The teaching about the Canaanite woman’s faith, sometimes referred to as feeding on crumbs from the master’s table, is an unusual one. Some people argue that the Lord was being cold or unkind in his treatment of the Canaanite woman in this teaching. However that is not the case.
This woman was following Jesus and the disciples crying after them to seek healing for her daughter who was demon possessed. She clearly knew the Lord could do this for no doubt she had seen or heard about the healings he had already performed. It also appears that her constant crying to the Lord was annoying the disciples, for they said to Jesus to send her away. But Jesus didn’t send her packing, which in itself is a sign that he had compassion for her even before he did anything.
Jesus made the reply to the disciples when they said to send her away that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The Canaanite woman was a Gentile and not of the tribes of Israel. Now some could argue there was inconsistency here. Jesus did not immediately grant her request, but we saw back in Matthew 8:5-12 that he did immediately assist the Gentile centurion, who came to him pleading for the healing of his servant. However in that case we can presume that the centurion’s servant may have been of the tribes of Israel and thus one of the lost sheep to whom Jesus referred.
In this case though the woman was pleading for her daughter who clearly would not have been an Israelite. She was not prepared to accept no for an answer either, which is a lesson we can all learn. For when she made her request Jesus responded, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Verse 26) Most people would have given up at that point, but this Canaanite woman was not any ordinary person. She responded back saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Verse 27) Jesus recognised she had great faith and so granted her request. The crumbs from the masters table she referred to are evidence that she had been seeking the Lord and taking in the teachings. The Canaanite woman’s faith was strong, as she had clearly learned the principles of faith from listening to Jesus and taking in the good news of the gospel.
Although the initial ministry of Jesus was to the Israelites, it was prophesied by Isaiah that, “The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope.” (Romans 15:12) So there was no reason that Jesus should withhold healing other than that it was not time yet to reach out to the Gentiles. The ministry had to go to Israel first and spread from there.
There is a warning in here about being legalistic. Legalism is rigid and unbending. It says, “The law is the law and it cannot be changed.” But Jesus came to preach freedom from law, and although he was born under law, in his subsequent death he would remove all sin and the law so that we could be freed. The ministry of freedom too is a ministry of compassion, not rigid but open to reason and doing what is good and right and true.
The Canaanite woman’s faith was such that she deserved this healing she sought. We know that it is the children of faith who are children of Abraham, and thus children of Israel. For Paul wrote, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants.” (Romans 9:6-8) Through their faith in God the Gentiles are reckoned as descendants of Abraham.
They are children of promise through faith and are children of God through faith in the promises of God. As Paul also wrote, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.” (Romans 3:28-30) The uncircumcised are the Gentile nations and these are made righteous or justified through their faith. Thus we see the Canaanite woman receive her request because of her faith and through her faith became a descendant of Israel in a spiritual sense and thus one of the lost sheep of Israel.
So Jesus was not being cold or inconsistent. Since she was a descendant of Abraham through faith in the promises of God, she was entitled to the healing she sought. She proved herself to be a child of Abraham and a child of God through her faith.
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