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Scraps From the Table

     Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
     Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
     He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
     The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
     He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
     “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
     Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
—Matthew 15:21-28, NIV

One of Jesus’ rare excursions into Gentile territory took place near Tyre, a city which is now in Lebanon. A Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her little daughter who is possessed by an unclean spirit. Now this is indeed an odd but moving sight. A pagan woman prevailing upon a Jewish rabbi for his services!

When people are afflicted with persistent illness, they often try anything to get rid of it. They don’t necessarily believe the quackery, it’s just that they figure they have nothing to lose, so why not? My grandmother wore copper bracelets for her arthritis in accordance with a then-popular folk cure. She wore them not because they offered any relief, but simply because she figured they couldn’t hurt anything and they just might help. Finally, she stopped wearing them when her doctor convinced her that she had an adverse reaction to the copper. Then she started drinking a mixture of vinegar and honey, which was supposed to do the same thing. It didn’t help either, but it didn’t hurt anything.

So in many cases when desperate people come to Jesus for help, He makes them examine their motives: in effect, He asks them, “Do you really believe that I can do this, or am I just another copper bracelet?” The longest such discourse we have is in John 11, where Jesus discussed faith at great length with Mary and Martha before He raised Lazarus from the dead.

So Jesus asks the Canaanite woman if it is really proper for a Jewish rabbi to give Jewish things to a gentile; in other words, is it proper to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs? Was this an offensive question? Of course it was, but probably not as offensive to her ears as to ours. Since Jewish things are meant for Jewish people, and by Jewish standards, non-Jews are not worthy, the metaphor is apt. We are offended today because we are preoccupied with our own innate dignity and worth. In medieval times they were preoccupied with human sin and depravity, but neither preoccupation can validly be read into the first century. The woman would have—and did—see the figure of speech as it was intended.

Incidentally, we know from other passages in the New Testament that Jesus is very observant and probably did not need to ask this question for his own information. So I think that he was really setting His apostles up for a lesson. Jesus was probably staging this discussion and using this exorcism to prepare them for their mission to the gentiles later on.

The woman’s reply indicated that her request came from faith and not from a spirit of desperate experimentation: “Even the dogs eat the children’s table scraps.” By saying this, the woman shows that she’s not just looking for a magic trick; she acknowledged Jesus’ standing and authority and the genuineness of His ministry, she acknowledged her own unworthiness to receive it; she prevailed upon His grace.

So Jesus cast the demon out of her daughter.

Note in passing that it is the petitioner, not the sick person, who needs to have faith.

When we ask things of God, are we bossing around a subordinate? Are we operating a cosmic vending machine? Or are we petitioning the grace of a King, and throwing ourselves upon His mercy? Are we willing to humble ourselves to attain a greater blessing?

We have a lot to learn from the Canaanite woman’s style of prayer.