Introduction. Read Matthew15 21-28

Jesus leaves Galilee for the district of Phoenicia (Tyre and Sidon) in the Roman Province of Syria. This was the only time that Jesus ventured into predominately pagan territory. William Barclay supposes in his commentary on Matthew that he did so to have time alone with his disciples away from the Jewish crowds and hostile critics. I think that Jesus had a more precise objective than that. Jesus had been in dispute with the Pharisees over impurity and ritual cleansing; he had also shocked his disciples with his views on unclean meats. He was now going to expose his disciples to an unclean woman and await their reaction. It would be harder to find a more unclean individual than a woman of the old Canaanite stock. Centuries earlier Joshua had been told to wipe them out!

The passage can be considered under the simplest of headings: A nameless woman, Uncaring disciples and the masterly saviour.

(1) A nameless woman.

There are six things we can note about the Phoenician woman:

(a) She was a Canaanite - a heathen. She had no name and so can be taken to represent all unclean Gentile women. A Jew coming into contact with such a woman would become unclean.

There are still groups of people who are not made very welcome in church. This is true of gypsies. There are not many Christians like Liz Bishop's old friend David who died recently. Once he took Liz with him to take communion to a group of gypsies parked on the side of the road near what is now Tesco in Bury St Edmunds. He had read them some of Spurgeon's sermons and they wanted more. So he read several onto tapes so that they could listen to them in their own time. They stayed several weeks and he continued to minister to them until they moved on, as they do without letting him know.

(b) She showed Jesus respect. She addressed Jesus: "Lord, son of David." The nameless Canaanite showed Jesus more respect than the Jewish religious leaders.

It is plainly obvious to anyone listening to the radio or watching TV that Jesus is not afforded the respect to which he is entitled. His name is often taken in vain. Even Christians of a certain ilk can be guilty of this: those who are always claiming that Jesus has told them to do this and to do that - however mundane and inconsequential the 'this' and 'that' may be.

(c) She cared about her daughter who was seriously ill. Most serious illness in the time of Jesus was attributed to demon possession. Whatever the cause, the daughter's illness was so severe the mother sought Jesus out for help.

The most serious condition that a Christian's children can suffer from is unbelief. That is why prayer for a child's salvation should be the chief priority of Christian parents.

(d) She was persistent. On the face of it Jesus does not appear to encourage the Canaanite women that her daughter will be healed. The disciples were certainly not on her side. They said to Jesus: "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." As far as they were concerned the woman was an embarrassment and confounded nuisance. However, she was not put off and kept pleading on behalf of her daughter. Jesus was the only hope she had for the healing of her daughter and so she passionately persisted notwithstanding the discouragements.

A lot of our prayers are half-hearted. They lack passion and are soon abandoned. Yet the stakes are so high - especially when we pray for the salvation of friends and family.

(e) She made an appeal to grace. The Canaanite said, "Lord help me." She had nothing to offer. She couldn't pay for her daughter to be delivered from her demons. All the woman could do was throw herself on Christ's mercy - "Lord help me."

The only way to be delivered from our killing complaint and to be assured of new life and resurrection from the dead is to appeal to, and rely upon, God's grace.

          The soul that sins shall die!
          My awful doom I heard;
          I was for ever lost
          But for Thy gracious word,
          That: Whosoever will believe
          Shall everlasting lilfe receive.

(f) She claimed a relationship. The pagan mother accepts that she may only have been a Gentile puppy dog but that did not preclude her from having Jesus as her Master. She said: "Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." She appealed to Jesus as her Master and, as her Master, he healed her daughter.

There is no surer ground on which to base our appeals for help than our status as Christ's servants and his status as our Master.

          My hope is built on nothing less
          Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
          I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
          But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
          On Christ the solid rock I stand;
          All other ground is sinking sand.

(2) The uncaring disciples.

The disciples:

(a) Were uneasy about the trip to Tyre and Sidon. They had been very shocked by Jesus' teaching on what made a man unclean. It wasn't what he ate! This was a radical departure from the Law that classified some meats as unclean and prohibited the eating of them. We know from Acts10 that Peter did not really accept Christ's teaching on this subject. He said to the voice that addressed him in a vision: "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." Acts10v14.

Along with this belief, Peter and the others also believed that Gentiles were unclean and that it was wrong to associate with them. This is what Peter told Cornelius well after Jesus' ascension: "It is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or to visit him." Acts10v28.

So, we can well imagine how uncomfortable the disciples were about Jesus' trip to Tyre and Sidon and being in the company of unclean Gentiles.

I am afraid that there are Christians today who share the prejudices of the disciples. There are members of the Church of England who wouldn't darken the doors of a nonconformist chapel. I used to visit an old colleague, a militant Anglican, who labelled me a tub thumping member of an obscure sect. She wouldn't be seen dead in a Baptist church. I know another gentleman who always attends our united carol service when it is held in the Anglican church but never comes when it is celebrated in the Baptist chapel.

(b) Did not intervene on behalf of the Canaanite woman. The disciples had no compassion for the distressed mother. It didn't matter how great her need - she was an unclean pagan and as such of no interest to the Jewish Messiah.

