Jesus had an interesting encounter with a woman:
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 demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. (Matthew 15:21-23.)
Being a Canaanite* and a woman, she was doubly unworthy of Jesus’ notice according to the rules of Jewish society, culture and religion. But his followers wanted him to do more than ignore her.
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.” (Matthew 15:23-24.)
This is one of the harshest things Jesus is recorded as saying. It is tantamount to telling her “You are not worth my time.” The woman was having none of it.
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 the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. (Matthew 15:25-27.)
Read that last line again. The woman flat-out contradicted Jesus and told him he was wrong. Then she proved it.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27.)
She must have appeared presumptuous and impertinent to Jesus’ followers, but not to Jesus. He praised her response.
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:28.)
It’s a story that includes the woman’s perseverance and Jesus’ miraculous power, but that isn’t the story’s point. To get the point you have to go back a few verses.
Cleaning up from the inside out
Matthew 15 starts with Jesus being asked something quite different from the Canaanite woman’s request.
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matthew 15:1-2.)
This wasn’t about washing germs off, but about ritualized cleaning procedures that the religious leaders thought was necessary in order to please God. There was a lengthy discussion, with Jesus pointing out that their traditions were getting in the way of people coming to God, not facilitating it. He explains his point by concluding:
“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:17-20.)
Hand-washing rituals were used as an example, but Jesus was talking about all attempts to change your standing before God by outward appearances or keeping rules. And after he explained this, we get to the next scene.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him … (Matthew 15:21-22.)
What is the connection between the two conversations – the one with the Jewish religious leaders and the one with the Canaanite woman? She knew what they didn’t: Jesus is “Lord, Son of David”, meaning she recognized him as the promised Messiah of Israel and the world. Out of her mouth she poured forth what was in her heart, the faith resting there, a faith she would not deny even if it meant contradicting Jesus himself.
Matthew follows this pattern several times in his gospel. He records one event and then moves to another that on the surface appears unrelated. What he’s really getting at, though, is a look at how they connect from one to the other. (See John’s Head and Jesus’ Bread – a tale of two parties for an example form Matthew 14.) This is the connection Matthew shows in chapter 15: the Jewish religious leaders were concerned more with outside appearances than with what was in their hearts; the Canaanite woman expressed her faith with her mouth, showing that what was in her heart was righteous.
What is in your heart? Faith in Jesus is righteous. Let it pour out of you, showing that you are clean. This is the life Jesus wants you to live, not one of empty religious ritual but one of living and active faith.
*In Ezekiel 26-28 Tyre and Sidon were under God’s curse for how they treated ancient Israel.