Scripture Reference: Matthew 15
Jesus And The Syrophoenician WomanDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 14, 2006
Selected highlights from this sermon
A Canaanite woman needed help. She turned to Jesus, and even though she knew the chances were slim, she faithfully fought for His attention. The disciples tried to run her off, but she persevered, and in the end, Jesus recognized her faith and healed her daughter.
John Quincy Adams said, “All that I am my mother made me.” Some of us, I think, could say something similar to that. I think of my own mother who loved us, who taught us to love God, and to hate sin. I know that she has prayed for me already today, and will pray for me throughout the day. I called her last night. I wish everyone could have a mother like mine.
Today we’re going to look at a very special mother found on the pages of the Scriptures, a mother whose story actually begins with despair, but it ends with deliverance. It’s a story of encouragement because although it begins with grief, it ends with gladness. And even if you are here today and you’re not a mother, as many of us aren’t, what we’ll find is that this mother has a great deal to teach us, and we are going to be different because we have seen her life, and we have seen her intercession.
Take your Bibles and turn with me, if you would please, to Matthew 15 where Jesus is very weary and wants to get a little bit of rest, but this dear lady does not allow Him or afford Him the privilege. Jesus was in a position where He was telling His disciples about His death, and He wanted to withdraw into the area of Tyre and Sidon, two seaport cities. And it is there that Jesus encounters a woman.
Archbishop Trench says, “Like perfume betrays itself, so He whose name is perfume cannot be hid.” This woman finds Christ and comes to Him. The tide of mercy was in her district, and she decided to take advantage of this opportunity that she would have to be able to encounter Christ, and to receive some help, and what a woman she was.
Matthew 15! I pick it up at verse 21: “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
What a remarkable woman this is! Remarkable because she believed everything that she knew about Jesus! Remarkable because she calls Him the Son of God, the Son of David, and that is remarkable that she had more insight into the person of Christ than some of the people who had heard His teachings! Remarkable also because she was able to analyze the problem that her daughter had. She says, “She is cruelly demon possessed.” But she’s also remarkable because Jesus gives her an award. It is the award called great faith.
Now, what I’d like to do in the next few minutes is to look at the barriers that this woman overcame in order to get to Christ. And as I mention these barriers one by one, I want you to be thinking in your mind, “At what point would I have peeled off, at what point would I have decided it’s not worth it? I’m not going to go the distance to get Christ’s help. If this is what it takes I’m going to quit.” You ask yourself that question as we look at these barriers.
The first barrier that this woman overcame was the barrier of gender. The Scripture says she was a woman. And she comes now to thirteen men in a society where women were not well thought of at all. In fact, a man did not speak with a woman. That’s why the disciples were so surprised when they came along and found Jesus talking to the Woman of Samaria. It was a shock to them because you did not do that. It is said that the rabbis prayed every day and said, “Oh God, I thank You that I am not a woman.” Shame on them, but that’s what they used to do.
And this dear lady knows that as she comes to these men, very probably they will have the same prejudices, the same insensitivity with which she was reared and that was popular in that culture, but she comes nevertheless. It’s not just that she’s a woman, but she may have been a single mother. Where is the father? We don’t know, but bless this lady’s heart, she is there interceding for her daughter and, of course, the father is not in the picture. Now maybe he just wasn’t there that day. Either way, she is taking the spiritual leadership in the home because she knows if she doesn’t intercede for her daughter no one else will.
I speak to those of you today who are single mothers. God bless you and may God help you. It’s not easy to be a single mother and to try to bring up children and to be their spiritual leader, and to be their father, and to be able to fill in all the gaps that a broken marriage might bring about, or perhaps a marriage that has been (What shall we say?) dissolved because of death. It’s not very easy to do that, and some of you are doing it. Oh, my friend, today you have a friend in this sister from Tyre and Sidon. I read some time ago that there are about sixteen million children raised in the United States with a single parent, most of the time with their mothers.
And then, of course, we have those heart-breaking stories that sometimes come to us in the newspaper or on television where little children… And I remember seeing this little girl cry. She must have been four or five. She said, “I don’t know whether or not I should even call him daddy because he never calls us. He never remembers our birthdays, and he doesn’t send any money.” Should she call him daddy, she is wondering? Can anyone begin to calculate the amount of pain and the amount of hurt in our society today because of the break-up of the family? And some of you, bless you, are trying to pick up the pieces. And I hope today that your family problems do not prevent you from going all the way to get the help that you need at the feet of Jesus Christ.
