Sharing Christ’s Love 

Matthew 15:21-28 – “Crumbs for the Canaanite”

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

August 20, 2023


In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 15, we discover that Jesus has gone away for a beach vacation. Jesus and his disciples have walked for two days to get to Tyre,  a harbor city on the Mediterranean Sea. The region of Sidon and Tyre is a Gentile region, far away from the growing conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees, far away, supposedly, from anyone who knew who Jesus was, far away from the needful crowds who longed for Jesus’ attention and needed his healing touch. 

We can imagine that Jesus was exhausted at this point in his ministry.

He may have gone to the coast for some of the same reasons that we go on vacation, to be anonymous for a few days, to rest his body and recoup his soul, to offer some prayers with his toes in the sand and the waves lapping around his ankles. 

Mark’s telling of this story claims that Jesus really did not want anyone to know where he was. Have you seen those television commercials about Jesus? The “He gets us” commercials?  Jesus does get us. He understands when you or I are exhausted.  He knows what it feels like to be overwhelmed. He knows that anxious feeling that one experiences when they have a run in with the powers that be. 

In this context, we find an enlightening narrative about Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28. 

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, 

‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 

But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, 

‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, 

‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 

But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 

He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 

She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 

Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ 

And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 


When a group of Middle Eastern pastors were engaged in a Bible study on this story, they were asked to identify the miracle in the passage. None of them mentioned the healing of the little girl.  The release of the demon from a distance was not for them the real miracle.  The real miracle was how this woman – and then Jesus – broke through the social, cultural, and religious boundaries that separated them.  

There were carefully constructed boundaries that separated this woman from Jesus. These boundaries of religion and gender and ethnicity cannot be understated.  They are still very much in place today in so many places. And there still can be severe consequences for people who break such rules. 

In the first century, a Gentile woman just did not throw herself at a Jewish man’s feet.  A Jewish man of any standing would not, could not respond in love to such a person.

The woman must have heard that this Jewish rabbi might be able to help her daughter. It seems as though word about the healing available in Jesus had spread all the way to the coast. 

So the woman dared to cross the socio-political boundaries. The woman who humbled herself before a man whom she was supposed to avoid. The woman opened her mind to what others had said about this Jewish rabbi – no small step in her culture. 

 This desperate woman figuratively moved mountains in order to get help for her child. She is the heroine of the story. She is the one who tears down the walls of difference. Jesus did not even answer the woman at first. Jesus’ disciples got upset with her because she was shouting after them.  Jesus said out loud that he had come only for the lost sheep of Israel, in effect saying that he was not there for her or her sick daughter. Nevertheless, the woman persisted.   

She set aside her pride.  She ignored the divisions between them. She moved past anyone who tried to dissuade her and knelt at his feet.  She bowed down before a man who was supposed to be considered an “other”, an outsider. 

Those same tensions are felt between Jew and Gentile today in the region of Tyre. The people of Lebanon and Syria and Israel still live with daily friction between those of different religions and ethnicities, just as many within this nation live with daily friction between religions and ethnicities. 

Even when Jesus referred to her as “dog”, she came right back at him, acknowledging the gulf between them, but nevertheless looking for his response. 

Much has been written about Jesus’ treatment of this woman. His behavior can be rather shocking to our modern sensibilities.   Only the scribes and the Pharisees receive worse rhetoric from Jesus.  Jesus referred to the woman as a dog, a relatively common derogatory term that Jews would use for Gentiles. 

In many places in the world, dogs are not beloved and clean pets, but scavengers, not much higher on the food chain than rats.  To call a Gentile a “dog” was to refer to that person as disreputable and unclean. 

Even so, the woman humbly responds: 

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  

Some claim that Jesus’ harsh words are a window into the racial tensions of the day.  Jesus was a Jew, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth.  He lived in the daily tensions between Jews and Gentiles, like everyone else.  On one of my pilgrimages to Israel, we had much appreciation for our gracious host and guide. He was a Palestinian Christian, an extremely pleasant and helpful man. Our group loved him.

