Underdogs live in a liminal world. People love them but don’t support them. The greatest underdog in the New Testament is a nameless woman. Her story, sandwiched between two miracles, is neglected, but she accomplishes a Herculean feat: she verbally routs Jesus (or at least impresses him). The Pharisees try their best to outwit Jesus but fail. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Not so with this Canaanite woman.
In Matthew 15:21-28, a Canaanite woman cries, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” At first, Jesus ignores her, and his disciples find her annoying. “Send her away,” they say. When she continues, Jesus rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Undeterred, the woman kneels before him and utters: “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
The text jars us. Did Jesus just call her a dog? But at this moment, the woman’s words change the flow of the dialogue: “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus is thunderstruck. In essence, this woman agrees with his words and says crumbs are enough. Matthew says, “Her daughter was healed at that moment” (Matt. 15:28).
In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus feeds 5,000 people, and immediately after this story of the Canaanite woman Matthew records Jesus feeding 4,000 more. If anyone has bread, it is Jesus. The woman, however, intuits that Jesus also gives spiritual bread, and she is not too proud to beg.
The juxtaposition of her robust faith with the Pharisees’ dearth of faith blindsides the reader. No wonder Jesus quotes Isaiah concerning the Pharisees: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matt. 15:8). Jesus’ disciples fare only slightly better; Jesus calls them dull and has to explain that externals are not as important as the heart. The Canaanite woman knows this. Outwardly, she has nothing and is nothing.
Sometimes we have to be marginalized to appreciate mercy. The Pharisees, smug and secure, ooze confidence in their traditions and standing. They lack humility and have little reason to have faith. If faith is being confident of what is unseen, then they are too confident in what is seen to care about the unseen.
On the other hand, the Canaanite woman knows she is the epitome of a cultural outsider. She might even know Israel’s history against her people. Moses says to Israel of the Canaanites, “You must destroy them totally” (Deut. 7:2). She embodies the other, the foreigner, the non-entity. She asks for what she does not deserve. She understands mercy. Sinners do not have claims before God. When Jesus sees that she sees, he blesses her.
We have much to learn. We often feel secure not in God’s promises or God’s character, but in our performance, positions, and perceived talents. We don’t ask for mercy; we barely ask for grace. The Israelites did not intend to lose their faith. Decline creeps at a snail’s pace. A lack of faith here, a pinch of self-aggrandizement there, and before they knew it, they had concocted a potion for decay. The Bible declares that God loves underdogs. The Canaanite woman is one, and, unbeknownst to her, she approaches another, the Lamb of God. Through Jesus’ work, mercy wins. All we need to do is cry, “Son of David, have mercy on us.”
- How did you feel or react when you first read or heard this story in Matthew 15:21-28?
- How would you have reacted if you experienced the same treatment as this Canaanite woman? Would you still beg for spiritual “crumbs”?
- Discuss how true this statement is: “Sometimes we have to be marginalized to appreciate mercy.”
- How do we keep ourselves from shifting our spiritual security away from God’s promises or character to our performances, positions, or talents?