She was relentless. She was tenacious. She was desperate. And we find her in Matthew 15 crying her eyes out on the side of the interstate.
We don’t know her name. She lives in the shadows of anonymity. She’s merely given the designation of a “Canaanite Woman,” and even that title is intentionally anachronistic. Canaan as such didn’t exist. There were no “Canaanites” technically speaking at the beginning of the first century. Specifically she was from the region of Phoenicia, the suburbs of Sidon, and her designation as a “Canaanite Woman” is a shorthand sign telling the reader all they would need to know about her in big bold letters.
She was a Canaanite.
She wasn’t a Jew. She wasn’t a part of the covenant people of God. She wasn’t from the right ethnic group. She was a Gentile. She was a pagan. She’s wasn’t entitled to the mercy of God. She wasn’t an heir to his promises. She had no right to expect the God of Israel to hear her plea. She was, and always had been, on the outside looking in.
She was a woman.
In a male-dominated, patriarchal society she was wholly dependent on others, particularly her husband to provide and represent her best interests. Her place was at home. Chores needed tending to, and so we may be surprised to find her out hitchhiking on the side of the road outside of town. She wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
And she wasn’t where she was supposed to be because the text tells us one other thing about this remarkable lady.
She was a mother.
That fact is sometimes forgotten. Somewhere in the silence between her audacious request and Jesus’ seemingly rude remark, we forget that the woman wasn’t there on her own accord. She wasn’t there for her own healing. She wasn’t asking for a personal miracle. She was there for her daughter. She was there as a mother. She was there because she wanted to take care of her little girl. As Solomon had looked into the eyes of a desperate mother who was willing to sacrifice everything for the life of her child, once again the king of Israel looked into the eyes of a mother whose heart was breaking because her baby needed saving.
Early that morning she finished cooking breakfast, packed her husband’s lunch, sent her sons off to school, finished her housework, and then hurriedly slung her purse over her shoulder and set out down the road in a last ditch effort to find the one man she hoped could make a difference. She had to get to Jesus. She had to get to Jesus before it was too late.
She almost missed him. She saw the disciples surrounding their teacher as they rounded a curve, and as she ran and stumbled after them she began to shout. The disciples heard her first. She was causing a scene. She had thrown caution to the wind and wasn’t behaving in a manner that was usually acceptable in public. She was creating a disturbance. And the disciples were annoyed. “Jesus,” they said, “send this raving woman away. Tell her to go back home where she belongs.”
But what he does do seems shocking. He looks at her and said, “I was only sent to Israel.” His point seems clear. She had no right to ask anything of him. He wasn’t her Messiah. Jesus seems to turn her away without even hearing her request. But she isn’t going anywhere. Her daughter is at home being tormented by demons, and so she falls to her knees before Jesus and whispers the simple prayer, “Lord, help me.”
Once more Jesus’ reply pours cold water on her hopes. He sees her kneeling before him and whispers, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). Jesus’ words were clear. The miraculous works of the Messiah belonged to the children of Israel, not the mangy mutts scavenging around the backdoor. He wasn’t beholden to her. He wasn’t in her debt. She had absolutely nothing to bargain with.
Jesus’ words are shocking, aren’t they? We’re left wondering what on earth is he up to? What would prompt such a harsh rebuke? Why would Jesus call this heartbroken woman a dog?
Jesus’ words, far from pouring cold water on the woman’s plea, really pours cold water on the disciples’ own deficient understanding of his identity and mission. They don’t understand who the Messiah is meant to be. They think they have a monopoly on his power. They think they have the copyright on the Christ. As they heard Jesus say those words they were probably taking delight in this foreigner being sent away empty handed. She had to be taught a lesson after all. She needed to be put in her place.
They weren’t prepared for the shocking display of grace that came next.
