A Mother’s Faith (Matt 15:21-28)

What makes for a good mother?

  • Someone with great culinary skills, perhaps? 
  • Or someone with the ability to pick the perfect present for their child at Christmas or on their birthday? 
  • Or maybe the mark of a great mum is a willingness to wash and iron her children’s clothes long after they’re old enough to do it for themselves?!

In all seriousness, surely the qualities of love and faith must come right at the top of any list of desirable maternal attributes.

  • Surely any great mother will be one who loves her children, who will go to any lengths to secure their health and happiness. Who will accompany them through darkest hours and tend to them when sad or suffering. 
  • And from a Christian perspective, a great mother will also be one who trusts in the Lord, a godly woman who looks to him in all circumstances, especially when times are tough for herself or her family.

A surprising choice for a case study in faith…

Of course, the classic biblical example of such a mother is Mary, the mother of Jesus. As we all know from the nativity story, the virgin Mary faithfully trusted and obeyed the message of the Lord delivered to her by the angel Gabriel. And she went on to love and nurture her son Jesus as he grew in wisdom and stature. She even stood at the foot of Christ’s cross, standing there in sympathy and solidarity with her son until his final breath. 

So there’s no doubt that Mary is a great model of maternal love and faith. But in today’s passage we meet another remarkable mother. A mother who expressed same two qualities of love and faith. But a mother from a very different background to Mary. A Canaanite, not an Israelite. A resident of Phoenicia, not Palestine. 

In other words, this was a woman who came from a nation that had been historic enemies of the Jewish people ever since the time of Moses. A mother whose national identity and spiritual pedigree was unpromising, to say the least. She would not be the natural choice when searching for a faithful female role model – and yet, here she is!

Verse 21 today sets the scene for Jesus’ encounter with this remarkable Canaanite woman. In that verse, Matthew tells us that Jesus had withdrawn to Phoenicia, “to the region of Tyre and Sidon” – equivalent to modern day Lebanon. 

It seems that Jesus had left the land of Palestine and withdrawn to this neighbouring region to get some respite from his recent bruising encounters with the Pharisees. He may also have wanted some time away to gather his thoughts and prepare himself for his final journey to Jerusalem. We all know the Good Friday and Easter are coming – and so did he.

But Jesus and his disciples didn’t get the peace and quiet they may have been hoping for. Because, as verse 22 tells us, “a Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’”

Jesus and his disciples’ ears were ringing with an anxious mother’s plea for help. Here was a woman who clearly loved her daughter, and was desperate for her to be delivered from demon-possession. And who can blame her? We’re not told exactly what form this demon-possession took, but it was clearly causing a child to suffer and her loving mother to experience severe distress. So she shouted to Jesus for help, and kept on shouting.

A shocking reply to a mother’s plea…

What’s surprising, even shocking, is that this mother’s pleas seem to land on deaf ears. Verse 23 tells us that “Jesus did not answer a word” and his disciples just wanted to get rid of her: “Send her away” they said, “for she keeps crying out after us.” 

It seems that the disciples were suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’, and just wanted to be left alone. Their ears were clearly ringing with the cries of this Canaanite woman, and they wanted Jesus to give her her marching orders!

But Jesus doesn’t send her away, does he? Instead, he gives two rather enigmatic, non-committal, replies. One to the disciples, and another to the woman herself.

To his disciples, Jesus says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” And the four Gospels do record that Jesus confined his earthly ministry to the people of Israel. The Jews were given the first opportunity to recognise that their Redeemer had come.  The chosen people of Israel were given priority treatment when their Messiah was in the world. 

In a world before motorways, railways or air travel, it would also have been impossible in practice for Jesus to have exercised an international ministry during his time on earth. It was only after his resurrection that Jesus sent his disciples out to the ends of the earth – out on a global mission, on a Great Commission, that continues to this day.

