Matthew 15:21-28 is about the grace of our LORD Jesus Christ, who is eager to save us, yet before He can do that, He has to show us the right way to come to Him. He doesn’t want us to come with our own plans and expectations; rather He wants us to simply take Him at His Word and trust that His Word is true. And such trust Jesus calls “great faith.”
If we look carefully at the text, the Canaanite woman’s faith did not appear great the first time she approached Jesus. She was a Gentile, not a member of the LORD’s people of Israel, but she had heard of Jesus (Mark 7:25) and so she sought Him out. What is interesting about this pagan woman’s approach to Jesus is that she cries out to Him in words that sound faithful; she sounds like a true Israelite who believes in the Messiah when she cries out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” At this point in the story, the woman is after Jesus because she wants something, not because she trusts in Him as her Lord and Savior. She reckons something like this: “If He thinks I’m one of His Israelite followers, surely I’ll be entitled to His help.”
But she’s wrong; Jesus answers her not a word. You can’t butter Him up with just the right words; if you approach Him just for what you can get out of Him, then you are still in unbelief. Jesus sees right through that and refuses the false claim of entitlement that this woman presents to Him.
But even the silence of Jesus toward this woman is not a total rebuke, because He doesn’t tell her “No! Go away!” Yet at this point Jesus answers her not a word. And the disciples of Jesus don’t know what to make of this situation. They are accustomed to Jesus helping everyone who calls on him, so the silence of Jesus is confusing and embarrassing to them. How would you like to have a beggar woman following you around everywhere, crying out? And so they come to Jesus and literally beg Him to send her away, as if they were saying to Jesus, “Lord, we can’t do anything for her, and we can’t get rid of her, so YOU do something!”
But Jesus doesn’t do anything; He simply says to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” At first glance, it looks like Jesus is rejecting the woman and all other Gentiles completely; it sounds like He came only to seek out and save lost Jews. But any faithful Jewish disciple should have known that the Old Testament predicted a day when the “house of Israel” would come to include not only Jews but also Gentiles, who would be brought to faith by the Lord (Isaiah 56:6-7).
So when the LORD Jesus came to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel, while He first is referring to the Israelites, He also is referring to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). He came to seek and to save the lost, and the way He would do that was by laying down His life as a ransom for the masses—for Jew and Gentile alike—for the forgiveness of all of your sins. Jesus answered for the guilt of all people on the cross, suffering God’s wrath against sin and dying for you, and then after rising from the dead, He sent the apostles out to preach the Gospel to all creation, to make disciples of all nations by Baptism into His death and resurrection and by teaching them His Word. In that way He would rebuild the house of Israel in the Christian Church, gathering in all His lost sheep and being their Savior, your Good Shepherd.
And in this Canaanite woman we see a glimpse of the future mission of Christ’s Church to deliver the Gospel to all nations. So Jesus follows through on what He says to the disciples by speaking to the woman directly for the first time. The woman came and prostrated herself before Jesus and said, “Lord, help me.” And Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus now goes one step further in wiping out her claims of entitlement; He demolishes any idea that she has a right to His help. Jesus shows the woman where such claims end up: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And at that point, it seems the woman’s hopes are completely crushed.
But at that same point, we see Jesus throw the woman a bone; we see that Jesus has pulled this woman out of hopelessness to faith, true faith, saving faith in Jesus as Lord. Because she responds with the most remarkable confession: “Yes, Lord,” she says. “Yes, Lord. You are right that I have no business asking for your help. You are right that I am unworthy to sit down at the table in the house of Israel and partake of Your grace. Yes, Lord, I am a dog—but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And Jesus replied: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
It all happens so fast, you’ll miss the Gospel crumbs if you don’t listen carefully. What was so great about the woman’s faith? It was great because she took Jesus and His Words absolutely seriously, as absolutely true—she heard and believed Him and applied His Words to herself. Jesus set up a scenario in which the woman could find herself as a little dog under the table in God’s household. The woman takes Jesus captive in His Words. The woman took Jesus at His Word and held Jesus to the scenario he set up by drawing out the natural thing that a dog would do with crumbs. She placed herself on the floor as a beggar, not entitled to anything at all, with no claims on the Bread, yet delighted whenever that Bread fell from above. She hungrily and joyfully lapped up everything Jesus let her eat.
Jesus through His Word gives not only healing for her daughter, but also eternal life in the Bread of Life, Himself, the One who would go up to Calvary not much later and die for the sins of this woman, her daughter, and all of you, too. So from this, we learn that a great faith is one that clings to the Word of Jesus alone, and trusts in Him for forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation! Amen.