The woman, still not daring to look up into Jesus’ eyes, whispered in reply, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). Jesus looks down at the woman, and then back to the disciples. He smiled, and his eyes lit up and practically shouted, “This, my friends, is the right answer!” He picks the woman up and exclaims, “Your faith is great! What you’ve asked for is done.” And the text gives us the concluding understatement, “her daughter was healed instantly.”
As we celebrate Mother’s Day I’ve been thinking a lot about this unnamed, anonymous mother. The story of her surprising and tenacious faith is a lasting display of a godly mother’s heart. This is what gospel-soaked motherhood looks like. It sings to us the gospel according to Mother’s Day. The Canaanite woman’s story displayed three truths of what it means to be a gospel-powered Mom:
1. She longed to take care of her children. She put her own reputation on the line for the sake of her sick daughter. Her desperate love for her daughter drove her to forsake everything to make her daughter well. She cared for her kids. She wanted what was best for them, and she was willing to do what was necessary to make that happen.
2. She understood grace. She knew she had no rights in the presence of Jesus. She didn’t come with a list of demands. She couldn’t earn favor. She couldn’t pay for Jesus’ services. She had nothing to offer in return. She knew she wasn’t good enough. She knew she wasn’t a law-keeper. She knew she wasn’t an Israelite. She knew she had no right to claim the promises of the gospel. She came to Jesus with only empty hands and threw herself wholly on the mercy of Israel’s Messiah. Quite literally everything was dependent on him.
3. She knew that her and her daughter’s only hope was Jesus. This mother knew that what her daughter needed more than anything else could only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. She understood that if her daughter was going to be healed, then it had to be Jesus. Jesus wasn’t merely a nice add-on to an already good mother-daughter relationship. Jesus wasn’t merely a part of their life. If there was to be life at all, it could only be granted by Jesus. Life and death hung in the balance. It was Jesus or nothing.
The mother’s desperate need for Jesus was the heart of her faith-fueled response. She told Jesus, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Did you catch the significance of what this Gentile woman said? Do you hear her confession? Do you see how she got the gospel? We often read these words and marvel at the woman’s humility. She lay prostrate on the ground. She said all she wanted were some crumbs! That’s true. Her humility in the presence of Christ was truly amazing, But there was something more to her words.
She longed to have the crumbs that would fall from the master’s table, and her words imply that she understood full-well who that master really was. The woman’s confession assumed that she was the undeserving dog, and Jesus was the master of the house. The request that this mother made wasn’t to a “higher power,” or a generic “god.” No, the woman’s faith was completely Christ-focused. He was the master with the bread, and she was the beggar crying for crumbs.
And that is the gospel according to Mother’s Day. For every mother who feels like everything is resting on her shoulders, who believes everything depends on her being good enough, the Canaanite woman shows us the treasure of grace. For every mother who has ever cried out in prayer on behalf of a son or a daughter, she reminds us the only hope we have (and they have) is Jesus Christ himself. For every mother who longs to take care of her child, she shows us what true love looks like. What a mother believes about Jesus, and how important she believes Jesus is to her children, is the true measure of a mother’s love.
I’m thankful God gave me a mother like her. I’m thankful God gave me a mother who loves me. I’m thankful God gave me a mother who loves the grace of the gospel. I’m thankful God gave me a mother who daily came to Jesus in prayer on my behalf (and still does). I’m thankful for a mother who knew that above and beyond all gifts she might give me, the most important thing in life was getting me to Jesus, because it is only in his presence that true life is given. That is my testimony to my own mother’s love, and that is the testimony of the Canaanite woman who cried out to Jesus all those years ago. That woman’s daughter was never the same because her mother had met Jesus. My life was transformed because my mama met Jesus too. My prayer today is that as we celebrate our mothers, we would be led to celebrate the gospel all the more. “Please give me crumbs,” she cried, and her loving prayer still echoes in the whispered pleas of every mother whose life has been radically changed by the bread of life, bread so generously given from the nail-pierced hands of the master, the master who invites men and women like us not merely to scavenge on the floor for food, but to have an honored place at the table itself.
Happy Mother’s Day,