"The Woman Who Wouldn't Be Put Off"
(Delivered Sunday, April 29, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Somewhere, in a house along the coastal regions of ancient Phoenicia, a woman bitterly wept in frantic helplessness for her little girl.
How this terrifying circumstance came to be is something we're not told. But it was probably not an uncommon thing to see in a land characterized by a long history of paganism and idolatry. The woman's young daughter was under the power of a demon. She wasn't merely "demon-possessed"; but, as the Bible tells us, she was "severely" or "cruelly" demon-possessed. Some vile spiritual force had taken ruthless dominion over her.
The Bible tells us of other such demonic afflictions; and the stories they tell give us a chilling picture of what this little girl's suffering may have been like. We're told of one man who was so plagued by an unclean spirit that it drove him away from the society of other men; causing him to live as a maniac among the tombs. Those who sought to restrain him and "tame" him found him so strong and uncontrollable that he broke the bonds and shackles in pieces. At night, he howled in the mountains and among the tombs like a mad animal; crying out hideously, and cutting himself with stones (Mark 5:2-5). And we're told of another man who had a son who was possessed of a spirit from childhood—a spirit that made the boy unable to speak. The man would watch helplessly as this unclean spirit would occasionally, unexpectedly seize his son, throw him to the ground, cause him to foam at the mouth, make him gnash his teeth, and suddenly force his body to become rigid (Mark 9:17-18)—and sometimes even throw the boy into fire or cast him into the water in order to destroy him (vv. 22).
It may be that this poor woman watched as her daughter suffered in some of these horrifying ways—or perhaps in ways that were best kept unmentioned to us. Who can imagine what torture it would have been for this poor mother? And what could she do? Where could she go? How could she hope to set her daughter free from something so beyond human help as this?
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But somehow, in all of this, she heard news that gave her hope. Rumors had begun to be spread around that Jesus—the miracle-working prophet from Nazareth—was in a house not far away. The rumors, as it turned out, where true. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that Jesus had indeed gone to the regions of Tyre and Sidon; and that He had entered a house, wanting no one to know it. But, as Mark tells us, "He could not be hidden" (Mark 7:24).
This woman had heard the fame concerning Him that "went throughout all Syria"; and of how "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" (Matthew 4:24). And as she heard these stories, perhaps a conviction began to grow in her that this Man was the promised Jewish Messiah, the long-awaited "Son of David".
At first, she hesitated to go to Him. After all, she was no Jew. She was a despised Gentile. She didn't have any right to expect anything from Him. But even so, she knew she must go to Him, There was no other option. No matter what it took, she needed to leave her precious suffering daughter behind, find Jesus, and beg Him have mercy on them.
That's when we come to our passage—and to the story of how this woman proved herself to be one of the greatest and most encouraging examples of faith in the Bible.
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It's no coincidence that this story occurs where it does in Matthew's Gospel. It follows immediately and deliberately after the story of Jesus' confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees concerning Jewish rules of “purity” and “cleanness”. Jesus had affirmed the principle that moral impurity before God does not come as a result of what is on the outside, but rather from what is on the inside. And then, He demonstrated this principle in action, by doing something that was unthinkable to the scribes and Pharisees: He showed divine mercy to an unclean “heathen” woman.
I believe that one reason this story is so important is because it displays something about Jesus. It demonstrates His willingness and readiness to show mercy toward any needy person who cries out to Him. It demonstrates that He extends His mercy even to those who are the most “unclean” and “unworthy”. How grateful each one of us should be that He does!
But another reason this story is important is because of what it shows us about this woman's faith. It seemed that, in this story, Jesus kept putting her off. It seemed that He wouldn't answer her prayers and pleas and appeals. But after she proved herself to be persisted in her faith in Him—after she proved that she knew He could do what she asked, and would not be 'put off'—He changed His manner toward her. He smiled upon her and said, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” It was as if He suddenly stopped denying her; and opened all the treasures of heaven to her.
He did something that should capture the attention of all of us who pray in His name: He praised her faith and gave her what she asked. He, as it were, has pointed her out to us as if to say, “Look at this woman! Learn from her! She did it right!”
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I suspect that there is someone here this morning who desperately needs the encouragement of this woman's example. I suspect that there is someone here who has a deep need that they have been presenting to the Lord; but who feels as if the Lord is not listening—as if the Lord is putting them off. I suspect that such a person is getting tired and frustrated with asking; and is beginning to feel like giving up. And I wonder if this woman's story may not tell you something of what the Lord is seeking to do in all of it.
In prayer, it is our privilege to tell God what we desire from Him. But in the process, He does something even greater than we're asking. He brings us—in the process of our asking—to the place where He truly has possession of our heart. He doesn't answer our prayers right away; because He first wants our hearts to be yielded to Him, and wants to get us to the place where we're crying out to Him in deep dependency.
As I have learned to see it, prayer is 'that form of communication with God by which we get Him where He wants us to be' —that is, to the place where we're looking to Him, leaning on Him, trusting in Him, confessing Him to be who He truly is, and yielding ourselves completely to Him.
And when the Lord has us where He wants us—that is, in that place of deep, refined, complete faith in Him—then He is delighted to answer our needs and our prayers in a far greater way that we could ever have imagined. That's why I believe this woman's story is so important. It exemplifies the sort of persistent faith that the Lord delights to respond to.
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Let's look at her example a little more closely. And let's begin by considering . . .
1. THE QUALITIES OF FAITH SHE POSSESSED.
First, I notice that she clearly exhibited faith in Jesus. Jesus Himself was the object of her faith. Look at the things she believed about Him.
She called Him “Lord” three times in this passage. To call Him “Lord” can, of course, mean that she simply spoke with respect to Him; as if to call Him “Sir”. But clearly, the context shows that she was regarding Him in a much higher way than that. She had heard the stories about Him, and was coming to Him for a miracle; and so, calling Him “Lord” was her way of recognizing—to some degree—His divine authority. Personally, I can't remember a story in the Bible in which someone called Jesus “Lord” so often, in so few verses, than this woman did.
Second, she—a Gentile—called Him something remarkable. She called Him “Son of David”. And in calling Him this, she was recognizing Him as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah—the King who had been promised long ago by God through the prophets to be born of the lineage of King David. What a remarkable thing for her to do! Not even the scribes and Pharisees were willing to recognize Him in this way! She even fell before Him and “worshiped” Him—bowing herself before Him in humble homage and adoration (v. 25).
And third, she had faith in Him to do something that no one else could do—that is, to cast out a demon from her daughter. She had heard the stories about how He had done this for others; and she knew that He had the power to do the same for her daughter. It may have been that she was uncertain He would do this for her, since she was a Gentile. But she was certain that He could if He was willing to do so. She was so certain, in fact, that she left her daughter to go and beg Him to heal her. She was even willing to 'importune' herself—to humble herself beyond the bounds of propriety—in beseeching Him to do this.
And what's more, we can see in all of these expressions of faith in Christ that her motives were of the highest order. She was motivated by love for her daughter—such great love, in fact, that the healing of her daughter was an act of mercy to herself. In asking Jesus to heal her daughter, she said, “Have mercy on me . . .” (v. 22); “Lord, help me!” (v. 25). Mercy to her daughter was, as far as she was concerned, mercy shown to her!
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Now; stop and consider that thing that you have been seeking from Him. It's not beyond the power of Jesus Christ to meet that need. He can do whatever needs to be done, and He can do it at anytime. But could it be that, before He gives you what you desire, He first wants you to give Him what He desires? Could it be that, first, He wants you to think rightly about Him?
Do you ever come to the heavenly Father in an irreverent and thoughtless manner—expecting that you have a right to have your prayers answered? I'm afraid that, all to often, we all do. We fail to think rightly about the majesty of the One in whose name we bring our request. Do you recognize Jesus as your Lord and Master? Do you confess Him to be the Christ—the One upon whose shoulders the government of this world will soon rest? Do you bow to His omnipotence? Do you worship Him as you come to Him? And do you check your own motives—to be sure that what you are asking is something that matches His own desires and will?—to be sure that you are motivated by the self-sacrificing love that motivated Him to die on the cross for you?
One of the great lessons that this woman has to teach us is through the quality and characteristics of faith that she exhibited. May we be the kind of petitioner she was when she approached Jesus with her need. We have a greater chance of hearing Him say, “Let it be to you as you desire”, if we do so.
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A second way that she can teach us is through . . .
2. THE CHALLENGES TO FAITH SHE FACED.
She left her daughter and her home, and traveled some distance in order to ask Jesus to show her this act of mercy. But there were certain challenges that might have stood in the way of her doing so.
One of the ways she faced a challenge to her faith was through the limitations of who she was. Praise God that, in the body of Christ, “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female”. Rather, we are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). But in the culture of this woman's time, those differences stood as a humanly impenetrable barrier; and those barriers could have caused her to hesitate to come to Jesus.
First of all, she was a woman—and that, culturally, was something that she would have recognized as a challenge to her being able to ask the Lord Jesus for the healing of her daughter. Perhaps you remember the time that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. She was more than a little surprised that He would even speak to her—let alone ask her for a drink (John 4:9). Even the disciples were a little surprised to see Him talking with a woman (v. 27).
Second, she was a Gentile. She was, as Mark tells us in his Gospel, from the regions of Syria and Phoenicia (Mark 7:28). And even more specifically, she was from the regions of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon; and the people of that region had a notorious history in the mind of the Jewish people. Jezebel—the wife of King Ahab who had introduced the worship of the vile Phoenician god Baal to the people of Israel, resulting in God's severe judgment upon His covenant people—was the daughter of “Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians” (1 Kings 16:31). And the great prophets of the Old Testament—Jeremiah (Jer. 27:1-11), Ezekiel (Ezek. 26:3-21; 28:1-10), Joel (Joel 3:4-6), and Amos (Amos 1:9)—all prophesied strongly against the cities of Tyre and Sidon. The people of Israel would not have been inclined to even enter their region, let alone expect that God would extend His mercies to anyone from that region.
And third, she was a Canaanite. She was a descendant of the fourth son of Ham—the son who was under a curse of servitude (Genesis 9:18-27). She would have been a descendant of the people group that the Israelites had driven out of the land at the command of God. Her people were a despised people in the eyes of God's covenant people; and her culture was considered a very paganistic, unclean culture.
How then, could she expect to receive anything from the Lord Jesus Christ—the Son of David; the Jewish Messiah—when faced with the barriers of who she herself was?
And what's more, she also experienced challenges—on the basis of who she was—from the Lord Jesus Himself. He had sent His disciples out earlier to preach the good news of the kingdom; telling 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). And Jesus, in our passage this morning, seems to draw a thick, dark “underscore” beneath these cultural barriers, and bring attention to them in a shocking way. When she sought Him, He seemed to put her off; saying, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). And when she besought Him, He said, “It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs” (v. 26).
And yet—in spite of the clear 'barriers' and 'challenges' she faced—she did come and ask; and Jesus did give her what she wanted! And in doing so, He is illustrating to us that He rewards the persistent faith of those who come to Him—even in spite of the barriers!
Now, what might be the barriers that stand in the way of you coming to the Lord? What is it that makes you feel “unworthy” of coming to Him and asking for what you need? Is it your sinful past? Is it your limited understanding? Is it your cultural background? The story of this woman teaches us that there is no “barrier” that can stand in the way of the woman or man who comes to Jesus in sincere, persistent faith and trust—no matter who they may be, or what they may have done. He makes a promise that you and I can carry with us whenever we come before Him; “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37).
So, the persistent faith that delights the Savior—the kind of faith that He is pleased to respond to—is the kind in which we come faithfully and resolutely to Him and asks, no matter what the barrier may be. May we exhibit such a faith—just as this woman did.
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Another thing we learn from as we look at her story is . . .
3. THE PERSISTENCE OF THE FAITH SHE DISPLAYED.
One of the things that stands out the most in this story is how the Lord Jesus seemed to keep putting her off. Obviously, knowing the 'end' of the story, we recognize that He was simply testing her—bringing out the depth of her trust in Him and the strength of her desire. In testing her faith in this way, He was getting her where He wanted her.
Look, first, at how He seemed to ignore her. In Mark's account, Jesus and His disciples were apparently in a house when she came. He apparently wanted privacy; and didn't want anyone to know that He was there. And so, when we read in Matthew that she “cried out to Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed” (v. 22), we can picture her shouting her request to Him from outside the house.
Whenever I think of this, I always remember a story that was told to me once by some friends of mine from many years ago. I used to attend a Presbyterian church; and when, at some point, the church's 'manse' became available, three or four of my collage-aged church buddies were permitted to pool together and “rent” the manse as a their home. But after they moved in, they said they soon had a problem. There was a wooded area behind the manse; and apparently, every other night or so, a woman went out into the woods. No one knew who she was. She would shreek and howl and curse and blaspheme at the church building; and would sometimes do so until early in the morning. My friends had tried to get the police to find and stop this demented woman; but they weren't able, it seems, to find her. She eventually stopped and went away—but not until after having disturbed my friends and robbed them of many hours of peaceful sleep.
Well; this was certainly no demented woman who came to Jesus! But can you imagine how disturbing it would have been to come to this house for some rest and seclusion—only to hear her continually shouting and crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David”? And what's fascinating is that Jesus seemed unmoved by her. We're told that He didn't even answer her a word.
Have you ever faced a test to your persistence like this? Have you ever felt that, no matter how much you cried out to Him, the Lord was ignoring you—locked up, as it were, in a house? Have you ever felt as if you were crying out to Him, only to have Him not answer you a word? We know from the end of this story that He wasn't ignoring her. He was only seeking to draw out from her the next step in her persistence of faith in Him.
Perhaps the Lord seeks to do the same with you and me.
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Now, I think that the disciples finally had all that they could stand of this woman. They apparently had less patience than Jesus toward her. It may be that some of them went out the door to tell her to be quiet and go away. And it may be that seeing them made her cry out her request to them instead of just to the house.
They eventually came to Him and “urged” Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us” (v. 23). The phrase “send her away” is clearly meant as a request on their part to give her what she wanted. It was as if they were saying, “Lord; please! Give this woman what she is asking for! Heal her daughter; so she'll go away and leave us alone.” They weren't exactly driven by the highest and most noble of motives in this!
And it's here that we encounter yet another test to her persistence. He said that it wasn't His mission to do as she was asking. He pointed back to what He had told the disciples in Matthew 10:5-6; and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). We need, of course, to notice that He didn't say, “No! Absolutely not! I will never do any work for Phoenicians!” But His words certainly seemed to have had the appearance of a put off. He certainly seemed to be saying that He was exclusive—that He only served the children of Israel.
And again, I wonder if you have ever faced a test to your faith like this. Have you ever felt that what you were asking from the Lord was something that it was not your place to ask? I'm not speaking here of asking the Lord for something that is clearly contrary to His revealed will. He will never grant a sinful request. But have you ever felt that you were asking something that it was not His job to give you—as if He had bigger and more important things to do that to concern Himself with your needs?
Well; again, we know from the end of the story that Jesus was simply testing her persistence. He gives us a promise that will see us through such tests, if we believe Him;
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So, this woman's persistence in faith had been tested by the Lord twice. And now comes a third test. She stopped simply crying out from outside the house; and she stopped trying to make her appeal through the disciples. Finally—and I believe this was where the Lord wanted her all along—she came and worshiped Him; and she offered one of the truly great prayers of the Bible; “Lord, help me!” (v. 25).
And yet, once again, the Lord tested her. He answered her and said, “It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs” (v. 26). And I wonder if that doesn't come as a bit of a shock. How could He insult her in such a way—calling her a dog? After all, Jesus had said, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces” (Matthew 7:6). How could He insult her in such a way—calling her a dog? She wasn't coming to “tear” Him? She came worshiping Him!
It may help to know that the Greek word that Jesus used is one that is different from the word translated 'dog' in Matthew 7:6. That word referred to wild, filthy dogs that ran in packs—dogs that presented a danger to people. But the word that Jesus uses here refers to a little dog that would be a family pet; the kind that would hang around at dinner time to eat the scraps that fell from the table (or, more likely, that got handed down to the little dog under the table by sneaky children when the parents weren't looking).
Jesus was speaking from the standpoint of being the Jewish Messiah. He was saying that it wouldn't be right to take food (that is, His works) that was meant for the children (that is, the Jewish people), and to hand it over to the little dogs that sat under the table (that is, the Gentiles—such as this woman). Again, note that Jesus didn't say, “No! Absolutely not! No messianic miracles to Gentiles ever!” He said what He said to the woman, not to deprive her of the healing she as asking for, but to test and to demonstrate her persistence in the asking.
And she gave the right answer. Did you notice that she didn't say, “But Lord; I'm no dog! I'm a woman!” It seems to me that she embraced the Lord's analogy and even agreed with the principle He spoke in it. She said, “Yes, Lord . . .” She agreed with Him. But she also took His words and turned them to her advantage. She added, “. . . yet, even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table” (v. 27).
She was, in effect, saying, “Lord, I'm not asking You to take anything away from the children of Israel. There is plenty of food for them. But there's much that You are giving them that they are not taking. And if You will please let me have some of the scraps that they let fall from the table, what loss is it to the children? What loss is it to their Master? Please then; let me have the “scrap” of a healing of my daughter.”
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All put together, here is the greatest lesson we can learn from this woman's example. No matter what, she would not take “no” for an answer. She would not be put off. She passed every test the Lord had placed on her persistence; and when it was all over, she still looked to Him to answer. She had proven herself to have great faith in Him.
I believe that the Lord tests us in this way very often. But I fear that we very often fail the test. I fear that, all too often, we give up too soon. We say, “I've tried asking Him; and He doesn't answer me. He ignores me. I've tried trusting Jesus; and trusting Jesus doesn't work.” There may be someone here who is saying that even today.
And yet, the whole time long, our persistence was simply being tested by the One who was ready to give us the answer—as soon as we were where He wanted us to be. Jesus, tells us a parable that teaches us this. In Luke 18:1-8, we read;
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That leads us, finally, to note the great encouragement that this passage gives us concerning this woman's persistent faith. We see . . .
4. THE RESPONSE TO FAITH SHE RECEIVED.
We read, "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). Mark, in his Gospel, tells it this way;
Jesus not only gave her what she asked, but He also praised her faith. He said that her faith was "great". What an example she is!
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And so; somewhere later that day, in some house along the coastal regions of ancient Phoenicia, a woman rejoiced as she came home. She found her little girl healed at the word of Jesus. And even more, she found her faith in the Savior confirmed. He had given her the grace of testing her faith; and thus approved her faith as that to which He delighted to respond.
May we follow her example of faith. May we trust Jesus when He tests our persistence. May we allow Him to get us where He wants us to be with respect to Himself. And as a result, may He find our faith in Him to be something He delights in.
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