So we can perhaps understand why Jesus was unwilling to embark on a preaching tour of the whole of Phoenicia, or to begin a nationwide healing ministry to the Canaanites. But what about this one Canaanite woman who was kneeling before him? Why does Jesus turn directly to her and say: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

They seem shocking words, don’t they?! Surely there was no harm in helping this one desperate mother? And isn’t it rather rude to describe her as a dog?! Various options have been offered by Bible commentators to explain why Jesus spoke these surprising words:

  • Some commentators make the point that we don’t know the tone of voice Jesus was using when he uttered that sentence, nor do we know what facial expression he was wearing. His tone may well have been more gentle and jovial than the words on the page can convey. And Jesus may have had a twinkle in his eye as he spoke, conveying warmth and affection for the Canaanite woman.
  • Other scholars note that the “dogs” Jesus refers to would have been household pets, even puppies – making them beloved members of the household – rather than wild dogs or strays.

There may well be some truth in all these suggestions. But to my mind at least, it seems that Jesus deliberately used these provocative words to elicit a confession of faith from the Canaanite woman: 

  • He wanted to give this loving mother an opportunity to demonstrate her great faith in front of his irritated and narrow-minded disciples. 
  • Jesus wanted this desperate woman to teach his own twelve disciples a thing or two about what true faith really looks like.

A Christ-focused faith that humbly perseveres…

And the Canaanite woman responded boldly and brilliantly to Jesus’ challenge, didn’t she? Listen again to verse 27. “Yes, Lord” she said, but “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” This remarkable woman uses Jesus’ own metaphor to press her case for his help! She has such faith in the scale of Jesus’ power that she believes he has enough to spare for her! 

In fact, throughout this whole scene, this mother’s words and behaviour provide a wonderful model of faith. A model we can all learn from.

Firstly, this Canaanite woman correctly identifies who Jesus is. Despite her non-Jewish background she recognises Jesus as the Lord, as the Messianic ‘Son of David’, and as her rightful Master. She rightly recognises that Christ, and Christ alone, has the power to help her daughter in her hour of need. 

I hope we too turn to Christ in time of need. There is no other religious ruler, faith leader or spiritual figure who can compete with his divine authority or miraculous power. A faithful prayer is always a Christ-focused prayer.

Secondly, this faithful mother approaches Jesus with humility. She does not stand on her rights or demand a response from Jesus on the basis of her past good works or her performance of certain religious rituals. On the contrary, this Gentile woman simply kneels before Jesus and pleads for his mercy. 

We too should have a humble poverty of spirit when we approach the Lord. We can never put him in our debt. We are sinners in need of a Saviour, spiritual lost sheep in need of a shepherd. Anything we receive from God will always be an act of mercy and grace on his part, not something we can ever earn or deserve. A faithful prayer is always a humble prayer.

Thirdly, and finally, this Canaanite mother is a model of persistent faith. When her initial pleas for help seem to go unanswered, she kept calling out. When the Lord seemed silent to her, she boldly persevered nonetheless.

So we can learn from her the importance of persevering in prayer – even when (or especially when) the Lord seems to be silent. Sometimes we may not know the reason for his silence. At other times, as in today’s story, his temporary silence may be testing the sincerity of our request or the strength of our desire. But whatever the circumstances, a faithful prayer is a persevering prayer.  

A faith that Christ commends and rewards…

As our passage draws to a close, did you notice that the remarkable faith of this Canaanite mother is both commended and rewarded by Christ? Because Jesus said to her, “‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.”

For God’s Son to say that you have great faith is high praise indeed! Its hard to imagine a higher commendation, and its one not given to anyone else in the New Testament. The humble, persistent faith of this foreign woman is called ‘great’ by Christ. It seems that this Canaanite mother’s trust in the Lord put even Jesus’ own disciples’ faith to shame – theirs could not compete with hers.

Finally, this woman’s faith is amply rewarded, not just commended. Unlike his disciples, Jesus shows no sign of compassion fatigue and effortlessly heals this woman’s daughter at a distance. With merely a word, she was delivered from her ordeal. Geography was no obstacle to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. 

The same principle applies today. Wherever we are, and whoever we may be, no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Full forgiveness and life everlasting can be given to the most unlikely of recipients, living in the most unlikely of locations. 

All that is expected of us is faith – which makes this mother from Canaan such an important and inspiring role model for us all.

Phil Weston