Crumbs of comfort 2

Crumbs of comfort 2

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Did today’s Gospel make you feel uncomfortable? If it didn’t, then perhaps it should have done. One commentator describes it as: “Jesus with his compassion down”. Another entitled this: “Beware the dog”. Perhaps we might call it: “Small crumbs of comfort”.

If you were Jesus’ publicity manager, you might want this story to quietly disappear off the record. Which begs the question why is it here? Why did it make the final edit and remain in Matthew’s Gospel? What are we meant to learn from this?

Not very nice

On the face of it, Jesus isn’t being very nice. Can you think of anywhere else where he initially withheld a healing from anyone? Then that awkward comment about the dogs. If one of the disciples had said that, then you can imagine that Jesus would have been all over them. You can possibly see racism, sexism – and Jesus just being, well, difficult.

Or maybe you’re not looking at Jesus. Maybe your eyes are on a tenacious, intelligent woman who broke all the normal social boundaries – and did whatever she had to do – to desperately claim a healing for her daughter. A daughter who probably lashed out and harmed both herself and others. I was going to say that this was a woman at her wits end – but actually she’s a woman with her wits about her.

We are apparently presented with a choice. Was Jesus testing the woman and the disciples – and he said what he did with glint in eye and tongue in cheek? That he deliberately showed-up the prejudice of the disciples? Or, alternatively, was he persuaded by the exchange – and he really did change his mind? We might not be entirely happy with either of those viewpoints. We have a scripture which can be looked at in different ways.


We’d need longer than we have to consider both options. So, today I’m going to concentrate on the second of those interpretations.

This is a conversation different to any other in the Gospels. Normally Jesus gets a hostile question which he then responds to, often with a parable, and then ends with a clever conclusion that his opponent can’t refute. But, in this story, it’s Jesus with the hostile saying and the woman’s response corrects him. It’s the Canaanite woman who delivers the punch line!

In this version it’s nothing to do with the disciples. This is all about Jesus and his own view about his own ministry. Jesus frequently has run-ins with the scribes and pharisees when he talks about what is clean and unclean – things that defile. This was a central issue in Jewish and Gentile relations – and now we have an opportunity to see if Jesus will practice what he preaches in a rare encounter with a Gentile woman.

And that should give pause for thought for those who preach or lead. Do our actions, the way we live our lives, match up with what we say from the pulpit or lectern?

The enemy?

So, here she is. A woman with a demon-possessed daughter and she’s described as being a Canaanite. Canaanites were ancient history, the indigenous people of the promised land. Matthew is identifying her as ethnically and religiously different. A pagan, perhaps even an enemy.

But Matthew also shows this Gentile woman using words that you could find in the Hebrew Psalms. Psalm 27:7 says: ‘Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!’. Or you could look at Psalms 30:10, 86:3 and 123:3 as well. She addresses Jesus as ‘Lord, Son of David’. She’s acknowledging his divine authority and the fulfilment of Jewish messianic expectations. Extraordinary words from a supposed ‘outsider’. And this is a chapter before Peter, his close disciple, makes the same recognition.


If we’re being generous then maybe Jesus’ statement that he was sent ‘only for the lost sheep of Israel’ is not about being ethnically exclusive in his own sense of his divine commission. Perhaps, rather, the size of the task just in Israel was so overwhelming that he simply had to prioritise his time and energies. The net result was the same though – and he said what he said.

But the woman persists. Perhaps she knew about the feeding of the five thousand men plus women and children which had taken place a little earlier – and with speed and wit uses Jesus sharp remark about throwing food to the dogs to her advantage. This was a God of abundance who supplies bread aplenty. There were 12 baskets left over from the Jewish crowd – surely there must be enough crumbs for one Gentile and her daughter?

Great faith

And she gets what she came for. Despite Jesus’ apparent reluctance, she gets the healing for her daughter. She is acclaimed by him as a woman of great faith – and there’s much to learn. In the face of all the verbal rebuffs and deflections she embodies the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’.

And Jesus does appear to change his behaviour towards Gentiles afterwards. In Mark’s version he then went north of Tyre, by way of Sidon, further into Gentile territory, and heals a deaf man in Decapolis, where there’s every chance that this person was Gentile too. And then in both Matthew and Mark we have the feeding of the four thousand, who were also thought to be Gentiles. There were baskets of bread left over there as well. Seven of them, signifying completeness and the world, Gentiles as well as Jews.

Thank you

So, did the encounter make Jesus question his commission of ‘only-to-Israel’? Did coming face-2-face with the woman help Jesus realise that the need was universal? Frankly, who knows? But, at the very least, he re-prioritised – or threw his priority list out the window – and afterwards he met the need as he came across it, without racial or national distinction. And in the end that became the Great Commission – to go out into all the world. And that ultimately, of course, includes us. Without that woman, would we be here?

I heard a lovely sermon once where the preacher speculated that the Canaanite woman was later with her daughter amongst those four thousand fed by Jesus. And that Jesus saw them there in the crowd and broke the loaf and personally handed them each some bread – and quietly said: ‘thank you’.


But how do we feel about a Saviour who can apparently develop his thinking, which is a nice way of saying that he changed his mind? Perhaps we welcome the humanity on display here? That it’s in stories such as this where we recognize his human character. That the woman herself ministered to Jesus in opening-up a new perspective. That her ministry opened-up his. And maybe, just maybe, if we let them, it’s people on the edges today who open us up too, to something new.

Perhaps, we’re just overthinking this – and all that we need to remember is that none of us have any rights. None of us deserve to be at the table. We’re all here by God’s amazing grace. And, in God’s economy, one single crumb is all it needs to change absolutely everything. Amen

‘Crumbs of comfort 2’ was delivered by Ian Banks at SJSM Bury on 20 August 2023, a shorter version of an earlier one given at St James’ Heywood. It was based on Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-37.

  • Bailey, K.E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. London:SPCK
  • Gench, F.T. (2004). Back to the well. Louisville: Westminster John Knox
  • Levine & Brettler (2011). The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New York: Oxford UP
  • Lyons-Pardue, K.J. (2019). A Syrophoenician Becomes a Canaanite: Jesus Exegetes the Canaanite Woman in Matthew. Journal of Theological Interpretation, Vol. 13. The Pennsylvania State University,
  • Newson, Ringe & Lapsley. (2012). Women’s Bible Commentary (3rd Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox
  • Stagg, E&F. (1978). Woman in the world of Jesus. Edinburgh: St Andrews Press


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