"O WOMAN, GREAT IS YOUR FAITH"
(Delivered Mother's Day Sunday, May 9, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
Every Mother's Day, I have felt led to share a story of one of the great "mothers of faith" that we find in the Bible. As I've done this over the years, it's been amazing to me how many great mothers there are in the Scriptures. One lesson we can draw from that fact is that God has a special love for mothers.
Each "mother" story in the Bible has a unique lesson to teach us. And this morning, I'd like us to consider a particular story about a mother who encountered our Lord Jesus Christ. Her story has much to teach us about the depth of a mother's love for a child in need; and of how Jesus responds to such a mother's persistent faith in His ability to come to her child's rescue - even when the mother herself was unworthy of His help. Her story is told to us in the fifteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel.
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This particular woman had no natural claim to the Jesus the Jewish Messiah, because she was not Jewish. She was Greek in origin; having come from the coastal land of Phoenicia - particularly from the regions of Tyre and Sidon. When the Gospel writer Mark tells her story, he describes her as being "Syro-Phoenician by birth" (Mark 7:26); because her homeland bordered on Syria. Matthew (whose Gospel was distinctively Jewish in flavor) refers to her in the way that a Jewish person would typically describe someone from that region: "a woman of Canaan" - that is, a woman of the people group that originally occupied the land God gave to the Jews; a woman of the people group that was paganistic and heathenistic, and that had been driven out of the land by God to make way for His chosen people.
The people group from whom this woman came was notorious in the Old Testament for having sold the people of Israel into slavery to other nations; such as to the Edomites (Amos 1:9) and to the Greeks (Joel 3:5-6). God promised great judgment on the cities of Tyre and Sidon; and they were later conquered by the Babylonians (Jer. 27:2-8). Tyre itself was subsequently turned into a desolate place (Ezek. 26:1-21) by Alexander the Great.
This woman, you see, came from a place that was despised by the Jewish people. Just to give us some idea of how the Jews felt about Tyre and Sidon, you might remember that Jesus once rebuked the unrepentant cities in which He had performed miracles and said,
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought own to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:21-24).
Jesus was saying that, if He had performed His mighty works in even such cities as Tyre, and Sidon, and Sodom, they would have repented. This goes to show you how the people viewed Tyre and Sidon. In the Jewish mind, those Gentile cities were unlikely places for the mighty works of God to be performed. And as far as the Jewish people were concerned, they could keep company with Sodom! It was from this land, then, that this woman came.
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This woman from a pagan land had a daughter; and apparently, her daughter became possessed by a demon. The Bible tells us that she was "severely" or "badly" possessed by what Mark called "an unclean spirit" (Mark 7:25).
We're not told much about the girl's condition; but we can guess at what her suffering was like by thinking of others in the Scripture who were possessed by demons. There was a man once brought to Jesus, for example, who was made mute - unable to speak - because of a demon (Matthew 9:32). Another man was not only made mute by a demon, but also made blind (Matthew 12:22). On another occasion, a boy was brought to Jesus who was not only made mute by a demon, but who also had - from childhood - been frequently seized by the demon, thrown down to the ground, caused to foam at the mouth to gnash his teeth, and to become rigid (Mark 9:17-18). The poor boy even fell into fire and into water during terrible lunatic fits (Matthew 17:15) - perhaps in desperate efforts to take his own life and end his torment. How good our Savior was to deliver such people!
Jesus once encountered a man in a synagogue who was forced by a demon to cry out madly at Him in fear, pleading with Jesus that he not be cast out - and causing the poor man to be thrown down in a fit before everyone (Luke 4:35). There was also a woman who Jesus found in a synagogue that had been tormented for eighteen years by what Doctor Luke called "a spirit of infirmity" - a woman made physically deformed by the demon, and who could no longer stand up straight (Luke 13:11). Jesus had mercy on them as well.
Perhaps the most pathetic cases of all was the poor man of the Gadarenes who had become possessed by a whole host of demons. He had been driven by the demons into the wilderness areas, and for a long time lived among the tombs. He wore no clothes, and was so strong that he could not be bound with chains and shackles because he simply broke them into pieces. He screamed and howled day and night like an animal - cutting himself with stones, and causing absolute terror to everyone in the region (Mark 5:1-5; Luke 8:26-30). He was so grateful, when Jesus healed him, that he wanted to follow Jesus everywhere He went.
