Series: I Don’t Know What I Believe
The Canaanite Woman’s Story: Obstacles in the Journey of Faith
By: Cathy Bartholomay
During this season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, we’ve been exploring, as a church, faith and doubt. Pastor Donnell began by introducing the idea that the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt. He shared the story of Abram’s faith and doubt and God’s response. Last week, Pastor Anna took a look at Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary’s doubts and faith when she was visited by an angel and found out that she would be Jesus’ mother. We have been turning to characters in the Bible to unpack the idea of what doubt means and what faith means. A common misperception of faith is that doubt and faith cannot co-exist, but as we look to the Bible we instead find stories of people that had doubts, brought those doubts to God and the doubts became a part of their stories of faith.
I come to this series on faith and doubt as someone wrestling personally. My husband and I were a part of the Milan Vineyard Church. We moved to Milan to live near the church. Jon served on staff and I did all sorts of volunteer work. We treasured the close community that came from being a part of that church. About three years ago, the church there closed. This was the beginning of a new phase of faith struggle for me. I thought I knew where our family was supposed to be and what we were supposed to be doing. And then it was gone. Following this upheaval, I began to have questions and doubts about my faith, my place in this world, what church and community looks like. And even today, I find that I am still wrestling with these questions. My desire for certainty and the absence of doubt became an obstacle to following Jesus. One of the largest losses when our church closed was no longer having a sense of community to share these struggles and doubts with. I have entered a new phase, one of hope, and I have been blessed with the beginnings of new relationships here. I personally found relief, as we started this sermon series, in knowing that faith does not equal certainty. I continue to find that Jesus is someone to whom I can bring my doubts and questions. A safe place to wrestle and to search. And I also find that my path to following Jesus includes doubts, other’s voices and opinions, preconceived notions to overcome, what I’ve come to think of as obstacles not dead ends.
Jesus’ Unsettling Response to the Canaanite Woman
This morning we will look at the story of the Canaanite Woman found in Matthew 15. The story will be on the screen behind me or feel free to use a house Bible or follow along on your own device. I’ll be reading from the Message version.
21-22 From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”
23 Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.”
24 Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.”
26 He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.”
27 She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.”
28 Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.
Our story this morning begins with a woman approaching Jesus. And Jesus…ignores her. Wait, what? Did the Bible just say that?? Jesus ignored her. Picture this with me. A woman approaches Jesus and acknowledges Jesus as the Son of David, which is a Messianic title, meaning she thinks He is the one that will deliver Israel. In fact, she acknowledges this about Jesus before the disciples even do. My expectation is that Jesus would do what He has been doing, which is heal this woman’s daughter. And instead He ignores her. After Jesus ignores her, she clearly does not give up or go away. The disciples complain about the woman. “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.”
And Jesus’ response is I’m busy working with Israel. That’s rejection number two. At this point, I’m expecting the woman to leave, but she doesn’t.
The woman comes back to Jesus, goes to her knees, and begs. Do you see this? Down on her knees. “Master, help me.” If you’re like me you are thinking, okay, Jesus will respond this time, He just has to help her now. But He doesn’t. He calls her a dog. And let’s not be confused, this would have been insulting. Today, there are dogs better dressed and eating better than I am, but that is not the picture Jesus is trying to elicit here. He means a mangy dog that people don’t want around.
And how does she respond? “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” Then Jesus commends her for her faith and gives her what she wants. Her daughter becomes well.
Could Jesus Really Do That? Jesus’ Response as an Obstacle
As we wrestle with a challenging passage like this, it can stir up questions in our own lives. We might start by thinking, could Jesus respond to this woman this way? While I was practicing my sermon, one of my kids walked in and heard me reading this scripture. My child’s response to this passage was, “Man, Jesus was being mean.” And, honestly, that summed up how I felt when I read this story. And it summed up how I felt when our church in Milan closed. Man, God is being mean. Could Jesus really act this way? Could God respond that way when we come to Him with a need? In the past, I have rushed through this story or just skipped it because I couldn’t handle the emotions or image of Jesus that it evoked in me.
Sometimes, to understand what is happening in the Bible, or in our own lives, we have to take a step back to try and see the bigger picture.
Quick Illustration (will have snow globe on stage): Snow Globe. Sitting alone, it’s nice to look at, but we don’t see all it is made for, all it can do until we shake it up a bit. Could that be what Jesus is doing in this passage? Is He shaking up the status quo? Is He trying to help those around Him see things in a new way? Our default setting can tend to be individualistic. What does this passage mean to me, what is God doing in my life? This morning, I would like to shake things up a bit, if you will. I would like to invite you to explore this passage from a different perspective for a few minutes. A perspective of community.