It is very easy to behave as if Jesus is only interested in respectable people! William Booth's success as an evangelist and the phenomenal growth of the Salvation Army was due to his willingnesss to take the gospel to disreputable people.

In my exposition on, 'The bruised reed and smoking flax' (See: Matthew12v20) I wrote:

In the 19th century the early Salvation Army workers offended many respectable Christians because they were uneducated, vulgar and 'in your face'. Anglican Bishops were horrified by the Hallelujah lasses with their banjos, concertinas and tambourines singing such songs as:

          Elijah was a jolly old man
          And was carried up to heaven in a fiery van.
Staid Calvinists disapproved of Happy Eliza who was sent to liven up a flagging Nottingham campaign and marched through the town with streamers flying from her hair singing:

          Shout aloud Salvation, boys, we'll have another song
          Sing it out with spirit that will move the world along
          Sing it as our father's sang it many millions strong
          As they went marching to glory.

(c) Regarded the Gentile woman as a nuisance only. They told Jesus, "Send her away because she keeps crying out after us." The woman was not a daughter of promise; she wasn't a godly Jewess, she wasn't worthy of Christ's attention. The Canaanite was purely and simply a pain in the neck.

There are people like the Gentile mother in many churches - people who contribute very little - who have problems - who demand attention - who exhaust our patience - who we feel the church would be better off without. When my brother, Paul, was a Baptist minister in Clapham he had a few folk in his church like this. They occupied a lot of his time and energy which he sometimes felt could be better spent on something else.

(d) Missed the opportunity Jesus gave them. The disciples agreed with Jesus when he said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." So, they did not object when he said, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." Jesus' twelve followers wanted to restrict his blessing to their own people - the chosen few - the Jews only.

This attitude is very widespread! It is summed up by the well known saying, "Charity begins at home." A few might even quote 1Tim5v8 in support of this view.

I am not advocating that we all emulate Mrs Jellyby in Dicken's, 'Bleak House', who was so preoccupied with the natives of Borrioboola-gha that she badly neglected her own children. It is possible to bring up your own children properly and support overseas mission activities.

I have known Christians who will not support missionary endeavour because they believe Christ's followers should expend all their resources on reaching the lost in their own country. They are like Jesus' disciples of old!

(3) Jesus the Master

AND the Woman.

(a) Jesus never refused the woman. Jesus never told the woman bluntly to go away albeit he didn't immediately grant her request.

I don't believe Jesus turns anyone away who has faith in him. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." Jn6v37.

(b) Jesus encouraged the woman. When Jesus said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel", he wasn't addressing the Canaanite but his disciples. I think Jesus was addressing the prejudices of his disciples and so spoke quizzically, ironically or indignantly. This gave the distressed mother hope.

I believe Jesus spoke in the same vein when he said, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." This was probably just what the disciples thought of Gentiles. In their opinion they were little better than the half-wild, feral dogs that scavenged in the streets. So once again Jesus spoke ironically both challenging the disciples and encouraging the woman.

(c) Jesus commended her. The Gentile woman was commended for her insight and faith. When she said, "Yes, Lord, but even the pet dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table", she was acknowledging that Jesus was her master. A household, pet dog was very different from the feral curs that roamed the streets. The crumbs were probably hunks of bread well-to-do people at a meal cleaned their hands on.

The Canaanite woman showed great confidence in Jesus by throwing herself upon his mercy and trusting to his provision. Many desperate men and women are doing precisely the same thing this instant the world over.

(d) Jesus rewarded her. How sweet the words of Jesus must have sounded, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

          Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
          Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
          Jesus ready stands to save you,
          Full of pity, love and power.
          He is able;
          He is willing: doubt no more.

AND the disciples.

Jesus used the encounter with the Canaanite woman to:

(a) Challenge his disciples. Were they going to show compassion to the Gentile woman? There is no lack of challenge today. Many people all over the world are in distress and modern methods of communication make us aware of their plight. Do the images of suffering find us sharing the hard heartedness of the disciples.

(b) Shame his disciples. Jesus provided his disciples an opportunity to renounce their shameful prejudice against Gentiles. Sadly they didn't take it. Years later, anti-Gentile sentiment was still evident in Peter and Barnabas when they refused to observe the Lord's Supper with Gentile Christians. The great apostle Paul needed to speak sharply to Peter for him to abandon a divisive and sinful practice.

However, there are parts of the world where racial tension spills over into the church. It happens in some Baptist churches in the Philippines where Chinese Filipino and Ethnic Filipino do not get on well together. In Southern U.S.A. there are black Baptist Churches and white Baptist Churches.

(c) Teach his disciples the overwhelming importance of having faith in him. That is what the Canaanite woman had. Indeed she had more faith in Jesus than did the disciples. The mother believed in Jesus on the basis of relatively little evidence and so her daughter, doubtless to the surprise of the disciples, was healed.

This should encourage us to persist in prayer for those we love but who are not yet Christians. I know of three sisters for whom a devout Christian mother prayed for years. It was only after their mother's death that they began to attend our church. I have been able to observe how these ladies have developed spiritually and are now committed Christians.

Recently my friend Marion told me that her brother Keith had become a Christian. His mother's funeral played a part in his conversion. I expect his mother and sister had prayed for him for over 50 years.

We must never give up praying to Jesus for the salvation of those we love.