Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28
Because today’s scripture features a dog, I’m sure you’re anticipating that I will talk about my beloved English springer spaniel, Ringo.I promise I won’t. Instead, I want to tell you about another springer that we owned back in the ’90s and 2000s. His name was Presley, and he was the warm-up dog that we bought before we had kids. You know how many married couples get a dog first, as sort of an audition for having kids. And if they can manage to keep the dog alive, then maybe it’s safe to have kids? That’s Presley.
Presley is the dog we had when our three kids were born and were growing up.
And my kids, like all kids, each spent a lot of time sitting in high chairs when they were little. And let me tell you… they were slobs. They had no hand-eye coordination at all! They spilled food everywhere!
So every morning, every afternoon, every evening—for years while our kids were little and being fed in a high chair by one of us—our dog Presley learned to park himself underneath the high chair, waiting for every little Cheerio that would fall on the floor—at least a couple of handfuls before all was said and done.
Or maybe our child would spill a bag of Goldfish on the floor… No problem! Presley was on it! It was wonderful… That’s a dog’s primary job, after all! Keep the kitchen floors clean!
Even in the ancient world this was apparently true… because in today’s scripture, Jesus and the Canaanite woman describe dogs doing the same thing as dogs today!
In fact, today’s scripture includes some of the most famously difficult words of Jesus in all of the gospel. Verse 26: “And [Jesus] answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
What does Jesus mean by this?
I’m going to answer this question in three points: Point Number One: Jesus’ words aren’t as difficult as they seem… Number Two: Jesus’ words are still difficult; they’re supposed to be… Number Three: We can learn a lot about faith, about prayer, about Jesus, and about the gospel from this Canaanite woman.
But first, point number one… Jesus’ words aren’t as difficult as they seem…
As I suggested, many contemporary readers—not to mention some Bible scholars—are bothered by Jesus’ words about dogs. Is Jesus comparing this woman to a dog? We know, for example, that Jews in the ancient world would sometimes use the word “dog” as an ethnic slur against Gentiles. Is that what Jesus is doing? If so, how could Jesus be so rude, so bigoted, so prejudiced… so racist? This woman is ethnically or racially different from him. The region of Tyre and Sidon was a Gentile area. And careful readers recall, for instance, that one of the most famously wicked women in history was Queen Jezebel, the idolatrous wife of Israel’s King Ahab. Jezebel was the queen who was out to kill the prophet Elijah, whose story you can read about in 1 Kings.
Jezebel was from the pagan country of Tyre. So… uh-oh… This woman is from the same region. Is she like Jezebel, too?
And by identifying her as a Canaanite, Matthew reminds us that this woman is also descended from that race of people that Israel displaced and conquered when they entered the Promised Land. Of course, Israel didn’t drive out all of the Canaanites, and they continued to cause great trouble to Israel for hundreds of years, constantly tempting Israel to commit idolatry and gross immorality—and even child sacrifice—over and over again.
It’s almost as if Matthew were setting us up to view this Canaanite woman in a very unfavorable light, as someone almost uniquely unfit for the miracle that Jesus will eventually perform for her.
So… Does Jesus himself view this woman that way?
Some recent New Testament scholars worry that he does. They go so far as to say that this is an example of Jesus’ “humanity” on full display—that perhaps Jesus was tired and irritable after a long day’s journey—the way any of us would be—and these words just slipped out of his mouth in an unguarded moment. They say that Jesus, to some extent, was a victim of his time and place and inherited some of the prejudices that went along with being a first-century Jew. And this woman, according to these scholars, is somehow morally superior to Jesus. It’s up to her to set Jesus straight.
Or, they say, maybe Jesus hasn’t yet understood that his Messianic mission wasn’t simply to Israel but to all the world. That’s why Jesus seems to brush her off at first. So, according to these scholars, this woman taught Jesus something that he didn’t already know.
How do I put this delicately? These recent scholarly interpretations are… utter nonsense. Don’t believe them for a moment!
First of all, how could Jesus be a bigot? Jesus did not sin; if he did sin, he’s not the world’s Savior and we’re not saved! Besides, back in Matthew chapter 8, which long precedes the events of today’s scripture, Jesus already performed a healing miracle for a Roman centurion—a European army officer—and not only did he heal the centurion’s servant, he gave this European Gentile a great compliment: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” 1 Where on earth is the so-called bigotry or prejudice against Gentiles?