Disciples’ Obstacles Revealed
In Jesus’ time, the default setting was not individualistic. Their culture was not one of individualism, but of community. So, we need to take a step back and see who is there witnessing this encounter. Jesus’ disciples. Jesus’ disciples are His students, following Him, learning from Him. They are taking in Jesus’ actions and words. What lesson could Jesus be teaching? Could He be teaching His disciples to examine what is in their hearts? Could He be revealing their hidden biases? Perhaps, Jesus is subtly and yet directly confronting engrained biases that his disciples have lived with and accepted their whole lives.
When He ignores the woman, Jesus is acknowledging a common cultural practice that men should be heard and women’s voices should be secondary at best and perhaps non-existent. When He makes the comment about being here for the lost sheep of Israel, He is at once affirming that He is there for Israel and giving voice to the thought: you think I am here only for the Israelites, and shouldn’t be here for the non-Jew, especially not a Canaanite. Jesus wants to challenge the disciples’ views. As Jesus trains His disciples, He is bringing into light obstacles that will make it difficult to understand what He has come to do. Interactions like this one lay important ground work for tough discussions and transformation as the disciples follow Jesus. He engages this woman and even elevates her through this debate. He sees her as able to rise to the challenge of these views and knock them down. And He changes His response in the end based on His interaction with her.
Jesus invites the disciples into the difficult struggle with their own faith, doubts, and preconceived notions of following Jesus. Could the Kingdom of God be for outsiders? Could Jesus be here for more than just us, just men and Israelites? Is our faith in this man big enough to supplant our understanding of whom this man is for? What about all the sick that we left back home? Will there be enough for us if you help them?
Jesus honors this Canaanite woman, as she stays and continues to request healing for her daughter and show persistent faith. Through this interaction He says, “Let’s undo the stereotypes.” How? By bringing into light what has been in darkness – the biases and stereotypes that people are not voicing. Jesus is not put off by wrestling with this woman. With her help, He is expanding the definition of whom He has come to save. It’s as though Jesus is saying to this woman, “You know you deserve a voice, you know you and your daughter belong, but we’ve got to help others see that you and your daughter are not outsiders but are welcomed in.”
The Woman’s Faith as an Obstacle
Now that we have taken a step back and looked at the larger community aspect of this story, let’s go to the center stage conversation with this woman. I have heard this passage presented as being about a woman that had extraordinary faith. The passage has been upheld as an example of how our faith should be lived. And she does, indeed, show extraordinary faith, but a faith like that can feel unattainable. When I heard the story presented this way, it became an obstacle to my own faith journey. It made me want to hide my uncertainty, my doubt because I didn’t feel like there was space to have those as my experience. In some ways, her extraordinary faith hindered my ability to be authentic and vulnerable. Her story seemed to be one that didn’t allow space for faith and doubt to co-exist.
We don’t hear her thoughts, but I find myself wondering what questions this woman might be struggling with as she pleads with Jesus. Is this woman wondering things like: will you notice me? Do you have enough power to heal my daughter? Do you care?
As I reflect on this passage, it seems that the woman offers a gift. She provides an example of tenacious faith, yes. She also provides an example of waiting and asking for what she needs, and asking in front of others. As she comes and makes her request and is vulnerable, as she waits for Jesus’ response, the disciples benefit. They are provided with space to explore their understanding of Jesus and their beliefs about others. In fact, we benefit thousands of years later. We get to hear her story and we receive an example of wrestling and wrestling in front of others.
What if, when we come before Jesus asking for what we need, our searching and waiting could be a gift for those alongside us that are navigating their own doubts? What gift do we bring in our own searching, especially when we share the struggles of our faith journey and not just the victories?
When I consider searching and waiting as gifts to share, I see why I miss my old church community so much. I need space to hear others wrestle. My new default became showing up to this church and keeping a safe distance because I was being healed. And to be completely honest, that was what I needed and you all provided the space for healing to begin. I also see, though, what I have missed. As I kept my safe distance, my struggles with doubt and uncertainty became something I hid. I stopped looking out at others’ lives and I stopped sharing the doubts and questions I was wrestling with on my own. I missed out on hearing others’ faith journeys, their questions, their struggles, their resolutions. This began to change when I joined a life group here. You can’t get up close and not start to realize that we all have stories to share. Stories of struggle, of faith, of doubt, of uncertainty, of wrestling. And this is one of the reasons for church. We don’t have to wrestle alone.
