Inviting Others In: The Canaanite Woman

Most people don’t enjoy being excluded. Some of our earliest and perhaps most painful memories as children are those when we were overlooked, left out or purposefully excluded. Clubs were formed and we either deemed people worthy or unworthy to be members, with rather pathetic perks like a piece of old candy or access to some of our worn out toys. Once we grow up, one would think this type of behavior would cease. But sadly, we still have our groups and clubs, feeding our inner desires for inclusion and acceptance.

It happens to me every time I fly. I’m sitting in the gate area waiting for my group number to be called for boarding. I hear, “We’d like to welcome our Platinum members for pre-boarding.” It’s not my turn yet. I hear, “We’d like to welcome our Sky Miles members to board.” It’s still not my turn. Eventually they get around to calling out group 8 or 9 (with no pleasant welcome for us). I board, walking past all the people in first class. Oh, what perks they have! I take my seat and eventually they draw the curtain that separates us. I can’t penetrate that curtain. It’s like the 38th parallel (the DMZ) – I’m not getting across. I’m excluded and made to feel like it. And just like we had “Keep Out!” signs posted for those who were not in our clubs as children, that curtain is saying the same thing.

The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 knew what it was like to feel excluded. She was a Gentile outsider, and Jesus’ disciples were more than ready to make her feel like she was “outside the club” with none of the perks.

The Arrival of an Outsider

Jesus and His disciples were on foreign soil far north of Jewish territory, traveling through the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon. The Jewish historian Josephus referred to Tyre as the Jews’ “bitterest enemy.” Yet a woman from this region dared to cross the curtain of exclusion and brought her request to the Lord Jesus: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon” (Mat 15:22 ESV). She felt like she could come to Jesus. He did not make people feel like outsiders, although it will appear like He does in this story.

In her cry for mercy, she uses the title “Lord” three times. She even addresses Him as “Son of David,” proving that she knows something about Judaism and the Jews’ hope for the coming of their Messiah. She was respectful, but desperate enough to cross the boundaries of race and gender, because her daughter was demon possessed, and she had heard that this man Jesus could help her.

The Reaction of the Insiders

Interestingly, Jesus did not say a word. He let the disciples do the talking first: “Send her away, for she is crying out after us” (15:23 ESV). It revealed what was in their hearts, and He had some valuable lessons to teach them (and us) in this interaction with an outsider.

The disciples would agree with Jesus’ silence. What rabbi would speak with a woman? When Jesus was speaking with the woman at the well in John 4, His disciples “marveled that he was talking with a woman” (v27). So in our story here, they say to Jesus, “Send her away!” “Get rid of her, Lord.” Remember what they said in ch.19 when children were brought to the Lord Jesus? The text says, “The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them’” (19:13-14 ESV). Their signs read, “Keep Out, Children!” and, “Keep Out, Gentile Women.” “We’re in the club – you’re not!”

Often, we do the same thing. We crave the Platinum membership so much, don’t we? Think about two of these men, James and John, for a moment. They were already disciples of Jesus. They were “in” the inner circle of the 12. In fact, they were in the group of three with Peter who seemed to be even closer to Jesus than the others. But even that wasn’t enough. They wanted to sit on His right hand and His left in the kingdom. And if you’d spoken to each individually, I’m sure the right hand was the preferred place. They wanted Platinum membership within the kingdom.

We can be so insecure, so exclusive. We may have thoughts like these: “I wonder what I need to do to get in with them?” or, “Who does she think she is, trying to hang around us?” Why not include others? There will always be people around you who feel left out. Does your heart not break for them? Are we really that cold?

We’re so good at building walls that should never have been built in the first place. And once you build a wall, it’s hard to tear it down. Walls go up between husbands and wives, children and parents, friends, co-workers and fellow-believers in the assembly. And we get used to the walls being there. But a strong desire for friendship, fellowship and intimacy will drive us to do what Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to do: “Tear down this wall!”

I’ll include a word of advice to those who constantly feel left out. By isolating yourself from others, you can be doing the exact same thing – not letting others in and putting up walls unintentionally.

The Revealer of Inside Information

Jesus’ first response to this poor outsider’s petition doesn’t exactly appear to be welcoming. He declares His mission and the people central to His mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat 15:24 ESV), God’s “exclusive favorites.” I imagine that as He says these words to the woman, He glances over at the disciples and receives their approving nods. They already knew this inside information, but she didn’t. But now He reveals it to her. The disciples are probably thinking, “Now, again Lord, send her away. We have no time for anyone else, and certainly not a Gentile woman from Tyre!” Notice that Jesus didn’t send her away. True, He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but were there never to be any exceptions to that mission? I’m glad there were exceptions, and she was about to become another one.

Inner Strength from the Down-and-out

Now that she has received this inside information about Jesus’ mission, she is still not deterred. She is desperate for her daughter’s healing and won’t give up. Falling upon her knees, she says, “Lord, help me” (15:25). His first response was silence. His second was His mission statement. His third appears to be quite rude at first: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v26 ESV). The “children” are those in Israel (i.e., the insiders); the “dogs” are the Gentiles (i.e., outsiders like her). What was the Lord Jesus doing to this poor woman? He was testing her level of determination and trust. She had many obstacles to overcome – her race, her gender, and the disciples were all against her. It even appeared that Jesus was against her.

But Christ was administering another test at the same time – He was testing His disciples and their level of compassion. Can they look at this woman without their hearts going out to her? Will someone love her other than Jesus? He loved her the whole time (that will be clear by the end), but He wanted someone else to love her too. God desires to exclude no one! How are we doing on that test?

Her determination and trust reach a climax in verse 27: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (ESV). Rather than responding with an insult, she takes the word “dog” and uses it for herself in quite a clever way. She is not backing down, and she is not giving up.

Inviting Others In

It’s as if the Lord could not hold back any longer and His true spirit is manifest – “O woman” (v28). Don’t miss the little but most significant word “O.” He loved her; He had compassion on her. He was moved by her determination and by her daughter’s desperate need. And the disciples heard it. Do we hear it? The Lord Jesus loved everyone, and wanted to include everyone.

Invite others in. But don’t invite people into your club. Eliminate the club and invite them into your life. And if you can’t eliminate the club, leave it and invite them into your life.

Jesus adds, “great is your faith” (v28). The Greek word for “great” is megas – she has “mega-faith”! In the previous chapter (14:31), Jesus rebuked His disciples because they had little faith. But she has “mega-faith.” In fact, both individuals in Matthew who had “mega-faith” were Gentiles – this Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion (8:5-13). In both cases, Jesus healed from a distance, proving that His power and His mission could include anyone from anywhere. Jesus grants the woman’s request, instantly healing her daughter – “Be it done for you as you desire” (v28).

The disciples could learn a lot from this woman. She actually possessed the characteristics the Lord desired to see in them – humility, reverence, determination and trust. And He invited her in.

Inside the Sweetest Circle of All

How interesting that the most desirable inner circle of all happens to be the most inclusive. That circle is fellowship with God, fellowship with divine Persons. No one is turned away. Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Joh 6:37 ESV). That circle of fellowship is not full yet. If you don’t know Christ personally, you can enter into it by faith. And to those of us who by God’s grace are in the sweetest circle of all, let’s do all we can to bring others in because no one is an outcast to Him.

Let us break up our clubs, dissolve our cliques, remove our curtains of exclusion and tear down our walls. The words “Keep Out!” and “Send her away” belong to a world of fear and insecurity. Christ has brought us in – let us be like Him by inviting others in with us.