Great Faith

Great Faith

There are passages in Scripture that can be puzzling to us. They can be puzzling because the picture they present of God—the picture they present of Christ Jesus—goes counter to what we expect. When we think of Jesus, we think of someone who was always kind—always loving—always available to anyone who had need. In fact we’ve seen this to be the case as he preached the good news of the kingdom of heaven having arrived in him—as he taught in the synagogues—as he healed those who were physically sick or in need of deliverance from the evil one. And not only that but Jesus was also a person who was always on the right side of the Jewish law. And when that law was misinterpreted or misapplied, he had no problem correcting the misinterpretation or misapplication. So when we see him acting in a way that we don’t expect, or in a way that seems to us inconsistent with his teaching and action elsewhere, we can be left puzzled for people’s character and actions tend to be consistent.

This morning’s account from Jesus’ life is, at least for me, one of those instances that doesn’t seem to fit in with my general understanding of who Jesus is for in it we have a woman crying for mercy—begging that Jesus, that merciful and compassionate healer—might heal her demon-possessed and thereby greatly suffering daughter. This request certainly seems to be right in his wheelhouse. It’s difficult to read very far in the Gospels before you come upon an instance in which he healed or cast out a demon. But Jesus doesn’t grant this woman’s request. At least he doesn’t right away. And so we are left confused in trying to figure out how his behavior in interacting with this woman can be consistent with how we usually see him act.

So let’s turn again to the passage and see if we can make sense of it. In what has just preceded this account, we see classic Jesus as he is being challenged, as he often was, by religious leaders—Pharisees and teachers of the law (v. 1)—who were critical of the fact that Jesus’ disciples “don’t wash their hands before they eat” (v. 2). How shocking! How dare they! After pointing out the hypocrisy of these religious leaders—who, as Isaiah had prophesied,[1] “honored” God “with their lips” but whose hearts were far from God whom they worshipped him in vain since they lived by human rather than divine rules—Jesus turned to the crowd and taught them that humanity’s problem wasn’t that of having unwashed hands but of having unwashed hearts. “19 For”—verse 19—“out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” So humanity has an unclean heart problem, not an unclean hand one.

Immediately following this exchange, Matthew notes in verse 21, how “Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” As we saw when working through Matthew 11,[2] Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities in Phoenicia often condemned in the Old Testament because of their worship of Baal and extreme materialism. Upon arriving there, “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him,….” The use of “Canaanite” is unusual here. In fact, though the designation is common in the Old Testament, occurring around 150 times, this is the only place in the entire New Testament in which it’s used. And in the parallel account in Mark’s Gospel,[3] she’s referred to as a “Syrophoenician” woman—and again Phoenicia would have included the areas of Tyre and Sidon so these are two different ways of referring to the same geographic area. Both Phoenicians and Canaanites were called Sidonian or Tyrians. So in both cases, part of the reason for identifying her by region is to point out that this woman is a non-Jewish pagan living in the area of Tyre and Sidon.

Yet though she wasn’t Jewish, she had no doubt heard about Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and miracles and so we find her here, “crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’” Extreme times call for extreme measures. Though a pagan living in a Gentile region, this woman had a great need. Her daughter was “suffering terribly” and because of her love and desperation for her daughter, this Canaanite woman ignored social convention and humbled herself before Jesus, a Jewish descendant of David, beseeching his mercy upon her and her daughter. And it would seem that this kind of genuine, heartfelt cry was precisely the kind of request that Jesus normally granted. But he doesn’t—again, at least not right away.

In making sense of this exchange, it’s helpful if we can keep before us Jesus’ Jewish ancestry and heritage and try to see him here as a Jew first and setting aside—at least for a moment—that fact that he was also Jesus the Christ, God who had come to earth in the flesh in order to save all who acknowledge and receive him as Savior and Lord. We need to keep in mind that this latter information is something that you and I have but that those in the unfolding story of Jesus’ life didn’t have—at least not yet for his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven yet lie ahead. So if we can see and hear Jesus as those who were present did, we can better appreciate his response, recorded for us in verse 23: “Jesus did not answer a word.”

