Many people face a conundrum when reading the scene in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus meets the Canaanite woman who begs him to release her little girl from demonic possession (15:28ff). The Lord’s first response is silence, and we are struck by how out of character that is for him. No response to a cry for help? Then the woman kneels and pleads, “Lord, help me,” to which the Lord replies that his mission is not to gentiles, but to Israel.
He then says, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” We are stunned by his words. But the woman doesn’t give up. She comes back with, “Even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” We feel like cheering her on in the midst of the Lord’s apparent disregard. Christ then replies, “O woman, great is your faith!” What’s going on here?
Right before this scene, the disciples were caught in a storm and called to Jesus for help. He called Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water toward him. Peter saw where he was and realized he was doing the impossible. He began to sink. Christ grabbed his arm and saved him. Coming back to the boats, the Lord chided his disciples with “O, you of little faith.” The apostles, who have seen dozens of Jesus’ healings and miracles, lose faith once they are tested in a storm.
By contrast, this Canaanite woman will not take “no” for an answer. And that is the point. When the woman first approaches Jesus, his disciples want him to send her away. She is bothering them. The apostles had just been saved from drowning, but now think nothing of walking away from this poor woman. What’s happening here is that the Lord, in his goodness and wisdom, is drawing from this pagan woman a deeper faith than his apostles had.
In a way, God's only son knows all along he is going to heal this woman’s little girl. The Lord could never walk away from this situation. But he can also see that she is a strong woman who cares for her daughter. As he talks with her, Jesus draws out from her a strong determination and magnificent act of faith. She would not give up. There are two important lessons here.
First of all, the apostles witnessed this woman display more faith than they had when faced with a critical situation. Second, it is important to remember that, in the Gospels, the most dramatic acts of faith are made by pagans rather than the Jews. Such as: 1) The centurion who said, “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servent will be healed” (Mt 8:8). 2) The gentile woman who would not let Christ get away without healing her daughter. 3) And, finally, the Roman soldier at the cross who makes the dramatic statement, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39).
Faith is often found in the least-expected places. Faith is a matter of the heart, not the head. And God’s grace can touch the hearts of some people we might tend to dismiss.