Conversations: Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Audio: Conversations: Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
We are continuing in our series of sermons on “Conversations with Jesus.” We’re looking together at a variety of conversations Jesus had with people that are recorded in the Gospels. And we’re looking at the kinds of people Jesus talked to, and the questions he asked, and the ways he interacted with people. And we’re asking ourselves: what do these conversations reveal about the way Jesus might speak to me?
Well, today I’d like to flip the script a little and talk with you about the way we might speak back to Jesus when in prayerful conversation with him. And I’d like to take you to another of my favorite “Jesus Stories,” which is found in Matthew 15:21-28. It’s the story of Jesus’ conversation with a Canaanite woman, which starts out as a non-conversation. Jesus initially won’t even talk to this woman. And then when he does speak to her, it seems like he insults her. But by the end of the conversation she has actually won his respect by the way she talks back to him.
Listen as I read the story to you from Matthew 15:21-28.
So if this story seems very familiar to you, it’s because I actually preached on Mark’s version of this same story last summer. If you are a regular attender here, it was only 7 months ago in July that you heard another sermon on this Jesus story. But today, I want to take a different tack on how we might apply this story to our lives.
Today I want to look at what it means for us to actually “talk back” to God in prayer. And by “talk back,” I don’t just mean respond to God in conversation, but “talk back” to God in the sense of “back talk.” You know, being a bit bold about how we feel. Maybe even challenging God when we don’t agree with what God has said to us, or if we don’t especially like what God has allowed to happen to us.
How do we “talk back” to God? Well, this Canaanite woman is an amazing example of someone who does just that, and not only gets away with it, but earns Jesus’ respect, maybe even makes Jesus’ day.
So let’s look again at the story, and let me set the context for you. Jesus has been teaching and preaching and healing and casting out demons for a year and a half. But even after all of that good ministry, the religious leaders have taken a stand against him. The Pharisees have been testing and provoking him day after day trying to prove that he is in some way not orthodox. King Herod has already beheaded his cousin, John the Baptist, because of his prophetic ministry, and is now beginning to see Jesus as a problem, too. And even Jesus’ own disciples don’t really understand him. In the previous passage just before this one in Matthew 15:16, Jesus has just said to his disciples, “Are you still so dull that even you don’t get what I’m talking about?”
So you see, as we come in on this story, Jesus seems weary and worn down. And he’s decided to get away for a few days, so he has taken his disciples and actually left Israel. They have all headed to the Palestinian coast along the Mediterranean Sea, to a small Syrophoenician town in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon. This is about 20-30 miles north of Galilee in what we now call Lebanon.
Matthew doesn’t give us any more information on why Jesus went there in particular, or where they stayed when they got there. But the fact that he has left Israel and gone to Lebanon for a few days is a pretty good indication that he just wanted to get away from people. He wanted to go to a place where no one knew him. He needed a place to simply rest and restore his soul.
And I believe this is why Jesus responds in this rather surprising way to the woman who comes seeking his help. Somehow she finds out about Jesus, and comes crying out to him. She says her daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession and needs Jesus’ to cast it out.
But look what Matthew says. He states that Jesus would not even answer her. Now does that sound like the Jesus you and I know and love? If you read through all four of the Gospels, and you won’t find another instance where a person in need comes to Jesus and he doesn’t respond.
But in this case, even when this woman persists and keeps crying out, Jesus won’t say a word to her. It’s the disciples who finally get annoyed with her persistent cries and say, “Lord, just send her away!”
So Jesus finally answers the woman, but gives her no help or hope. He simply says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” And that was supposed to be a conversation ender. That was Jesus’ way of “sending her away.” He was basically telling her that she is a Gentile, and not a Jew, and so he can’t do anything for her. End of story. Go back home.
And again, that’s not really like Jesus, is it? Jesus never turns people away, and never makes an issue out of who they are or where they come from or whether they are Jewish or not Jewish. It’s part of what infuriated the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel. Jesus was infamous for welcoming and ministering to people that, as a Rabbi, he shouldn’t have had anything to do with: tax Collectors and sinners and foreigners and women.
But in the context of this passage, Jesus is weary. He wants to be left alone. He doesn’t want to heal someone and then have crowds come knocking at his door an hour or two later. He doesn’t want anyone to even know he is there.
But what I want you to notice today, is that this woman just won’t take “no” for an answer. Even when Jesus tries to dismiss her saying he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, she bows down on the ground before him and begs some more, “Lord, help me,” she says. “Please, help me.”
And so then Jesus says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” And again, did Jesus really just say that? Was Jesus really implying in his little analogy that this woman was a dog? Well, yes he does, as surprising as that may seem. But it might soften the blow a little for you to know that Jesus uses a diminutive form of the word for dog here, meaning “a little dog,” a puppy, a household pet.
