When Jesus was in Capernaum, he was visited by a Gentile man.
When Jesus was in the region of Tyre, he was visited by a Gentile woman.
The first incident takes place in Matthew 8, and the second in Matthew 15.
There are similarities between these two events. Both of these Gentiles are pleading with Jesus on behalf of their children. Both of them are generally despised by faithful Jews. Both of them receive the healing they request. The healing is done at a distance.
This distant healing is remarkable. People other than Jesus have been associated with healing as a result of prayer. Jesus healed many people and normally it was done up close. When others healed it was at close proximity. In these two cases, Jesus heals at a distance. This long range influence sets him apart from other healers immediately.
There are also some obvious differences. One is a man of power and influence who approaches Jesus inside Galilee. The other is a woman of no power and no influence who approaches Jesus in foreign territory. When the man, a Roman centurion, comes to Jesus, Jesus is already going around healing. When the woman comes to Jesus, Jesus is taking a break and getting away.
Jesus leaves Galilee and travels north out of the promised land into Pagan lands. Just before he goes, Jesus is near his home town when some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrive from Jerusalem to see him. They have come to question Jesus, not to listen to him. They accuse him of heresy when they ask, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition?”
In his answer Jesus explains what defiles us and what makes us holy, and it is all about the heart and nothing to do with food. After calling the religious leaders ‘blind guides’, Jesus goes away into foreign lands.
In between these two healing events, in Chapter 10:5-8, Jesus sent his disciples out and told them: ‘Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep. ’
Yet this is exactly what Jesus did when he went to Tyre and Sidon, where he met the woman.
The reason may be found in Chapter 11. Here Jesus talks about the miracles done in the Jewish towns of Korazin and Bethsaida, which were just a couple of miles from Capernaum. That’s the same place where Jesus said of the Roman Centurion, ‘Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.’
In Matthew 11:21 Jesus says: “What sorrow awaits you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in burlap and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse. I tell you, Tyre and Sidon will be better off on judgment day than you. And you people of Capernaum, will you be honored in heaven? No, you will go down to the place of the dead.’
Now a few chapters later Jesus is in Tyre and Sidon talking to a Gentile woman. He performs a great miracle in healing her daughter of an evil spirit from afar. But before that there is a conversation that many people find strange and disturbing.
In part, Jesus may well have been withdrawing from Jewish opposition when he went north. Surely he had to know where this journey into Gentile lands would lead – to amazing healings, great miracles and the feeding of 4,000 men.
Jesus went in secret and tried to hide. Mark explains in 7:24, ‘Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know which house he was staying in, but he couldn’t keep it a secret. Right away a woman who had heard about him came and fell at his feet.’
Jesus was not having a public meeting. He was in a house and the Canaanite women searched him out. Why did she do that? What did the people of Tyre and Sidon know about Jesus, and what might she have heard. Luke give us a clue in 6:17 when he says, ‘When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone.’
Jesus has been rejected and accused by the people he came to save, but this Canaanite woman comes to him for help. It was one thing to be a Gentile, and quite another to be a Canaanite. In Jewish eyes, this was about as low as one could go.
She calls Jesus, ‘O Lord, Son of David!’ This woman calls Jesus the Messiah, and his disciples want to send her away and stop her from bothering him. They were wrong. Jesus did not praise them. He praised her, but not before he gave her a hard time. This is where some people think Jesus was just plain wrong, and others cannot understand his words.
Jesus calls her a dog. It is an insult these days in most cultures to call someone a dog. It was an awful insult in those days. To understand this we start by acknowledging that Jesus is the saviour and he came to save us all from sin, including this woman. We cannot think his words are wrong. His words are the words of life spoken for the purpose of saving this woman.
How did this woman interpret the words of the Messiah, and how does she teach us?
She first accepted the truth of his words, and did not argue with his statement.
Yes, she was a dog and in great need of his blessing. She was humble.
She was not offended. It was the religious Jews who were offended by Jesus. Matthew 15:12 says, the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?”
The woman instead calls Jesus her Lord. She knows power flows from him and wants some.
In spite of the disciples’ persistent prodding to have Jesus send this woman away, Jesus did not tell the woman to leave. His silence in this regard was golden for the Canaanite woman. And what Jesus said was also encouraging to her. He said he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. That was his mission. He was open to talking with her. She was not seeking to dissuade him from fulfilling his calling. And so she persisted to plead with him to have mercy on her.
She listened to him and noticed the word he used for ‘dog’ was not the word for a stray or street cur, but the word for a pet. She responded to what he actually said and was not distracted by an imagined insult. She asked for what it was reasonable for a pet dog to receive.
Jesus commended her faith in a way that no Jew was ever commended. Only the Gentile centurion was commended in a similar way
She trusted in Jesus’ promise of long distance healing and went away satisfied. We can learn from this woman how to relate to Jesus when he is silent or speaks words we don’t expect. We see from her how once she was humble and accepted him as Lord he was able to do a great healing.
It was not the woman’s persistence that persuaded Jesus to give healing. We are not being taught to just keep on until we get what we want. We are shown by her how to be humble and to listen closely to what God says. We are shown that we must recognise and accept our need.
We are shown an example of making a right relationship with Jesus. The purpose of this story is to teach us how to relate to Jesus. It shows us the way of salvation. Let’s learn from her example.