Again, normally Jesus didn’t take much convincing to respond to a request for healing. As we saw most recently,[4] even when he intended to get away with his disciples to a solitary place, upon seeing the crowds that followed him on foot, “he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”[5] So as we consider our morning’s passage we may feel puzzled by his silence for we know how kind and merciful he is. But we need to remember that Jews did not mix with non-Jews, much less with pagans from Tyre and Sidon. So his silence, as a Jewish man, is to be expected. In fact the response we see in his disciples would have been even more in keeping—would have even better reflected—the animosity that existed between Jews and pagans, verse 23: “So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’” This Gentile woman was being a nuisance and culturally at least, there was no expectation here that Jesus would or should respond to her request—to her cry—to heal her suffering, demon-possessed daughter. So his response to his disciples was no doubt in keeping with what they also thought as he answered them in verse 24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” This is a true statement even if there is more to it than meets the eye for not only was Jesus sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, but when he first called his twelve disciples he sent them only to the lost sheep of Israel as well.[6] We’ll return to this point a little later but for the time being I’ll only note that though Jesus may have been sent “only to the lost sheep of Israel” by withdrawing “to the region of Tyre and Sidon” as verse 21 states, he had left his Galilean ministry and entered the Hellenistic Gentile regions. So Tyre and Sidon would have been an odd place to seek lost Israeli sheep even if there would have been some Jewish residents who had resettled there after the Babylonian exile.[7]

Now the disciples’—and Jesus’—response didn’t suffice for this Canaanite woman. Having been once rebuffed by Jesus’ silence and the disciples urging him to send her away, she nonetheless “came and knelt before” Jesus, asking yet again, “Lord, help me!” Surely, one would think, this second attempt at getting Jesus’ attention was bound to work. But it doesn’t really. This time, rather than ignore her Jesus responded to her but his response almost certainly was not what she had been hoping to hear, verse 26: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Ouch! His point is clear. Believing Israelites were the children and she, a non-Jewish pagan woman, was among the dogs. However, although calling someone a “dog” at this time was a common way of insulting Gentiles since dogs “in ancient Palestine were wild, homeless scavengers,” one source noted that “the form Jesus uses here (Gk. kynarion, “little dog”[8]) suggests a more affectionate term for domestic pets.” Therefore Jesus’ intention may have been not to insult the woman, but to test her faith.[9]

So though not an ideal response, having finally gotten Jesus to engage this poor woman not only didn’t give up but she contradicted Jesus noting how it is “right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” And stretching Jesus’ analogy even further she noted how “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” A few crumbs. Healing for her demon-possessed daughter. Removing her daughter’s suffering. That’s all she was asking. And it worked for as we read in verse 28, Jesus then said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And though we’re not told, the disciples’ response at this point would probably have been a wide-eyed gasp for Jesus had not only granted this pagan woman’s request but he had commended her great faith. But we’re not surprised. This is the Christ Jesus Scripture regularly discloses and portrays to us. And unlike the Pharisees and teachers of the law with which this chapter began, this Canaanite woman may have dishonored Jesus with her lips by contradicting him, but—and this is the part that matters—her heart was near him. She believed he was who he said he was. She believed he could—and would—heal her demon-possessed daughter’s suffering. Her worship of Jesus was not in vain. And she was rewarded for her faith and her perseverance.

So let me return to the earlier conundrum presented by this passage. If Jesus had been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, why did he in due course grant this non-Israelite woman’s request? And the answer lies in God’s answer to humanity’s Fall for from the beginning God made a nation for himself from one man, Abraham, and there are some important implications of this. First, all nations would be included in Abraham’s blessing. As we’ve noted before, when God approached Abram—later to be called Abraham—he told him, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”[10] So though Jesus may have first been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, those first sheep were always intended to be the means by which all nations of the world would one day be blessed. Or to state it another way, God’s flock was always intended to include sheep from all nations.

But, second, even during the various times and periods covered in the Old Testament, non-Jews were always welcomed into the Israelite community if they gave their allegiance to the One, True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, for example, Rahab the harlot was welcomed into Israeli life.[11] And Ruth, the Moabitess, not only was incorporated into the life of Israel but also became King David’s great-grandmother and as such became part of Jesus’ genealogy.[12] And in the book of I Kings, Elijah goes to the very region of Sidon in which this morning’s account takes place, to care for a non-Jew, the widow at Zarephath, and he heals her son much like Jesus healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman from our morning’s passage.[13] So the point is that it shouldn’t surprise us that though Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, that he nonetheless ended up healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter. The grafting in of the church into the people of Israel was ever part of God’s plan as the apostle Paul also noted.[14] As one commentator states, with the coming of God’s Messiah into the world, “True Israel became defined by union with the true Israelite—Jesus Christ.”[15]

All of this is to say that Jesus’ comment about being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel should be read as meaning initially sent to the lost sheep of Israel. During his time on earth, the children of Israel were indeed his primary mission. But as is indicated by the final instructions he left his disciples—again, whom he also had sent only to the lost sheep of Israel when he first called them—the Gentiles were also and always part of the reason he was sent. The Gentiles were also and always included in the lost sheep he came to save. Recall that before ascending to his heavenly Father, Jesus told his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[16] And we know as well, of course, Jesus’ Great Commission which also was given after his resurrection from the dead as he charged his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[17]

So this Canaanite woman becomes a kind of harbinger of the blessing that is to come to all nations. And perhaps because she is ahead of her time, Jesus commends her not only for having faith—but for having “great faith.”

