As the story goes, it came to the ears of good King Alfonso of Spain that the pages in his court had been forgetting to ask God’s blessings for their daily meals. Determined to teach them a lesson, the king invited them to a banquet, which they all attended. The table was spread with every kind of good thing to eat, and the young me ate vigorously, but once again, none of them remembered to ask the Lord’s blessings for the food! During the feast, a shabby beggar entered. He seated himself at the royal table and ate and drank to his heart’s content. At first, the pages were amazed. They expected that the king would order him away, but Alfonso never said a word. When the beggar had finished, he arose from the table and left without saying a word of thanks. The pages cried out, “What a despicable fellow!” But, the king silenced them, and in a clear, calm tone said – “Boys, bolder and more audacious than this beggar you all have been. Every day, you sit down to a table supplied by the bounty of your heavenly Father, yet you do not ask His blessing or say thanks!” The pages did not exercise much patience or understanding. Like them, we like to eat, but we need to remember to say “thanks” in faith. In fact, all things need to be discerned by faith. Patience is long-suffering, willingness to wait on the Lord. This passage is a lesson in the patience of faith, as Jesus’ discussion with a Gentile woman helps her to learn and grow.
Jesus has just had a confrontation with the religious leaders. So here (in Matthew 15:21ff), he has retreated to Gentile territory on the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus is not in Phoenicia for the purpose of evangelism, yet He “providentially” encounters a woman in a situation where she does not belong…much like the Samaritan woman. Here, she is a Gentile among Jews, and what is amazing is that she, being a Gentile, hears where Jesus is and comes looking for Him. What is her purpose? She wants Him to heal her daughter who is sick. She boldly calls Jesus, “Son of David,” putting herself on Jewish ground, and place where she really would have no right to be. This further reveals her peculiar nature. All of this reveals her faith in God to call on the man she perceives is the Messiah. As we have seen in other situations, as with the aforementioned Samaritan woman, Jesus is the Master Communicator.
Here we expect some great word of wisdom from Jesus, except the He is silent -- He says nothing. But, Jesus has an advantage in the situation -- He knows her heart. He exercises patience with her, and His silence in this situation spurs her on. For her part, she is a very patient, persistent mother, which we might expect. But, she has no argument, as she is an outsider in every respect. Still, she is simply a person who comes to Jesus as a sinner in need of help. Now, the Lord speaks, and it is interesting to say the least. Jesus says, “I have been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.24). Jewish Messiah comes for Jewish people – case closed, right? This might discourage most individuals, but once again, Jesus knows this lady…and He is not seeking to destroy her faith, but build it up. This is patience at work! As the drama continues to unfold, the woman’s response, "Lord, help me!" (v.25) shows that she is growing in faith and unwilling to let Him go without giving her an answer.
Lest we forget the third party in this situation, the disciples now chime in. They are impatient with her persistent following and crying out, so they speak up…and they want her to be dismissed (not a whole lot of compassion here). It is the disciples who have no respect for this woman of another place and another race. Perhaps Jesus’ silence, in part, has been to see if the disciples would show kindness…but, to no avail. His next response, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs" (v.26) surely pleases the disciples. Yet, once again, He is not refusing her as they might seem to think. He is not trying to run her off, but He is about to “run off” the disciples’ ugly attitude. He shares a proverb of the day, and it is shocking. Is Jesus saying that she is a dog? “Dog” was a frequent Jewish term of abuse for Gentiles at that time. The “dogs” that Jesus refers to are “mongrels” that would run in packs like wolves. The disciples are likely thinking, “Yeah, deal with her Lord.” But, Jesus’ words cannot convey the true feelings of the situation. Although He presents her with the sort of language that she might expect from a Jew, Jesus’ tone is not humorless or rude. If only we could see the twinkle in His eye…once again, He continues to draw out a growing, patient response of faith. Jesus has known she is capable, and this Syro-Phoenician woman does immediately seize on His illustration and provides a remarkable reply that is precisely what Jesus is hoping for and looking for. Her point (v.27) “that dogs at least get the crumbs” is no less tongue-in-cheek than Jesus’ statement. We see that she accepts His basic position that He has a mission to Israel, but also that His mission allows others to share in the blessings of His kingdom, even if secondarily.
Jesus acknowledges her “great faith” immediately and He heals her daughter…surely as the disciples’ jaws are hitting the floor in disbelief over what has happened. They must have been equal parts stunned and confused. There are two instances of “great faith” in the New Testament, and both are Gentiles, not Jews…this woman and the centurion in chapter eight. Her faith is great because she persisted and was patient in asking and trusting when everything seemed against her – her race (Gentile), gender (woman, who had little social standing at that time), the disciples (obviously), and even Jesus initially (it may have seemed)…and she persisted nonetheless. Life is often a matter of perspective isn’t it?
Many years ago, an American shoe salesman was sent to Africa by his company. Shortly after arriving, he messaged back to the manufacturer saying, “Please bring me home – nobody wears shoes in this part of Africa.” They brought him home and sent another salesman. He sent back order after order for shoes and sent a message saying, “Everyone here needs shoes.” And so it is with faith! Seeing and believing in Jesus is a matter of perspective – a faith perspective. Jesus was looking for a patient, albeit forthright, response from the Syro-Phoenician woman. His connection with her was no accident, but according to the will of God. As with this woman, we must allow the Lord to work with us, to grow us patiently, strengthening our faith. We may not always understand what life is going to bring our way, but we must simply turn to the only One who can truly help us. Like the woman, we have every capability to live according to “great faith.” In addition, another sign of growth in us is our ability to work with and accept people who are different from us. Jesus was empty of the prejudices of many who were close to the situation, be it the leaders of the Jews or His own disciples. We must seek to serve those whom the Lord sends our way; He wants what is best for us and others! So, we can be like the short-sighted, impatient disciples and doubt (although they undoubtedly learned from the experience and grew). Or, we can be like the patient woman, hungering for righteousness, thirsting for salvation, moldable in the hands of the Lord…finding wisdom and life!