This woman did not stop. She was not put off because she was a woman. She could have said to herself, “If that’s the way you feel about women, I don’t like your attitude, I don’t like your God. I will rather die than try to come to you for help.” She overcame that barrier, bless her.
Let’s look at a second barrier she overcame. She overcame the barrier of grace. The text says she was a Canaanite woman. Now if you know anything about the Canaanites, you know that they were the ancestral enemies of the Jews. And when Joshua came into the land, God says, “I want you to exterminate the Canaanites.” That was tough news.
My dear friend, I want you to know that this woman was alive because Joshua was not successful in exterminating all of them. That’s her ancestry, and in those days the Jews would look upon the Canaanites and call them dogs. Now if you are called a dog today, that’s not a compliment, but on the other hand, we think of dogs today in much better terms than they would have thought of back then. Today we think of little poodles, you know, their owners leading them with a little leash along Michigan Avenue, all dressed in their winter finery when the snow begins to fly. (laughter) Little painted toenails! (laughter)
My dear friends, in those days, dogs were scavengers. They were filled with disease. They were even dangerous. When you called someone a dog it was indeed a despicable term. This lady could have said, “Because of the way in which you think of me, and just because I happen to have the wrong parents, and just because you believe that I am scum, I am going to walk out of here.” Bless her, she overcame the racial barrier, and she said, “I’m going to get to Jesus anyway. Despised or not, I need His help.” God bless her!
Let’s look at a third barrier that she overcame, and that was the religion barrier. She was, after all, a Canaanite. And the Canaanites were worshippers of Baal, the god Baal. I’ve told you this before but I have seen the god Baal. I mean with my own eyes! In 1968 we were in Tyre and Sidon, and then we went to Baalbek where you have all of these marvelous unbelievable ruins where they had a huge temple to the god Baal. And at the end of the tour the guide actually showed us Baal. He was maybe only three or four feet high. There he is, chiseled out of stone, a smirk on his face. Very sad, very pitiful and very dead!
But this woman could have said, “Baal is our religion, and our religion is just as good as yours, and furthermore, this is the religion in which I was reared. If it was good enough for my father, if it was good enough for my mother, it’s good enough for me, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to pray to my own god because I’m not going to switch religions because of you.” She could have said that.
My dear friend, it cost something for this woman to change religions. Who knows how much it cost her? And you know I’ve spoken to people… I remember talking to a man who was attending a liberal church where the Gospel was not proclaimed and he knew it. And he was distressed because of it, but he continued to attend and said, “Well, I’m just going to keep going there because I was reared in the church, and maybe someday when my parents die I’ll go somewhere else.”
And then there are other people who go to churches where there are rituals and where the Gospel is not preached, and where the transformation of lives doesn’t happen, but they say it’s a cultural thing. “We have to stay together because if I change it would be a betrayal to my family.” The issue, of course, isn’t the church as such. It is whether or not Jesus Christ is exalted not only as Lord, but also as Savior, and all other religious options are clearly shown to be hollow and impossible. That’s the kind of message that the world does not like, but that’s the message that the world needs.
Bless the heart of this woman! She didn’t say to herself, “Because it’s of a different religion I will not get help.” When she recognized that Jesus was the Son of God, she had to turn her back upon her own religion, and she had to find help no matter the cost. She overcame the religion barrier.
Next I want you to notice that she overcame, and sometimes this is even more difficult, the people barrier. Now let’s read the text. She comes to Jesus and says, “My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” Jesus did not answer her a word. So his disciples came and urged him, “Send her away because she keeps crying out after us.” I mean, her cries are piercing and she’s an irritation. “We’re tired of hearing her call out for help,” the disciples were saying.
Now isn’t it interesting that the disciples, instead of inviting people to come to Jesus Christ actually became a barrier for people to get to Him? And you know that that sometimes happens too. Sometimes you have to somehow get past the barrier of people in the church before you can really get the help that you need. This lady, bless her, it wasn’t simply a matter of getting past the crowd. She had to somehow get past the attitude of the disciples in order to get to Jesus.
Now let me talk with you very candidly. Sometimes we say, you know, “Don’t take this personally.” But I want you to take this very personally. At this point take it personally. You will never get the award of great faith as long as you look at other people. They will disappoint you. They will not keep their promises. They will not live up to your expectations. They will not be everything that you think they should be. If you are looking for a good excuse to not come to Jesus, you can have as many excuses as there are believers within the church because we all have those kinds of faults. Sometimes we stumble over ourselves. Sometimes we stumble over others. Sometimes we stumble because of God, but the simple fact is none of these things should hold us back. We must get to Christ. Here the disciples are trying to put her off. She overcame the people barrier.