Even though we're not told the details concerning this demon-possessed girl, we can only imagine that it was a cause of great desperation and torment of heart in her mother. After all, her daughter was "severely" or "badly" demon-possessed. She had, no doubt, tried everything she could think of to free her daughter from this evil spirit's clutches. I suspect that she had even turned to the godesses of the people of her land and culture - the Ashtaroth, who were considered the wives of Baal. But turning to them, of course, proved to be no help at all.
Before we move on, I wonder if there is anyone here today who can identify with this woman's desperation - especially those of you who are yourselves mothers. Have you ever had to stand by helplessly and watch, as a son or daughter suffered from something that you couldn't free them from? Perhaps you've had to watch as a child struggled helplessly against some life-robbing addiction such as alcoholism, or drugs, or gambling, or pornography. Perhaps you've had to stand by and watch as one of your children ran headlong into a whole series of foolish and hurtful decisions and choices - unwilling to listen to advice or heed the warnings of his or her family. Perhaps you sought to raise your son or daughter to have reverence toward God; but watched helplessly as your child rejected the faith that you tried to pass on to them, or even embraced willingly the counterfeit religions of the devil. As a pastor, I've heard many such stories and I've prayed with many a tormented mother. And I'm honestly not sure which is worse in such cases - the suffering that the child brings upon himself or herself, or the special kind of suffering endured by the mother who has to stands by helplessly and watch it happen.
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This woman suffered under such desperation for her daughter. But she had a glimmer of hope. She had heard about Someone who could help and rescue her daughter. You see, it was not to long before this time that Jesus had come near her homeland. Matthew tells us that Jesus had gone throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and preaching the Good News of the kingdom to the people. He even healed all kinds of sicknesses and all kinds of diseases among them. Matthew tells us,
Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him - from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan (Matthew 4:24-25).
The news of Jesus had, no doubt, reached her as well. Perhaps she was hesitant at first to go to Him, because - after all - she was a Phoenician woman from the regions of Syria; and her people were as prejudiced against the Jews as the Jewish people were against them. But the more desperate she became, and the more she heard the news about Jesus - that He truly was the wonder-working Messiah of the Jews - the more she came to understand that she had no other hope for her daughter but in Him.
And so, this poor mother resolved to search for and find Jesus, and plead with Him to heal her daughter. She knew full well that a Phoenician had no natural right to expect help from the King of the Jews. She had nothing she could appeal to except His mercy. But she had to try. She would plead with Him and plead with Him until He helped her. In all reverence, she resolved not to take "No" for an answer.
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This, then, is where Matthew takes up her story. Jesus had once again been in the regions of nearby Galilee; and Matthew tells us, "Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon" (Matthew 15:21). It may be that Jesus didn't actually go into the region of Tyre and Sidon, but only nearby; because Matthew literally says that Jesus went "unto" that region.
But it was close enough. We're told, "And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, 'Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed" (v. 22).
Let me make just a few observations about this woman's action. First, we see that she came to Jesus, seeking Him out. If we compare what Matthew says about this story with what Mark says, we find that Jesus had just entered into a house, wanting no one to know that He was there (Mark 7:24). It may have been because, in His humanity, He needed rest. And after all, the last time He was in that region, multitudes came to Him for healing. "But," as Mark points out, "He could not be hidden" (Mark 7:24). This very determined Canaanite mother sought Him out and found Him.
Next, notice that we're told that she cried out to Him. She wasn't simply asking for Him; but was literally crying out to Him - as if to say, "I know You're here somewhere, Jesus; Please, O please come out to me!!" And what's more, the word that is used is in a form of the verb that indicates a continual, persistent crying out. She was crying out for Him persistently and without relenting. If I may put it this way, she was "importuning" herself - crying out to Him in such a way as to no longer care whether or not it was proper for her to do so.
Third, notice that she cried out for "mercy". She knew that she had no right to expect a blessing from the Jewish Messiah. She could only appeal to Him to have mercy on her. And note that she was in such desperation for Jesus' help that she identified herself with her daughter's suffering in a very personal way. She didn't say, "Have mercy on my daughter;" but rather, said, "Have mercy on me . . ."
