What can we learn about prayer and faith from a Canaanite woman?

The Canaanite woman lived in the “region of Tyre and Sidon” during Jesus’ time. She, together with the other Gentiles, was viewed and treated as “unclean and defiled”—the kind Pharisees and Jews (then) would have nothing to do with. But Jesus went to this Gentile territory, ostensibly to seek rest and retreat: He “did not want anyone to know” He was there. Both Mark and Matthew give accounts of this story.

There Jesus was accosted by this woman with a simple—but persistent—request: “Have mercy on me” she cried out to Jesus and “begged him” to rid her daughter of an evil spirit that was troubling her.

The Jews and Pharisees were resistant to, in fact downright suspicious of Jesus, but not this Canaanite woman. She approached Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David”—purely Jewish terms. Her use of them revealed a remarkable understanding on her part of who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing for her. She knew the Saviour. She believed in Him. She trusted Him and knew that she can rely on Him to meet her prayer request.

Jesus’ initial response to her request appears cold and uncaring. He at first remains silent—didn’t utter a word. But she persevered. He then apparently seemed to tell her that she is no concern of his. He said his mission was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel’, which of course, by definition, did not include her. He even referred to her as “dog” (a little dog, a puppy, the kind you would keep as a pet).

Her response to this apparent rebuff is amazing: “Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She states that she understands, she accepts that she is not of the house of Israel. She, in humility, agrees with the right of the “children” to be fed first. She would be contented and satisfied with the grace of the “crumbs” that “fall from their masters' table.”

Because of her humility and perseverance she was rewarded by Jesus: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

This Canaanite woman showed great faith, humility, persistence, reverence (she approached Jesus on her knees), and with confidence (although a Gentile, she had a firm hope that she would be heard by Jesus). All characteristics of the kind of prayers and faith that will prove Jesus’ words: “Ask and it will be given.”

Pastor Robert Chew