One of the most interesting stories in all of the Gospels is surely the account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman (I brought it up here a few weeks ago). Great is her faith! When I read this account, questions like the following comes to mind:
What does her response show us she believes about God and His love?
What can we learn from her faithful response?
Answers given by wise teachers, from the present and the past, provide rich insight.
Regarding the object, or specific content, of the woman’s faith, Jeffrey Gibbs says that “[s]he believes, both in Jesus’ mission to Israel’s lost sheep and in Jesus’ abundance, which also provides for the dogs who are under their master’s table” (787). Speaking of verses 26 and 27, where we read Jesus’ jarring phrase “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” and the woman’s amazing response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” Hagner gives us some helpful background: “The Jews universally assumed that eschatological fulfillment belonged to Israel in an exclusive sense. Many also expected that the overflow of the abundant eschatological blessing of God would be made available to ‘righteous’ Gentiles (i.e., by keeping the Noachic laws [Gen 9:1-17])” (442). Epiphanus the Latin says: “The woman agreed, saying to the Savior, ‘Yes, Lord.’ That is to say, I know Lord, that the Gentile people are dogs in worshipping idols and barking at God” (Simonetti, 29). Chrysostom adds: “See her humility as well as her faith! For he had called the Jews ‘children,’ but she was not satisfied with this. She even called them ‘masters,’ so far was she from grieving at the praises of others” (Simonetti, 30). Osbourne aptly sums things up: “Her reply is brilliantly put. This amazing story is the only time anyone ‘beats’ Jesus in a debate” (600). Schaeffer sums up things saying her faith is a “happy combination of all the essential features of true faith,” including “clear views on Christ’s character, or a certain amount of religious knowledge (respecting His power, grace, etc.), entire, unquestioning and humble submission to the Lord’s will (thankful even for crumbs,” and a confident reliance in the face of discouragement as well” (373, italics his).
Again, the woman’s faith is amazing! And the more I reflect on this passage as a whole — including the unsettling things that Jesus says to the woman leading up to her brilliant response — more and more questions come to my mind…
- Jesus was born a Jew, and so like Paul, these are, at a very biological and visceral level, His people (see Rom. 9:1-5 ; see also especially Rom. 9:4a, 9:7b, 11:18b, 11: 24, 11:28-29). What are the implications that this account has for us regarding the Christian’s responsibility, following his Lord, to his closest “natural relations”?
- How is that to be understood in reference to his wider responsibilities as a neighbor, particularly to fellow members of the body of Christ? (see Gal. 6:10)
- In addition, what is the relation of our faith – our understanding of who God is, what He has done, and what He intends to do – to our love for neighbors far and wide? Neighbors he definitely means to incorporate into His body and family – starting with our own natural relations (I Timothy 5:8), but extending all the way to our enemies as well?
- The Canaanite woman, like a good mother would, cried out to Jesus on behalf of her daughter. For whom do we cry out to Him for His healing? Are we first like Paul (Rom. 9:1-3), even if our affections and concern are not so limited – extending ever more broadly?
- Finally, how should the Christian seek to cultivate his or her own faith in Christ? That we might be like this woman?
If you are like me, such questions both condemn and yet call you to consider the greater depths of love to which God calls us. “Lord have mercy” indeed! “Increase our faith!”
And here, I think that Jeffrey Gibbs, in his commentary on Matthew, brings us back to where we need to be:
“How did she know? Who had taught this Canaanite about Israel’s Messiah? We simply do not know. Mathew’s hearers/readers do know, however, the ultimate answer to the question of how this woman came to know and believe. The Father revealed it to her. She is, like the Magi and centurion before her, an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to babies (11:25-27).
Gibbs lays his finger on something of immense importance here: strong faith like this woman’s will never not be faith like a child. Therefore, when a Christian says something like “Faith is not interested in faith. How big it is, how little it is. How strong it is, how weak. Faith is not about itself. It’s about Christ,” there is a “yes” and “no” aspect about this, for paradox reigns. As adults who cannot be un-self-conscious infants, we know that we should want our faith in Christ to be stronger. It is not somehow a sin to want a stronger faith, for in addition to children, Jesus uses this woman (and the Centurion) as examples for the disciples who have “little faith” (see Matthew 14:31)!
Further, Martin Franzmann says about Jesus’ comment on “mustard seed” faith: “At the very moment he rebukes His disciples for their littleness of faith He removes their thoughts entirely from any consideration of the bigness of their believing.” “Jesus’ words on ‘great’ and ‘little’ faith,” Franzmann reminds us, “are also a delineation of faith as relatedness to its object,” (142-143, italics his) that is, Christ and His words. And to go along with this, we must begin to understand that knowing and understanding God better—not to mention clinging to Him more tenaciously—is to, somehow, become increasingly child-like, and hence, un-self-conscious.
Then, as Gibbs goes on to show, we will have even more to give to our neighbors:
Great was her faith. In what does that greatness of faith consist? Two things. She knew who Jesus is: “Lord” and “Son of David.” And she knew that Israel’s Messiah had come to give such an abundance that there would be something left over even for her. And so, by Jesus’ generosity, on account of her great faith, her daughter was healed from that very hour (788).
Try as they might to deny the obvious, earthly families and nations have limited material resources to help their neighbors. God, however, in addition to calling us to meet the material needs of our kin while being as generous as we are able to be (based on His provision), primarily calls us to trust that He has spiritual resources for His church that never run out, namely, His life-giving Word and Sacrament. Here, is where His – and subsequently our – greatest generosity takes shape.
Lord, give us the strong faith that understands you rightly…
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)
Works cited or consulted
Albrecht, G. Jerome, and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2005.
Basser, Herbert W. The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-Based Commentary. Boston: Brill, 2015.
Benson, Joseph. The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: According to the Present Authorized Version… New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1884. Online: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/15-21.htm
Bird, Michael F. Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.
Brown, Jeannine K. Matthew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2015.
Buttrick, George Arthur (ed.) The Interpreter’s Bible: The Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised Standard Versions with General Articles and Introduction, Exegesis, Exposition for Each Book of the Bible in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 7. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1990.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Franzmann, Martin H. Follow Me; Discipleship According to Saint Matthew. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1961.
Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Matthew 11:2-20:34. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 2010.
Hagner, Donald Alfred. Matthew 14-28. Vol. 33B. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1995.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids MI: Brazos Press, 2015.
Hilary, and Daniel H. Williams. Commentary on Matthew. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2013.
Homolka, Walter, Walter Jacob, and Esther Seidel. Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism. Herndon, VA: Cassell, 1997.
McCarren, Paul J. A Simple Guide to Matthew. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
Lenski, R. C. H. Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961.
Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Church Postil Gospels. Vol. 11. Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands Co, 1906.
MacLaren, A. Expositions of Holy Scripture. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905. Online: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/15-21.htm
Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Bletchley, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2008.
Osborne, Grant R., and Clinton E. Arnold. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2010.
Schaeffer, Charles F. (Jacobs, Henry Eyster, ed.) The Lutheran Commentary: A Plain Exposition of the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament. Part I. Matthew I.-XV. New York: Christian Literature, 1895.
Thomas, and John Henry Newman. Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew. Vol. 1. Southampton [England]: Saint Austin Press, 1997 (citations in paper from online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/catena1.i.html).
Theophylactus, and Christopher Stade. The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew. House Springs, Mo: Chrysostom Press, 1992.
Simonetti, Manlio, and Thomas C. Oden. Matthew 14-28. Vol. 1. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2002.