Let me say also that she overcame what we could call the silence barrier, maybe the most difficult of all. I read the text a moment ago. Verse 23: “Jesus did not answer her a word.” And then when the disciples wanted to send her away He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, the time is coming when Jesus Christ’s message is going to be proclaimed everywhere, but He did come unto His own. He did present Himself to Israel first. That was the intention and, of course, He came unto His own and His own did not receive Him. And as a result of that Jesus is saying, “I belong only to them.”
But now notice it says the woman came and knelt before Him. She would not be put off. She said, “Lord, help me.” And then He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
Let me talk to you about the silence of Christ. Here she is. She comes with her great need. She bows before Him and He is silent. Is it because He was uninterested? Was Jesus Christ not affected by her piercing cries and her desires? No. I’ll tell you what. She came to Jesus Christ with one desire, and that was to have a healed daughter. But Jesus did not want her to just have a healed daughter. He wanted to heal her first. Even more important than a healed daughter there was the question of her great faith. He wanted her to… What shall we say? He was eliciting from her and drawing out from her that which is best and that which is good, and so He appeared to be putting her off just to see what her response would be. And Jesus was silent for a time.
What do you do, by the way, when you’ve been praying to Christ on behalf of your family? You’ve been praying on behalf of your children and God has not answered. I’ll tell you what you do. You keep praying, and then you keep praying, and you keep praying, and you are not put off by the silence of God. Blessed is he who does not interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God. I want you to know today that God is not indifferent even if He is not answering. And what He is doing is He is building within us the faith and the confidence and the tenacity and the patience that He wants to have in our lives.
It’s not just the silence of Christ though that troubles us. I think when we read the text we are a little surprised. I remember as a child reading this and I thought Jesus appears to be rude. Well, I want you to know today that Jesus was never rude in the sense that we interpret it. He says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” You don’t go to Arby’s and buy a sandwich and then take it home and feed it to Fido. Oh, there are some sandwiches that I have purchased (not at Arby’s but other places) where maybe even Fido would not touch them. The simple fact is you don’t get a meal for your children and then feed it to the dogs.
You say, this really sounds different than I expected Jesus to be. Two comments! First of all, Jesus did not say dogs as such. He used the diminutive form. What we could almost do is translate it puppies, the little dogs. Jesus was not talking about the scavengers that we mentioned a moment ago, those ugly dogs that were always hungry, always searching. Jesus was talking about the little puppies, the little dogs, and He’s saying, “It isn’t right, you know, to take the food that belongs to the children, and to give it to the puppies.”
Then also what we don’t have in the text, of course, is the actual interchange. It would be wonderful if we had had this videotaped for us. Who knows the twinkle that was in Jesus Christ’s eye as He spoke this way to the woman, because remember again Jesus wants to elicit from her faith and confidence, and to give her that great award–the faith award.
Now I want you to notice her response. Oh, isn’t this blessed? She could have said, “Well, you know, if that’s the way you talk to me I’m out of here.” She could have said to herself, “I’m going to give you five reasons why I’m not a dog.” She doesn’t argue with Jesus but she takes His words and gives them a different twist, and as it were, takes those words and gently puts them back upon the Master. She says, “Well, Master, that’s fine. No argument! No argument! They are the children; I am the dog. “But even the dogs,” she said, bless her heart, “eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” She’s saying, “I’m not asking for a meal. I’m only asking for some crumbs. I’m not asking for what the children need. I’m only asking for what the children discard. I’m asking for the scraps. Maybe that’s all I deserve, but just give me that.”
What she’s saying is, “By all means feed the children. Don’t give me something that will take away from them. Don’t allow my blessing to somehow contribute to their loss. I can’t be one of the children but I can be a dog under the table. I can’t have a full meal but I can have some crumbs.”
What are you going to do with a woman like that? Don’t you love the text? “Woman…” I like the translation of the New American Standard. I think it says, “Oh woman.” That’s obviously the idea of… “Oh, woman (Hm, hm! These are the words of Jesus.), great is your faith. Your request has been granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
What a marvelous example. By faith she scaled all the walls. By faith she scaled the walls of heaven and she actually captured the heart of deity. She captured the heart of Jesus because she would not be put off.