Jesus is Faithful: The Other Side of the Obstacles
Let’s look more closely at this Canaanite woman. What is she asking? When she falls on her knees she says, “Master, help me”. The woman is asking for her daughter to be healed but asking as a mercy for herself. Have you had to watch someone you love suffer? Have you longed to take that suffering away? A mother’s love drives this woman into the midst of a group of foreign men and drives her to stay and to wrestle. This mother has watched her daughter suffer and she needs Jesus’ help. She believes that what she has heard about Him is true – that He can heal, that He is there to help more than only Israelites, but she does not yet know this to be true. She stands, then falls to her knees in a place of uncertainty, of tension. A place filled with hope and doubts. She has the voices of the disciples ringing in her ears saying, get her out of here, she doesn’t belong, we don’t need to heal her daughter. And yet, she stays and she wrestles and she dares to hope and believe that Jesus is there for her and her daughter and her people.
This woman demonstrates a faith that is tenacious. She doesn’t give up after three rejections. She has been seen as an outsider, a nuisance, by the disciples. What about me, what about you? Ever felt like an outsider? Ever wondered if there is space, time or enough power for you, for your struggles, for your loved ones, for your enemies?
And this woman’s cry is not lost on Jesus. He hears the “me”. When Jesus says 28“Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Jesus sees what she needs as a mother and answers that deep cry. Jesus acknowledges her faith. He grants her request. God responds to her struggle. Her story does not end in a place of wrestling, but of seeing God’s faithfulness, of making it to the other side of obstacles.
And in front of His disciples, He expands the definition of the Kingdom of God and whom He is there for. Jesus also changes how this woman is seen. The passage begins with her identified as a Canaanite woman. Canaanites were considered enemies of the Jewish people during that time. The tension between Jews and Canaanites was greater than it was with other non-Jews. Jesus ends this encounter with him calling her woman. Canaanite has disappeared from this story. He is saying your nationality doesn’t matter. I see you for you.
And remember that reference to dogs? This is one place where understanding cultural differences may play a role in clarifying this reference. Israelites viewed dogs as barely above pigs. They were pests not pets. Canaanites kept dogs as pets. When the woman says that the dogs can eat the crumbs, she is showing that the dogs are in the home under the table, not feral roaming the streets. They are on the inside. She is saying, “Hey, you can feed your children and your dogs.” She accepts Jesus’ challenge and hopes that He has enough for non-Jews.
The encounter between Jesus and this woman shows that as we come before God with our questions and our needs, we may not get the answer we want in the way we want it. The woman did not get the response from Jesus that she was hoping for, at least not until the very end. It is difficult for me to share this perspective. I want to package this passage up neatly for you and let it be a hurrah kind of story – all about social justice and deeper meanings and that Jesus maybe wasn’t really insulting this woman, but I do not think that would do justice to the passage or our personal struggles. Part of our faith journey is struggling with the fact that the way things work out are not always how we want them to work out. I am pretty sure this woman would have preferred Jesus just healed her daughter the first time, commended her faith and moved on, but that is not how it happened. Was there a larger story and even a larger good that was served? Yes, but I’m not sure she could see that at the time. And this demonstrates how following Jesus is about uncertainty, mystery and trust. And at the same time, I also see His faithfulness and presence as He takes this encounter and brings new depth and life to her personal story and request.
As we wrap up this morning, I would like to leave you with a few next steps. First, consider sharing your story – your doubts, your faith, obstacles that you have to following Jesus. Invite others into where you are struggling, celebrating, mourning or hoping by sharing your story with them. Another way to share is by asking a member of the prayer team to pray with you this morning. They are under the balcony to my left, your right. Also, we have a space over here on this window to my left where people can post answers to prayer. That’s another way to share your story, or to see where God has been faithful to others in our community. Finally, there are prayer cards in the back of the seat in front of you. This provides another space for you to share your doubts or story. The staff here prays for these requests weekly and would love to pray for you.
Secondly, reflect on this passage in the coming week or perhaps for the rest of Lent. Where do you find yourself? Which character can you relate to at this time in your faith journey? What obstacles are in your way of following Jesus?
Finally, while I was preparing this sermon, I had a sense that some people here might be feeling like this daughter, whom we didn’t really explore. They might be feeling like they are out of the picture, their struggle is so difficult they can’t present it to Jesus themselves. Their obstacle is getting to Jesus. I want to encourage you to share that struggle with someone else in the larger community, whether with someone here at the church or somewhere else in your life. I also wanted to take a minute to encourage those of you that may feel like the mother, tired, heartbroken because you are watching someone you love or a group of people you care about suffer. Don’t give up praying, questioning, or bringing your requests to Jesus. You are seen.
Friends, may you experience God in a deeper way as you wrestle with obstacles, questions, doubts and uncertainty. May you find Him present in those places. May others experience life and growth as you explore your own faith, doubts and journey.