Then, after a week or so, late one afternoon, our host had a run in with an Israeli Jewish person. The tense situation had something to do with access to one of the holy sites. In one brief encounter, in less than a few minutes, I witnessed a flash of the deep discord and simmering hate that have plagued that region for thousands of years. 

All of that the enmity and discord lying just under the surface suddenly appeared. There was no love lost between our Palestinian guide and that Jewish official. What I briefly witnessed reminded me of the flashes of ugly racism that occasionally pop up in our communities in the United States. 

Some scholars will soften the force of this passage by claiming that Jesus was verbally sparring with the woman.  They claim that he was simply testing her, perhaps with a smile on his face.  Surely, they claim, the tone of his voice must not have been derogatory toward the woman; he was just being cognizant of the division surrounding their conversation. 

But, as someone wisely pointed out in our Wednesday Bible study, “You don’t verbally spar with a desperate mother in need of help for her child.”   Another view of this passage is that Jesus has decided to focus on his specific mission.  Jesus had come to call the Jews back to God and he simply could not and would not go and heal and teach every person in the world.  

His primary goal was to serve as the Messiah of Israel, through whom all nations would ultimately be saved. First, Israel, then later, through the church, the world would come to know his grace.  So he rebuffs the woman because he could not possibly begin to heal the whole world in his limited time “incarnate”. 

Still others claim that the faith of this Canaanite women actually broadened Jesus’ vision for his ministry.  Prior to this encounter, Jesus had been focused solely upon the Jewish people, upon the children of the covenant, but the trusting persistence of this Gentile woman on behalf of her child changed Jesus, altered his perspectives, and enlarged the reach of his ministry.  

 As Luke reports earlier about Jesus’ childhood – he grew in wisdom and stature. Perhaps this excursion to the coast was a teachable moment for the Son of God,  a revelation to the man who was, after all, fully human as well as fully divine. 

If Jesus’ attitude toward the outsider and her needs could change, then perhaps our attitudes can change as well. The world seems more divided than it was ten years ago. Our nation seems more divided than it was ten years ago. Schools and institutions of various kinds, even some families, post-pandemic, seem more divided than they were before. We have all been impacted by “cancel culture”. 

If I don’t agree with you, then basically, you cancel me from your life. 

Is that any way to live? What direction are we headed?  How can we make a turn?

How can the Church of Jesus Christ, how can you and I,  not rebuff those who are different, those considered outsiders, but instead, offer healing and reconciliation to a hurting and divided world? 

By God’s grace, when the woman arrived home, her child was lying on the bed resting.  The illness was gone.  The girl was well again, whole again.  The good news of the gospel for this woman is that Jesus came to her town and responded to her need, despite the wide gulf that separated their lives.  

The good news of the gospel for us could be that even a few crumbs from the Master’s table can suffice, to make all things new. But the good news might also be that the dividing wall of hostility between peoples began to be broken down that day by Jesus Christ and the persistent woman of Tyre. 

The Apostle Paul claims this more eloquently in his letter to the church in Ephesus: 

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth…were…without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one  and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two,  thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 

So (Jesus) came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;  for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 

In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. 

(Ephesians 2:11-22)

Jesus abolished the “law”, the “rules”, the commandments and ordinances,  that keep people separate from one another, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two. Whenever we are tempted to maintain divisions, whenever we are tempted to ignore or rebuff or avoid because someone is different from us, whenever we find ourselves labeling people, putting people into categories of race or religion, we would do well to remember this woman, this desperate mother of Tyre, who helped change the course of Jesus’ ministry, who helped change the course of human history. 

In Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself…  Through Jesus Christ, God was entrusting the message of reconciliation to the Church. The Church and all its members have thus become ambassadors for Christ,  and God desires to make his appeal – for the reconciliation of the world – through us… the Church, through you and through me.     (based on II Corinthians 5:19-20)

May God make it so.  Amen. 


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia