A Dogged Faith

Matthew 15:21-28


Out and in. Out and in. Those who are out, and those who are in. How often do people love to have nice, clear fences around themselves. There are those who are of us, and there are those who are not. It is always a blessed thing to be in the “in” crowd, and it is terrible indeed to feel excluded. This happens in schools all the time. There is a clique in school and everyone wants to be part of it. However, the membership is very selective and doesn’t want just anyone to be a part of it. This was certainly true of Judaism in the first century. Jews called all Gentiles “dogs.” They didn’t mean the affectionate household pets. They meant the unclean scavenging mongrels of the street.

The context here is talking about things that are unclean, things that should be excluded. Jesus has finished saying that the things that are truly unclean come out of the heart, not from the outside. Now, Jesus is going to turn His attention to people that are unclean, and He is going to tell us pretty much the same thing: it is faith which is the instrument that makes us clean. It is grace, not place, which makes people believers, as J.C. Ryle once said.

Jesus had been in Gennesaret, which is on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now He departs and goes all the way to the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. This is extreme Gentile territory. He had completed everything He wanted to do in the area of His hometown. From here on out He will be working His way down to Jerusalem to complete His final work. This is the only time He really ministers in Gentile territory (except for the one time He went to the Decapolis), and ministers to Gentiles. Initially, His reason for going there was to get away from all the hostile Pharisees and scribes, not to mention the people who had rejected Him in His own hometown. So, He went to Tyre and Sidon, which are both cities located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There he found a very persistent, not to say dogged, woman.

This woman had deep trouble in her life, all motivated by her love for her own daughter. She loved her daughter very much. But her daughter was possessed by a demon. This woman obviously had nowhere else to turn. Somehow she had heard of this Jesus. This is remarkable, since she lived quite a ways away from Jesus’ hometown. News of Jesus, however, had spread far and wide. She was continually crying out (that is the force of the verb here). She was being persistent already. She kept on crying out, refusing to take no for an answer.

Jesus’ responses, both the first and the second response are somewhat puzzling to us until we realize what Jesus is trying to do both for the woman and for His own disciples. He is silent at first in order to stretch her faith, and keep her asking, and to test her persistence.

The disciples’ response is not difficult to understand at all. They want Jesus to get rid of her. Their statement implies something that we don’t usually catch, however. The implication of the disciples’ statement is that Jesus would do what she asked quickly, and then send her away, because she was being annoying. In other words, the disciples are not telling Jesus to send her away disappointed. We know this because of verse 24. What Jesus says in verse 24 only makes sense if the disciples were actually asking Jesus to fulfill her wish. We can understand this better if we flesh out verse 24 a bit more. Jesus is saying, in effect, “I was sent to help only the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It should be noted that Jesus is saying that the entire house of Israel is the equivalent of lost sheep. He is not saying that only a part of Israel are lost sheep. So, Jesus is saying, “I was sent to help only the lost sheep, that is, Israel.”

Notice well the woman’s immediate response to Jesus’ silence. She is not turned away. She did not receive a “no” for an answer, even though the disciples obviously don’t want her around anymore. Instead of being discouraged, she goes and kneels before Jesus. This word “kneels” is the word used for worship. Seeing how reverently she has addressed Jesus by calling Him “O Lord, Son of David,” and then here also she says “Lord, help me,” it seems fairly conclusive that she is offering Jesus her worship. Silence from God should be interpreted by us not as a discouragement, but rather as an encouragement to worship Him even more faithfully. We have this bad habit in the Christian life of being turned away if God is silent. We should much rather have the dogged faith of this woman, who will not take no for an answer.

This last interchange is very interesting, and full of meaning. At first, we might not be offended by what Jesus said. This is because we have a very different idea of what dogs are than the first century Jews and Gentiles did. Jews and Gentiles both thought of dogs as unclean scavengers. People who were “outside” the community were often called “dogs.” It was a term of reproach. When we know that, we might be offended at what Jesus said here. Isn’t He calling her a dog? Indeed, some scholars cannot believe that Jesus would be this barbaric and insensitive to this woman’s needs. But once we dig just a little bit deeper yet, we will come to the truth. For one thing, Jesus uses an endearing term for “dog,” not the usual word. We could actually translated the word “doggies.” And then, we also have to realize that Jesus was a prophet sent to Israel. Yes, Jesus’ person and work have great implications for the Gentiles. However, we should not get ahead of ourselves yet. The promise to Abraham said that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. But in order for that offspring to be a blessing, it had to be blessed first. And in the book of Acts, that is the pattern we see. Jesus said to His disciples that they were to be His witnesses starting with Jerusalem, then all of Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. There is an order to all of this which we can easily forget nowadays when the Gospel has gone forth to most nations. Jesus’ point here is that His mission is to Israel. He has to focus his ministry, even and precisely so that Gentiles can later benefit. So, nothing of what Jesus has to offer can be taken from the Jews and given to the Gentiles.

But now, notice the woman’s response. She acknowledges that she is a Gentile doggie. But her faith is quite dogged. Jesus left His comment just open enough for her to see a way through. This was intentional on Jesus’ part, of course, wanting to stretch her even further. This woman acknowledges the truth of what
Jesus is saying, but then she presses the analogy in almost the opposite direction. If the children (which represent Jews) are getting fed, and it’s children being fed, we know that children eat messily. There are crumbs that fall to the ground. Notice the difference in verb here. She says that crumbs fall to the ground. They are not thrown to the ground, or taken from the children. She knows that there is a bit extra from everything that the children actually eat. And it is often the practice of house doggies to eat those crumbs that fall from the table. Notice also her great faith here. The word for “crumbs” indicates not just crusts of bread that fall, but actually really small crumbs. We might even say they are crumblets. She may be a doggie, but even doggies can get fed from the crumblets that fall to the ground. She also says “from their master’s table.” Jesus is the master, and so she is saying that even if she is a doggie, she is Jesus’ doggie. She is also saying that she knows she is not asking much of Jesus. A crumblet is very small indeed. She also knows that this little crumblet is all she needs for her daughter to be healed. You see now how much faith she has? She can grant everything Jesus says, and yet still throw herself on the mercy of Jesus, knowing that what she asks of Him is not large for someone of Jesus’ power. In fact, her faith is just as large as the crumbs are small!

Jesus finally commends her faith in great language. Only one other person is said to have such a great faith. Ironically, it is also a Gentile, the centurion of chapter 8. He too believed that Jesus could heal from a distance. He too knew that Jesus’ power was far beyond what was needed for the task. So we see that Gentiles are important to Matthew. In fact, we can say, given the progress of this chapter, that the Gentiles start outside the house, outsiders, foreigners to the promise of the covenant. But they move closer here. Now they are inside the house, even they are called doggies. Next time we will see that they are finally invited to the table itself in the feeding of the 4,000, which are all Gentiles. We move from being unclean in the first part of the chapter, to being clean and invited to the table at the last part of the chapter.

The main thing for us to take away from this passage is the persistence of faith. If we know that what we are asking for is in accordance with the Word of God, say the salvation of someone’s soul who is near and dear to us, we need to persist in prayer. Remember our call to worship, where the woman kept on pestering the unjust judge, until the judge finally gave in. The idea there is not that God is an unjust judge. Rather, if the unjust judge gave in to the request of the woman, how much more will the righteous God of the universe hear us and listen to our prayers. So start praying earnestly for the salvation of souls in our area! This is always how revival starts in the church of God. It starts with earnest, persistent prayer. It also means that we have a healthy view of how powerful God is. Our prayer is based on our knowledge that God is all-powerful. Anything He gives to us is much smaller than we like to think. There is only one thing that is huge that God gives us, and that is Jesus Christ Himself. That was not just a crumb, but the entire Bread of Life. But we are now included in the feast at the table. As Peter says, we were once foreigners to the promise, aliens and strangers. But we who were once far off have now been brought near.

One last application has to do with how we treat those who are “outside.” Are we like the disciples? Do we want God to give them what they want, but do it out of our earshot, eyesight, smell, whatever? Maybe we think they don’t deserve grace. And we would be right. They don’t deserve God’s grace. But then, neither do we. So we really aren’t all that different from them, are we? Beware of prejudice! If we were brought near by the blood of the Lamb, then shouldn’t we rejoice when others are brought near, so that they are in, and not out? This woman was knocking on the door, begging to come in. She was very persistent in her dogged faith. May we be like that as well, not only for ourselves, but also for others.