking for very little, but what could be more important to a parent than the healing of an afflicted, suffering child? A lesson in here, maybe, is reflected in that irony. When we ask for the right types of blessings from God, He sees them as little things. God's kingdom, we see in scripture, often operates in contradictory ways: the first shall be last; the meek shall inherit the earth; he must increase, I must decrease; you must lose your life to gain it, etc. Be willing to take the crumbs and God will richly bless. Maybe a more apt way to put it is that the crumbs will satisfy your needs, another apparent contradiction; defying human logic.
There are parallels, too, between this woman's great faith and the faith necessary to move mountains. Not to make too much of the “crumbs” concept, but as Jesus said, having only faith the size of a mustard seed is necessary to move mountains. Having faith enough to accept the crumbs from the master's table is sufficient to cause you to experience in an almost inexpressible miracle.
More likely, as with the mustard seed, the issue isn't quantity but quality. What God gives us, even if we think it is not enough, is sufficient! That little mustard seed, similarly, grows into a large tree, as Jesus explained. Willingness to take the crumbs amounts to great faith because it necessitates reliance on God. Analogously, planting that mustard seed with the expectation that one day it will turn into a great tree – a hope that must battle some doubt – requires belief, nurture and, most importantly, patience!