And finally, notice how she addressed Jesus. She called Him "Lord" - which was certainly not the way a Phoenician would naturally address a Jew. But she called Him "Lord" as a demonstration of her faith in His power and authority; because she understood who He was. She called Him, "Lord, Son of David" - which indicated that she understood Him to be the long-awaited Messiah, the promised King of the Jews who was to be born of the lineage of David (Matthew 1:1). She may have been a pagan woman by birth; but it's plain that she had grown increasingly to become a woman of faith in the Messiah - the One sent by the God of Israel to be the Savior of His people.
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Now, perhaps you've read this Bible story before. And perhaps you've been puzzled by what happens next. Even though this is plainly a woman of noteworthy faith, Jesus seems unwilling to respond to her cry. It may have been that she, somehow, encountered Jesus outside the house; or it may be that her cry was relayed to Him inside. But however it happened, Matthew tells us, "But He answered her not a word" (v. 23). How do we explain this?
In fact, I suspect that the disciples were even a little puzzled by His unresponsiveness. Matthew tells us, "And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, 'Send her away, for she cries out after us'" (v. 23). The original language of Matthew's words indicates that she was actually following around and continually, incessantly crying out behind them. I don't think that the disciples were motivated by any particular compassion for the woman. Rather, it seems to me that they were saying, "Lord, please; give this annoying woman what she wants and send her on her way!" But even still, He seemed to be holding back from doing so. Why?
There is a reason that He expresses to His disciples for why He behaved as He did; and it has to do with His sense of calling. He told them, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (v. 24). And this, of course, was true! Not long before this, when He sent His disciples out to preach, He told them, "Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6). It was not to all the world that He was sent, but only to those "lost sheep" - those spiritually lost and distressed men and women - of His own nation.
But I submit to you that these words speak primarily of His calling as "prophet" as He walked upon the earth - not of His ministry as Savior and Redeemer which He was going to accomplish on the cross. He came to this earth preaching the message of the kingdom only to the Jewish people. But once He had been rejected by His people and crucified by them; and after He bore the sins of the whole world upon Himself, died as our substitute, and was raised from the dead because of our justification, He then told His disciples something new: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ." (Matthew 28:19). He came first of all to fulfill the promises God made to the Jews; but He came, ultimately, to bring about the blessing of the whole world. "Jesus Christ", as Paul wrote, "has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy . . ." (Rom. 15:8-9).
So then, how do we explain His words? Well, first of all, we should say that they were sincere. He genuinely was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But also, we should recognize that His coming would - in time - lead to the blessing of the whole world; and even the world of this Gentile woman. I believe that behind His seeming resistance to this Gentile woman's request was a love for her and a high regard for the faith she was exhibiting - a faith in Him that would, one day, be found throughout the Gentile world. What He was doing was testing her faith - testing it in such a way as to illustrate His greater purpose of redeeming lost and unworthy people throughout the world from their sins as an act of grace.
We can see this if we read on very carefully. Matthew, you see, tells us, "Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, 'Lord, help me!' But He answered and said, 'It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs'" (Matthew 25-26). And even though it may sound as if He was being demeaning and insulting to her in comparing her with a dog, He actually was not. The word that He uses, translated in some Bibles as simply "dogs", is not the usual word for the dogs out in the streets and alleyways. The particular word Jesus uses is the word someone would use to describe their household pet.
I was at someone's home once for a wonderful dinner. They had a large, very friendly family dog; and he and I got to be pretty good pals. I have to say, though, that we got to be too good of pals for my taste. As I sat at the dinner table, he kept getting under the table and squeezing his head up through my lap to see what I was eating. The host scolded him for doing that, and shrunk away remorsefully from the dinning area; but I think he forgot, because he did it again a few minutes later. Eventually it came down to either him or me; and our hosts chose to keep me and put the dog outside.
Now, what would have happened if we had gone to dinner at this home, and our host came from the kitchen and into the dining room with a large plate of succulent roast beef - just enough for everyone at the table? And what would have happened if, before she served our portions to us, she said, "First things first!"; and then began to throw some of it to this family dog? Wouldn't this represent a problem of priorities? I would be deeply offended that I was given second place to the family dog; and I'm not so sure I'd want any of the roast beef either!