And do I need to point out the many ways that Jesus makes it clear that he is not prejudiced against women, that he’s not sexist, that he’s not a chauvinist? At this point in Matthew, as just one example, Jesus has already healed that hemorrhaging woman who “secretly” touches the hem of his garment—because she believes, as a so-called “unclean” woman, someone as righteous as Jesus would never agree to heal someone like her!
But no… Jesus not only heals her, he gives her the gift of eternal life while he’s at it!
So it’s already clear from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus has no problem showing mercy to either Gentiles or women…
Also… Jesus isn’t even using the same word for “dog” that Jews might have used as an ethnic slur against Gentiles! In the Greek, Jesus is literally saying something like “little dog,” or “puppy,” or even “doggy”—a dog, in other words, that lives in a home… a family pet. He’s not referring to mangy, filthy, mongrel dogs that wandered the streets back then, scavenging for food. If you’re going to insult a Gentile, that’s the kind of “dog” you would be referring to. You would not use a word that refers to a beloved family pet, or any dog that lives with a family.
I mean, here’s a sort-of contemporary analogy that may help… If you call me a “blockhead,” as Lucy might have called Charlie Brown in the old Peanuts cartoons, I might get offended… at least if it were 1965 and people still used that term “blockhead.” But I’d be offended because you would be insulting my intelligence. Right? It’s like saying, “You’re as dumb as a stick.” But suppose you call me a “chip off the old block”? Would I be offended then? No… assuming you like my parents, I wouldn’t. Because you’re just saying that I’m a lot like my dad, or my mom… So I wouldn’t be insulted in the second case even though, in both cases, you’re comparing me to a piece of wood. Same image, very different meaning.
And so it is with Jesus and his use of the word “dog.” He’s not using “dog” in a derogatory or insulting or offensive way…
Besides, do we have any indication here that this woman takes offense at Jesus’ analogy? Of course not! In fact, I like what the late Tim Keller said about Jesus’ words in verse 26 and the woman’s response in verse 27. He said that Jesus’ words, and the woman’s response, are like an acted-out parable. The woman, in this case, supplies the parable’s punchline. And if we could put into words precisely what this parable means, it might sound something like this:
The kingdom of heaven is like a sumptuous meal, the portions of which are so abundant that even the family dog can feast on scraps that fall from the table.
And that’s Point Number One: Jesus’ words aren’t as difficult as they seem…
Point Number Two: Jesus’ words are still difficult—not as difficult as they seem at first, but they’re still difficult. There’s no getting around the fact that Jesus doesn’t appear to want to help this woman.
In fact, I want to show you three ways in which it seems like Jesus doesn’t want to help this woman. Number one, she says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” And verse 23 says, “But he did not answer her a word.” Jesus greets her request with silence.
Number two, in verse 23, the disciples say, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” And “send her away” probably means, “Go ahead and heal her, Jesus, because she’s making such a scene!” But Jesus tells them: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “I won’t heal her because we are now in Gentile territory. And my mission doesn’t yet extend to Gentile regions. That will become your job, when I give you my Great Commission. But that won’t happen until after I finish my mission to Israel—to show Israel that I am her true Lord and Messiah. But again, that won’t happen until after my death and resurrection.
Yes, it’s true that Jesus already healed a Roman Gentile, but he did so within the borders of Israel itself; here Jesus is now among Gentiles, in a Gentile region.
Finally, number three, let’s look at verse 25: “But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” And verse 26, “And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’”
My point is, in three ways—through silence, through his words to his disciples, and through words directly spoken to this woman—Jesus seems to be saying, “No.” He seems to be disregarding the woman’s desperate needs; he seems to be ignoring her. She has a genuine need, right now, and Jesus is refusing to help her.
That’s hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?
But you know what else is a hard pill to swallow? How about the psalmist who writes this? “Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Get up! Do not reject us forever.” Psalm 44:23. Or how about these words, from Psalm 42:9-10:
I say to God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why must I walk in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression?” Like the crushing of my bones, my enemies taunt me, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Or how about Psalm 43:2: “For you are God, my only safe haven. Why have you tossed me aside?”
These are difficult words… difficult experiences for these psalmists!