And the scene Jesus is painting for the woman in his words is a household scene. The table is set, and the family has gathered, parents and kids. And Jesus says it is inappropriate for the family’s pet dog to be climbing up on one of the kids laps to try and take food off their plate. He says, first the kids should eat what’s on their plates, and then the pet dog might be fed the scraps leftover at the end of the meal.
And in the context, there are a two ways in which this little analogy can be understood.
1. First, he had already told this woman that his ministry was primarily for the Jews. That they are the children of God; and that the time had not yet come for that ministry to extend beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles. That’s the first and most obvious level of meaning contained in this analogy.
2. But secondly, given the state of weariness that had led Jesus to leave Israel and head to the coast, it may well be that on a more personal level, he is telling this woman: “Listen, we are here in this hideaway to rest. I and my disciples need to be fed ourselves first before we have anything more to offer anyone else. I just can’t take this time of rest and toss it away. I need to put a boundary around this time away and guard it.
Otherwise, like has happened so many times before, we will be swamped with the needs all around us and drained even more. First, let the children be fed and nourished, then we’ll think about feeding the puppies.”
Well, both of those explanations may have been what Jesus intended to communicate to this woman, but the real surprise in this passage comes in the woman’s response to Jesus’ analogy. She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the pet dog is welcome to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table onto the floor.”
And Jesus is amazed. He says, “You are a woman of great faith. May it be done for you as you have asked.” And at that very hour her daughter was healed.
You see, she talked right back to Jesus. She accepted his analogy for what it was. She even accepted that in the analogy she was compared to a pet dog. But she took his analogy and turned it around on him and said, “But Jesus, I’m not looking to eat off the children’s plates. I’m just asking for a crumb off the floor.”
And Jesus can’t help but love this woman. His own disciples are not as astute as she is. His own family does not understand him as well as she does. The religious leaders of Israel are nowhere near as insightful.
And this from a Canaanite woman, who actually has the chutzpah to make Jesus talk to her when he won’t. And who won’t leave and go home when he tells her to. And who dares to “talk back” to Jesus, and turn his own analogy back on him so that he can see her situation from her perspective.
And Jesus is amazed, not offended. She wins his respect, and maybe she even revives his soul. You see, I believe this story is not just about what Jesus ended up doing for her and her daughter, but it’s also about what this woman did for Jesus at this point in his ministry. Matthew says that the next thing to happen was that Jesus was ready to go back to Israel again, back to Galilee, back to his people, back to his ministry. Maybe this odd conversation actually brought some healing to Jesus’ soul.
But here’s what I’d like us to pay attention to that I believe can help us in our own conversations with God: It’s alright to talk back to God. It’s alright to be persistent in our prayers. It’s alright to tell God how we really feel, it’s alright to be honest and forthright.
Pay attention to the fact that when this woman first starts crying out to Jesus, He doesn’t answer right away. Haven’t you had that exact experience in your own prayer life? Times when you have cried out to God for help, God is just silent? Well, she shows us that being persistent, and even perhaps annoying in continuing to cry out is not so bad. Finally, because of her persistence, Jesus does answer her.
But then she also takes it another step. When Jesus does finally answer, and the answer is “No,” she doesn’t give up, and she doesn’t walk away. She comes in even closer and bows down at his feet and continues to make her appeal to him.
And as we have seen, when Jesus then gives her the reasons that his answer has been “no,” she takes his explanation and shows him why his answer really should be “yes.”
And the whole time, she is also humble and respectful toward Jesus. But she isn’t passive. She is persistent. And she engages the conversation in such a way that Jesus can see quite clearly that she understands him and his perspective very well, while at the same time she is respectfully placing her request within the parameters of his perspective. It’s really quite amazing, and it’s a great model for us of how to “talk back to God.”
And you know what? If you read the rest of the Bible, you’ll find that almost all of the key figures in the Bible have conversations with God that are a lot like this. There are a whole host of people who talk back to God in the Bible, and God is not offended at all. In fact, just like Jesus with this woman, God is actually quite taken with the people who talk back to him like this.
Think of Abraham giving God push-back when God is thinking of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Or Moses arguing with God at a whole variety of times during the Exodus. Or Gideon questioning what God tells him again and again. Or Jeremiah challenging God on various occasions, saying, “Are you sure you want me to do this, Lord? Are you sure you want me to say that? Do you know what they’re going to do to me if I do what you’re telling me to do?”
Or King David all through the Psalms cries out to God, saying, “How long, Lord, are you going to let my enemies have the upper hand around here? Where in the world are you? And why aren’t you coming to my defense?”
You see, the Bible is full of people who talk back to God. And they are respectful, but they are bold and sometimes a bit sassy, and they make their thoughts and feelings known to God. They tell God honestly what they’re thinking and feeling. They’re real with God; and like this Canaanite woman, they won’t take no for an answer. And is it surprising to you that God might just like that from his people? Jesus seems to like it from this Canaanite woman who was not even considered to be one of God’s people.
So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for us to talk back to God a little….respectfully, but persistently.