Her faith is great because she shouldn’t be addressing Jesus to begin with—but she does.

Her faith is great because in turning to him for help, she’s broken ties with her cultural roots and joined herself with the One, True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Her faith is great because she knows Jesus can heal her daughter and, knowing that, she refuses to leave until he grants what she has requested.

Her faith is great because even after being ignored by Jesus, she refuses to go away.

Her faith is great because when Jesus first dismissively addresses her request, she jumps at the opening, kneels before him, and asks him for help.

Her faith is great because even as she didn’t accept his silence neither does she accept his explanation as to why he is under no obligation to help her—true, she may be nothing more than a domestic dog but even household pets are entitled to crumbs that fall from the table.

What about us? What can we learn from this account? What are some ways we can develop—and demonstrate—great faith?

I think that great faith requires knowing who God is. And the best way that you and I can know who God is is by prayerfully studying his Word and learning about—and learning from him as by his Holy Spirit he leads us in helping us understand and obey that Word.

I think that great faith requires engaging with God not only as we read—and study—and meditate upon his Word, but also in prayer. He wants us to talk with him. Rote prayer like the Lord’s Prayer we recite together each week as a family has its place. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that God is our Father and we are his children and therefore are brothers and sisters to one another. It reminds us that we are to pray for and do what we can that his kingdom—his will—be done on earth even as it is done in heaven. It reminds us that we shouldn’t take our daily bread for granted—and we should confess our sins to him that our fellowship with him might be restored—and it reminds us that we are easily tempted by sin and evil and are thereby in need of his and each other’s help to live as he intended. But rote prayer isn’t enough because it can become, well, rote. Mechanical. Habitual. In our familiarity with rote prayers, we can easily overlook the meaning of the very words we are praying.

But God wants us to engage with him in prayer. He wants us to show our hearts to him. He wants us to open up to him. He wants us to depend upon him. And he wants to disclose himself to us by means of that prayer. Isn’t this what the Canaanite woman did? She didn’t accept Jesus’ silence. When he finally spoke dismissively, she continued to fall before him. When she heard his answer, she accepted and humbly challenged it.

Brothers and Sisters, let us similarly engage our loving and kind and merciful heavenly Father, knowing that he delights in us—he delights in hearing from us—in having us talk with him—in having us open our hearts before him. We were created to be in relationship with our Maker and our Redeemer. We were created to live in dependence upon him. Let us individually and corporately avail ourselves of the opportunities we have every day to talk with our loving and attentive Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let us individually and corporately avail ourselves of the opportunities we have every day to experience great faith.

Let us pray.


[1] Isaiah 29:13: 13 The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.

[2] 7/2/17, Matthew 11:16–30, “Coming to and Resting in Jesus.”

[3] Mark 7:24–38: 24 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. 25 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. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

27 “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.” 28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


[4] 7/30/17, Giving Thanks and Breaking Loaves [The Feeding of the 5000], Matthew 14:13–21.

[5] Matthew 14:14.

[6] Cf. Matthew 10:5–6:These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.

[7] Cf. Mark 3:7–8:Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” The Crossway ESV Study Bible says about these places: “All of these regions had belonged to Israel during the time of the judges, and descendants of the 12 [sic] tribes have now resettled in these regions following the Babylonian exile.”

[8] ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἔστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ βαλεῖν τοῖς κυναρίοις.

[9] Crossway ESV Study Bible note, emphases added. This is noted as well by the Reformation ESV Study Bible: “The context indicates that house pets rather than strays are in view.”

[10] Genesis 12:1–3.

[11] Cf. Joshua 6 for this account. Verse 25 states: “But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.”

[12] Ruth 4:13–17: 13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” 16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

[13] I Kings 17:9, 17–24: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food…. 17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” 19 “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” 22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” 24 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.””

[14] See Romans 11. Also cf. Galatians 3:16, 29:The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ…. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

[15] Keith Mathison, The Church and Israel in the New Testament. <>

[16] Acts 1:8.

[17] Matthew 28:18b–20.

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