If Jesus, who is God, doesn’t seem to hear this woman, or seems to ignore this woman, or seems to reject this woman in her hour of great need, well… he seems to be treating her precisely the way God treats his own people sometimes. Right?
Because the hard truth is this: God’s people today—including those of us even in this room who are God’s children through faith in Christ—will experience these same feelings sometimes! Sometimes we feel like crying out, “Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Get up! Why have you forgotten me? Why won’t you answer me? Why have you tossed me aside?”
We’re going to feel like that sometimes!
And you may say, “Pastor Brent, nearly every week you are reassuring us that God is always working for our good, in each and every circumstance. You tell us that everything that God causes or allows to happen in our lives, he does so for good reasons. You tell us that God is always transforming even the bad, evil stuff in our lives into something that will be for our ultimate good. You tell us that God is always showing his favor to us who have become his children through faith in his Son. Do you still mean that, Pastor Brent?”
“But hold on, Pastor Brent, now you’re telling us that we are also still going to experience, at times, God’s silence, we’re going to sometimes feel as if we’ve been rejected by God, we’re going to sometimes feel as if God doesn’t care about us, we’re going to sometimes feel as if God were a million miles away from us. Is that what you’re saying?”
Yes, I am. And Jesus—along with the rest of scripture—wants us to know that that’s the way “being a Christian” is going to feel sometimes.
At least Jesus is warning us disciples in advance that we’re going to experience these feelings!
I said earlier that it’s as if Jesus and this woman were acting out a parable, and I tried to put that parable into words. But you know what? Maybe Jesus and this woman are acting out another parable, too, one that is found in Luke chapter 11. If you’ve heard me preach long enough, you know it. Jesus says,
Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, “A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.” And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, “Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.” But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence. 2
Shameless persistence. I like that. Jesus only has to teach a parable about “shameless persistence” because he knows that we disciples are not very good at being persistent… we’re not very good at persevering in prayer and faith and worship and Bible reading and churchgoing, especially when it feels like God is ignoring us, or that God has rejected us, or that God is a million miles away.
Granted, we can be sure that God is never ignoring us, that he hasn’t rejected us, and that he’s never a million miles away. But based on our feelings—which tell us lies all the time—based on our feelings, we will sometimes feel ignored by God, feel as if God is silent, feel as if God is a million miles away, feel as if God doesn’t really care about us, feel as if God is angry with us, feel as if we’ve disappointed God so many times that there’s now no way he still loves us and wants to help us.
Our feelings tell us things like this nearly all the time, and our feelings lie to us nearly all the time!
When it seems as if God is ignoring us… when it seems as if God silent… when it seems as if God is distant… when it seems as if God doesn’t care… when it seems as if God is angry and disappointed and has run out of patience with us, don’t give up. Hold on to Jesus! Keep holding on to Jesus! He will come through for you! If Jesus seems to be putting you off right now, it’s only because he’s working his good plan for your life, and his good plan for your life often takes time—and usually more time than we’d prefer or desire or expect…
So don’t give up… If you’ll just be patient, you’ll see: Maybe, in time, God will give you the thing you prayed for… but if not… God will surely give you something even better than what you prayed for, better than what you expected, better than what you hoped for, better than you ever dared to ask for! Because God’s Word tells us that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us”3…
So don’t give up. Don’t let your emotions tell you lies! Don’t let measly things like circumstances frighten you! And don’t listen to naysayers and critics and enemies when they try convince you that you’re not good enough, that you’re not worthy enough, that you’re not holy enough, that God would never show someone like you his favor!
God has blessings for you that you can’t even imagine… just keep trusting in him!
But be forewarned: on this side of heaven, one very present temptation for all of God’s children is to believe the lies that our feelings, that our circumstances, that our enemies, including the devil himself, like to tell us. Don’t believe them.
So Jesus is telling us in advance, even through the words of today’s scripture, that it’s going to be hard sometimes. Don’t give up. Keep trusting. Keep praying. Keep believing. Keep reading God’s Word. Keep believing God’s promises.
And that’s Point Number Two.
But… Point Number Three… this shamelessly persistent woman in today’s scripture… she serves as a role model for us… because, to say the least, she doesn’t give up, in the face of apparent silence, apparent rejection, apparently dire circumstances… That’s easy enough to see.
