This remarkable female in Bible biography is called by Matthew, “a woman of Canaan,” and by Mark, “a Greek.” There is no contradiction here because the term Greek was commonly used to distinguish Gentiles from Jews. She was a heathen woman of Gentile stock who came to earn a rare commendation from Jesus even though she was a descendant of the old Canaanite worshipers of Baal. Her name, and that of her husband and also of her daughter are not known. She is presented as a mother suffering unspeakable grief because of the incurable demoniac affliction of her daughter. We likewise have her portrayed as a woman of resolute determination as she sought to get relief for her child from the great Israelite Healer of whose fame she had heard.
This unhappy woman of heathen surroundings belonged to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon whose inhabitants had been despoiled by the children of Israel, and who were given over to idolatry (Ezekiel 28:22-26). No love was lost between the Jews and the Phoenicians, but the One who went through Samaria where the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and left a blessing behind Him, here visits the Gentile district of Northern Galilee to reach some of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” mixed up Gentiles in the district. As the Shepherd, He went out after the sheep (Luke 15:4), and brought His salvation to Jew and Gentile alike (Luke 10:9; 19:10). It may be that one object of Christ’s unusual trip to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon was to seek rest and have closer fellowship with His apostolic band, seeing that Capernaum had ceased to be a home of peace for Him. But He could not be hid. His fame followed Him and news of this miracle-worker reached the ears of this poor Canaanite mother, whose excitement would not let her wait until Jesus arrived. Out she ran as if to be the first to meet Him with a cherished hope that He could relieve her daughter. Coming before Him she immediately told Him her sad story, and besought His mercy.
Briefly, yet explicitly, the Canaanite woman presented her plea which contained three appealing elements—
1. Her Petition: “Have mercy upon me.” In dire need we are so dependent upon the unfailing mercy of Him who is full of compassion.
2. Her Recognition: “O Lord, Thou Son of God.” Heathen though she was, this grief-stricken mother yet recognized the authority and deity of Him whose name was great in Israel and also among the Gentiles (Psalm 76:1; Malachi 1:11). In the royal title she used she implied that Jesus alone was able to cast out the devil from her daughter.
3. Her Statement: “My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.” Mark says she had an “unclean spirit.” This mother never wasted words as she stated the terrible trial shadowing her home. Eloquent language is not necessary when we present our needs to Him who knows all about them before we state them.
The pitying Saviour, who refused no call for mercy, was silent to the pleader’s pointed prayer. “He answered her not a word.” Weary with the pressure of His long and arduous ministry in Galilee, He retired into a friendly, hospitable house nearby, and left the seeking mother outside. Why did our Lord appear to turn a deaf ear to the pitiful cry for the relief of her afflicted daughter? Usually He responded immediately for the exercise of His power, but at this time He was silent, and His disciples as bigoted Jews who were deeply nationalistic and despised all Gentiles, shared the Master’s silence. Why should their Lord bestow a favor upon a Gentile?
Artists never depict Christ with His back turned. He stood with His face to blind Bartimaeus, to the foaming demoniac, to the limping paralytic, to the turbulent sea which He hushed, to the dead whom He raised, but here He turned His back on the suffering woman, throwing positive discouragement upon her petition: “Lord, spare the life of my demon-possessed daughter; it will not cost You anything.” Because of all we know of Christ’s love and compassion, we cannot believe that He meant to ignore altogether her cry for help. Often the problem of unanswered prayer is acute, but He who ever hears the pleas of those who seek Him always answers prayer in His own best way. Perhaps with this Gentile mother, His repulse was meant to try her faith, which proved to be a faith accepting no rebuff.
Driven by a pressing need, this woman of Canaan was determined not to take, No! as an answer. She knew Christ was able to cure her daughter and was determined that the assistance she sought would be granted. So she pestered the disciples for another audience with Christ whose expression of His mission might have discouraged her Gentile heart, “I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He rallied to the woman’s earnestness, however, and to make His mercy more conspicuous, met her persistence by saying, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread [that is, salvation appointed for the Jews] and cast it to dogs” (or the Gentiles which was the ordinary parlance of the Jews in regard to Gentiles). The gentle, gentlemanly, and loving Jesus never meant to characterize the woman as a dog.
Even this further rebuff did not deter her from falling at the feet of the great Galilean Teacher and sobbing, “Lord, help me!” Although a wild Gentile she begged grace of the Shepherd of Judah. In the passion of her sorrow and resolve she would not let Him go until He blessed her. Even when He further denied her in the words, “Let the children first be fed. It is not fitting to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.” Such a sentence might have crushed her, but inspired humility enabled her to quickly reply with all meekness, “Truth, Lord, yet dogs [tame, house, pet dogs] eat of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
Behind Christ’s seeming frowning countenance there was the smile of love. Although He had addressed the helpless woman in a somewhat austere, traditional way, His coolness made the final favor sweeter. The stranger had not asked for a whole loaf of bread or even for a large slice—only for the crumbs falling to the floor. The Master felt the wit and the earnestness and the stratagem and the faith of this determined woman who dared to persist in her desperate petition, and the expression of His heart revealed Him in His true mission—the Saviour of mankind.
“The aptness and the subdued beauty of her patient reply had charmed Jesus,” and she heard Him say, “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” It was as if He had meant, “You have conquered Me. Your daughter is well now. Go home, mother; but before you get there she will come down, skipping to meet you. The devil has left her.” Her conquering faith exhibited the three ascending degrees of all true faith. The trial of her faith consisted of silence (Matthew 15:23), refusal (15:24), and reproach 15:26), all of which were intended by Christ for a beneficent, loving purpose. The trial resulted in triumph, for the woman had turned a seeming rebuff into an argument in her favor, and her faith resulted in definite and practical results. Blind Bartimaeus broke through hindrances cast up by his fellow men, but this woman broke through apparent hindrance even from Christ Himself.
Reaching home the poor Canaanite mother found her darling girl in her right mind, calm and smiling, and how her relieved heart must have praised the Man of Galilee. Her faith had prevailed, and Christ’s disciples began to learn that divine pity was larger than racial boundaries and that their Master’s salvation was a fountain for all. A peculiar feature of Christ’s miracle on behalf of the Canaanite woman is that it was accomplished by remote control. He did not go to the home of need as in the case of Jairus, but stayed where He was, and the moment He uttered the word of healing, the demon-possessed girl was made whole. It was one of His “absent cures.” Distance makes no difference to Omnipotence. “He spake and it was done.”