Now let me ask you a question today. What barrier are you using? Could I use the word excuse? What barrier are you using to not come to Jesus today? Is it the barrier of gender? Are you actually very greatly disturbed that the Bible talks about men being the head of the home, and giving leadership in positions such as eldership in the church? Does that disturb you, and are you therefore put off and saying, “If this is the kind of God who has revealed Himself in the Bible, I don’t want to have a thing to do with it”? Does that trouble you? Does that stand in the way of you coming to Christ? Don’t let it! Don’t let it!
What about the racial barrier? Some of you, bless you, you’ve probably been called dogs or worse. Sometimes things have happened where the prejudice has been so severe against you that the hurt has run very, very deep. And you say to yourself, “If this is the way the Christian community is, I’m going to reject the Christian community. I’m going to reject their God. I’m going to do my own thing.” No, my friend! Whatever has happened to you should only be a greater motivation to get to Jesus–not to stay away from Him.
Is it the religious barrier? Is there someone who says, “Well, you know, I know that Jesus can save me and I know the way of salvation, but you have to understand that if I were converted it would cause problems within our home because my parents would not understand. My grandparents would not understand, and we have a whole family history here going for us. And what I need to do is to fall in line with those expectations.”
Will you remember that Jesus said on one occasion, “He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.” And some of you, and I say this carefully, have to turn your back on your family in order to be a believer in Jesus and be converted. Don’t let the religious barrier keep you away from Him.
What about the people barrier? You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, so many people have wounded me. I am so disappointed in Christians.” I’ve heard this many times in my life, by the way. I’ve heard people say that the people of the world are better than the Christians. Now I don’t believe that, but if you have a couple of bad experiences you can begin to mouth things like that, because sometimes we in the believing community are a sorry lot. Sometimes we, through our stumbling, drag others with us, and sometimes we stand in the way of those who would like to get to Jesus because they look at us and they see all of our baggage and all of our ideas which are sometimes biblical and sometimes not. And we put up all kinds of barriers that people have to hop over to get to Him. But my dear friend, whatever those barriers are that the believing community have thrown in your way, don’t let them stand there unopposed. Hop over it and get to Jesus.
And finally, I speak to somebody who says, “I am so angry at God because of His silence that I’m not going to respond to Him.” I remember a friend of mine whose child died at about one-year-old. He became so bitter and he became so angry at God that he said, “I’m leaving God. I’m leaving the church. I’m leaving everyone because I prayed to God and I asked God to heal this child, and God did not do that, and God is a mean God who took my baby away from me.”
Hm! Oh friend, would you believe me if I said that behind the silence of God is also the mercy of God? And even when Jesus appeared to be turning away from this woman, and He gave her a silent look, already in His heart He was planning grace toward her because He loves and He cares. Come to Him. Don’t stop there. You come to the only one who can save you.
Some of you need to come to Jesus Christ in order that you might be saved because you’ve never believed on Him. You’ve never received Him as your sin bearer, as the one who died in your place. If you were to die today you’d have to go to heaven and stand before God. Actually you wouldn’t go to heaven but you would stand before God on your own terms. What a terrible thing! Oh, I’m so glad that I don’t have to do that. Rather I stand there and Jesus stands in my stead. That’s the Gospel, my friend, that you need to hear.
And some of you need to come to Christ because you have drifted away from Him. You know Him as Savior, but you’ve drifted because of the disappointments that you have had in trying to follow Him. And all of these barriers became so overwhelming that you decided that you would no longer trust Him and believe Him, and you are following Him at a distance.
I think that if this woman were here today, she would say to all of us, “My favorite hymn has these words.”
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry everything (everything)
To God in prayer.
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do Thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In His Arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou will find a solace there.
My friend, today from my heart to yours, get to Jesus. Get to Jesus because we all desperately need Him. And then, hopefully we will receive that great award, the great faith award. Oh woman, oh woman, great is thy faith.
Our Father, we ask today that You might help to demolish all of the strongholds, all of the ideas and prejudices and excuses that we have ever brought to stay away from the only one who can help us. We thank You today for this unnamed woman whom we expect to see someday in heaven to fill in the details of what really happened, a woman overcoming all natural obstacles. And we pray today that You might help us to be like her. Help us to imitate her faith.
For those of you who have never accepted Christ as your Savior, you could do that even now. You could believe on Him. You could say, “Jesus, I am a sinner. I accept You as my substitute.”
And for those of you who know Him, come to be refreshed, to be forgiven, to be accepted. Come to receive the grace that is poured into your weary soul.
Father, help us all at this moment to come to the One who stands ready to help those who seek. In His name we pray, Amen.