But not only that: let’s notice how this woman eventually gets the healing that she’s praying for. Notice it’s not by believing that Jesus really doesn’t mean what he says. That’s what many modern Christians say: “Jesus doesn’t really mean this. He’s just having a bad day. He’s just expressing his human weakness…” Nonsense!
The difference between this woman and too many modern Christians is that she has a lot more faith than they have. She actually believes the words that Jesus speaks. She accepts them as true. “Of course they’re true. Jesus speaks them. And he is nothing if not trustworthy!”
And by the way, we can accept the rest of scripture in the same way, because the Bible says that the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, breathed out the rest of the words of scripture. Whether he speaks words in the gospels, or guided the words that the Bible’s writers eventually wrote down, all these words are true. Because after all, Jesus Christ is trustworthy.
So this woman is unlike us modern Christians who often treat the Bible as if we “know better than God” what’s true and what’s not.
As I say, this woman isn’t like that. Jesus says, in verse 26, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She doesn’t say, “No, Lord, you’re wrong…”
On the contrary, in verse 27, she says, “Yes, Lord…” “That’s true…” In the King James, she says, [hold up fist] “Truth, Lord.” One scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner, says that the woman’s affirmation is even stronger than that. It’s as if she were saying, “Yes, precisely, that’s exactly right…”
“And since that’s the case,” she says, “knowing that I’m like this family’s dog under the table, then you have to admit, Lord… I’m at least entitled to the crumbs that fall from the table. Right?”
And to say the least, I’d rather feast on crumbs that fall from God’s table than to enjoy the most sumptuous meal that the devil prepares for me. Amen? God knows I’ve done that a few times too many! How about you?
But notice: this woman believes Jesus’ words, she accepts them as true, and she uses Jesus’ words to guide her own excellent prayer: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Every scholar believes that at this point in the story, if we could get in a time machine and watch, Jesus would be smiling or even laughing as he says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
People in the Bible often remind God of the promises from his Word when they pray. And it’s not because God forgets those promises; it’s just that he enjoys when we speak them back to him; we are expressing faith when we do that.
This woman didn’t give up when she prayed because she knew the kind of Lord and Messiah and Savior that Jesus was. She believed in him. She knew enough about the kind of person Jesus was not to believe her circumstances—which tried to convince her to give up and walk away. She knew enough about the kind of person that Jesus was not to trust her feelings, which said, “God will never accept someone like you. God would never love someone like you enough to heal you or help you. Don’t you know how big a sinner you are!”And she didn’t believe what anyone else told her, including Jesus’ disciples, who just wanted to get rid of her.
Instead, she leaned on the Word of God and, in so many words, said this: “Yes, I fully accept that nothing about me qualifies me or makes me worthy of your favor, Lord. I’m a sinner, by all means. And I’ve done nothing to deserve the good that I’m asking you to do for me. But I know you love sinners, and I know you always want to show mercy, and I know your words are true. You’ve spoken these words, and I believe them. And because I believe them, I am asking you to do this.”
She prayed an excellent prayer. And God loves answering those prayers. God loves answering prayers in which we remind him of the promises in his Word! Those kinds of prayers glorify God. And you and I were put on this earth to glorify God!
So from this Canaanite woman we learn about persistence, we learn about prayer, we learn about a kind of faith that doesn’t give up or throw in the towel, a faith that believes in the word of God and the promises of God.
This woman teaches us about Jesus and his gospel. Twice in these verses she says to Jesus, “Have mercy on me.” On me… As if she has taken her daughter’s deadly affliction upon herself. She doesn’t say, “Have mercy on my daughter.” Rather she says, “Have mercy on me. My daughter’s affliction is my affliction. Her suffering is my suffering. The harm that Satan is doing to her is now being done to me.”
She is substituting for her daughter. She is showing substitutionary love for her daughter.
It’s as if the woman were saying, “My daughter is unable to do for herself what I’m doing for her. I’m suffering on her behalf. I’m believing on her behalf. I’m being faithful on her behalf. My faithfulness to God in the face of suffering means that my child will now be healed. My child will now be saved. My child will now have new life. Because I love her that much!”
Doesn’t that sound at least a little bit like what Jesus does for us on the cross? He is our substitute. “He lived the life of faithful, perfect obedience to his Father that we were unable live, and he died the God-forsaken death that we deserved to die. He suffered the hell that we deserved to suffer.”