The Faith Of The Canaanite Woman


‘Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. ‘First let the children eat all they want,’ he told her, ‘for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ ‘Lord,’ she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he told her, ‘For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’ She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.’ Mark 7:24-30

The only two people whose faith was commended by the Lord in His recorded ministry were a Roman Centurion, Matthew 8:5-8 and a Syro-Phoenician woman, which incidentally were two Gentiles!

In this chapter, probably a chapter more difficult to understand than anything else, we see Jesus ‘escaping’ from the vast crowds who literally pursued Him wherever He went in Galilee. This wasn’t the only occasion when He sought to get away for a time of quietness and recuperation.

Tyre and Sidon were the two most important cities, north of Galilee, in what was earlier known as the ‘Phoenician Empire’. The Lord had entered territory which was formerly Canaan and Gentile territory, today we know it as Syria.

Why did He go there?

Why did He go there, when, as He actually said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ Matthew 15:24

and, when He sent out His disciples, He expressly told them, ‘Do not go to the Gentiles’, Matthew 19:5

He certainly didn’t want it to be known that He was there, and, just as certainly, He wouldn’t be ‘mobbed’, as He was in Jewish territory.

The house into which He entered was a Gentile house because no Jew would have lived in that region. Whatever His reason for visiting that region He was recognised by one woman, with the result that ‘He could not keep his presence secret’.

Matthew’s account tells us she, ‘came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Matthew 15:22

This is a confession that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Messiah of Israel and the fact that this woman in the area of Tyre and Sidon came making this confession is evidence that the knowledge of who Jesus was had spread even to Gentile regions.

Matthew tells us that when the woman came to Jesus, ‘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.’ Matthew 15:23

Why didn’t He answer her?

Jesus didn’t answer her in order to teach the disciples a lesson, remember they’re in a Gentile region, in a Gentiles’ house and this is a Gentile woman, it was their Jewish prejudice that made them unwilling to heal her.

The lesson Jesus was trying to teach was that all must be reached regardless of their nationality, Matthew 28:19-20 / Mark 16:15. Jesus’ refusal to answer the woman gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their inward feelings, the woman’s cries annoyed them because they were prejudiced against the Gentiles.

It’s clear that the persistence and clamour of this woman, who demanded His attention, brought Him to the attention of the people! In response to her worshipful petition, He quoted Isaiah 29:13 from the Septuagint version. This was virtually the Authorized Version of the Old Testament widely used in Judea at that time.

Although she probably wasn’t familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, and she’s unlikely to have spoken Aramaic, she certainly understood the Greek that Jesus used, Jesus was bilingual. Remember that Galilee was the region known as the Decapolis, where the inhabitants had used Greek as a second language since the time of Alexander.

Matthew tells us that, ‘the woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.’ Matthew 15:25

Without any arguments, the woman simply poured out her worship of Jesus, Matthew 8:2. We can’t help but believe that Jesus knew her heart, and so, He knew that she would behave in this manner toward Him. She thus presented herself in a manner that would break down the prejudice of the disciples.

I can imagine the twelve were waiting for Jesus to get rid of this woman, but the truth was, He wasn’t going to get rid of her, He was about to get rid of an ugly attitude in them.

Although at first glance, it seems that He treated the woman coldly, and used the word ‘dogs’ to refer to Gentiles in the usual Jewish manner, He softened the word by using the little form, speaking of ‘the little dogs’, or ‘puppies’.

F. F. Bruce even suggested that Jesus may have had a twinkle in His eyes, as He used the word! Perhaps He was testing her, and, in any case, we mustn’t suppose that by using that expression He was approving the disgraceful attitude that the Jews displayed towards other races. She would be perfectly aware of what the Jews would think of her!

Whatever may have been the reason for the Lord’s use of the expression, the woman quickly took up the Scripture quotation in her reply.

‘Yes! But even the little dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall from the table!’ We encounter an expression something similar to this in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus, in Luke’s record of the sayings of Jesus. In Luke 16, it’s used to describe the pieces of bread on which the diners wiped their hands and threw to the ‘unclean’ dogs that waited for them, Luke 16:21.

Remember that the Jews didn’t keep dogs as house pets in those days! The word which in this chapter has been translated as ‘crumbs’, probably would be better rendered ‘scraps’, because there was no Greek word that could be accurately translated as ‘crumbs’ in our sense of the word.

At first, Jesus refused, He said that it ‘wasn’t good to take bread from the children and feed it to the dogs’.

What He meant was that according to God’s plan it wasn’t time yet to heal and teach the Gentiles, the Jews, ‘the children’ were the ones God intended to be the recipients of the bread, ‘healings and blessings in general’ first. God planned that later on through the Jewish people the Gospel would be introduced to the Gentiles.

Her faith

Matthew tells that, ‘Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ Matthew 15:28

Jesus gave in to her pleas by proclaiming to the disciples the great faith of the woman, Matthew 8:10 / Matthew 9:22. Remember this woman presented herself to Jesus and clung to Him for hope, despite the attitude of the disciples.

I would imagine that the disciples were left a little embarrassed with themselves as they saw their own hardness of heart melt into compassion for this Gentile woman and her beloved daughter.

This woman showed great faith, humility and quickness because she responded, ‘Yes, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs’.

One commentator suggests that the woman was saying, ‘Yes, Lord, I am indeed a dog, but not a very big one, only a tiny one; and since the little dogs stay under the master’s table and eat the crumbs the children drop, surely you must be able to help me. It is only a crumb that I ask.’

She implies that just a mere crumb of Jesus’ miraculous power would be sufficient to heal her daughter. She also recognised that this didn’t signal the beginning of a major Gentile campaign. As a result, Jesus healed her daughter. The conversation had made it clear that she wouldn’t misinterpret the healing as a sign that the time for the Gentiles had come.

Can you imagine the anticipation this woman must have had as she was going home? Imagine the joy she must have had when she got home and saw that her daughter was healed?

‘And without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ Hebrews 11:6