Similarly, Jesus was saying that, as the long-awaited Messiah, His first duty is to the Jews - the "children" at the table. The "bread" He served was the benefits and blessings He came to bring to His own people. There were other people groups nearby that may gain some of the benefits as well; but He was saying that it would be wrong to prioritize the Gentiles over the Jews in the reception of these blessings. In fact, Mark tells us that Jesus said, "Let the children be filled first . . ." (Mark 7:27).
But Jesus was - as I believe He knew all too well - in the presence of a woman who would not take "No" for an answer. And she knew that she was a Gentile and was unworthy to expect anything from the King of the Jews; but she also knew that she must see her daughter delivered from that which tormented her; and she knew that only Jesus could deliver her. She knew that this could only happen as an act of His mercy. And so, very astutely, she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table" (v. 27).
Look carefully at what she said. Do you see that word "masters'"? Do you see where the apostrophe is? "Masters" is in the plural form. It refers to the children; that is, to the Jews. She understood that, as a Canaanite woman, she was second to the Jews in receiving the Messiah's blessings. But she was not afraid to ask for the crumbs that may fall from the table of the Jews; and so, she pleaded with Him that He would deliver her daughter. Her asking was in full accord with both His mission to the Jews and His character as a merciful Savior.
It was then that Jesus' love for this simple but persistent woman of faith shined. I believe His face lit up with a broad and tender smile toward her because now He was able to demonstrate that He is the Savior who, as an act of grace, shows mercy to all who cry out to Him. Matthew writes, "Then Jesus answered and said to her, 'O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.' And her daughter was healed from that very hour" (v. 28). As Mark tells us, "Then He said to her, 'For this saying [that is, for the saying, "Even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table"] go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.' And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed" (Mark 7:29-30).
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I believe Jesus paid this woman the highest complement He could ever have paid a mother; "O woman, great is your faith!" Sometimes, it takes very great faith to be a mother! But He didn't just pay her a complement for her faith. He also responded to it by casting the demon out of her daughter. She is an example to us of a mother with great faith; and an example of how Jesus responds to such faith with great mercy.
And I would commend this story to every mother of faith here today who has a child that is trapped in a sin, or that is caught up in some path toward personal harm or loss. Dear mother of faith; your heart might be breaking, but don't give up! You can do nothing greater for your lost child than to come to Jesus for him or her. Your child may not be willing to come to Jesus; but you can come to Him and plead for your child! Bring your child's situation to Jesus. He is able to speak a word from a distance, and transform their life. He is even willing to do so!
How did this woman demonstrate great faith for us? And how can you, too, be a mother of great faith like her? For one thing, she believed on Him about whom she heard - even though He was far away and she hadn't seen Him. She believed the truth about Him; calling Him "Lord", and "Son of David". She believed on Him enough to bow down before Him and worship Him. She demonstrated more faith in Him than many of those to whom He specifically came to serve. Follow this woman's pattern. First, believe on Jesus yourself! Make sure that your faith is in Him! Make sure you worship Him! Make sure you come to Him!
The Canaanite woman also demonstrated great faith in that she believed He was able to heal her daughter and cast the demon out of her. She demonstrated such great faith in this, in fact, that she was willing to go to all the trouble to and seek Him out and ask Him personally - even though she was a foreigner and not naturally worthy of such a request. Do as she did. Ask for your son or daughter. Don't be shy! Tell Him what you need! Trust that He loves your son or daughter more than even you do! He made this mother work at it; but He didn't turn her away. Don't be afraid that He'll ever turn you away!
This Canaanite mother also demonstrated great faith in that she was persistent in her asking. Her faith was tested; and she passed the test, because she would not quit until she received what she needed for her daughter. She reminds me of the words we find in Hebrews 11:6; "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." She was even "importune" in her asking. You too; ask persistently! Storm heaven! Be importune about it! Do not give up! The testimony of the Bible is that Jesus responds very heartily to those who demonstrate bold and persistent earnestness - even when the answer doesn't seem to come right away.
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There was, that day, a young girl delivered from the clutches of the devil because of a humble and unworthy mother who had great faith in Jesus' mighty power. And may the Lord Jesus see fit to save some troubled and lost son or daughter because of the "great faith" of some mother here today!
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