What Jesus’ Encounter with a Canaanite Woman Teaches Us about Outreach

What Jesus’ Encounter with a Canaanite Woman Teaches Us about Outreach

What Jesus’ Encounter with a Canaanite Woman Teaches Us about Outreach

Who are those people that make you cringe? What environments or areas do you steer clear of for fear of who you might encounter? How might you respond if you showed up for Bible study and your teacher said everyone would be spending the next few days in a Las Vegas crack house? Would you go?

If the thought makes your stomach knot, then you have a sense of how Jesus’ disciples probably felt the day Jesus led them out of Israel and into Tyre and Sidon, a region known for widespread corruption and sexual immorality. The ancient Jew believed the very dust from a Gentile city was defiling. Understanding this adds depth to Christ’s interaction with the Canaanite woman from Mark chapter 7.

This biblical account reveals God’s heart for everyone who’s ever felt insufficient, sullied, discarded, marginalized, or rejected. A heart reflected in the actions of all those who are led and empowered by Him. Those who are called and commissioned to share His life-saving truth with our broken and hurting world.

The Backstory

One day, some religious leaders confronted Jesus regarding His disciples’ failure to wash their hands before eating. They weren’t referring to basic hygiene. At that time, Jews underwent an elaborate process of “cleansing” their hands and dishes for fear they or the dish might have in some way touched a Gentile.

Jesus called them and their elaborate rituals hypocritical, stating, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (Matthew 15:11). In other words, our sin, and therefore, defilement, comes from within.

Then, as if to accentuate His point, He left Galilee and traveled 30-40 miles directly into the Gentile city of Tyre.

Through His interactions with a Phoenician woman, we learn five vital elements of effective outreach.

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<strong>1. Be alert to cultural blind spots.</strong>

1. Be alert to cultural blind spots.

Mark 7 tells us that Jesus left “that place,” most likely Capernaum, traveled to Tyre, and then entered a Phoenician home, where, presumably, they stayed as guests. In other words, they sat on Gentile furniture, used their dishes, and most likely, ate their food. This was something a “respectable,” well-trained Jew would never consider. I wonder how the disciples might’ve responded had anyone but Jesus led them into “forbidden” territory. Yet here they were, not just using unwashed dishes that might have accidentally brushed up against a Gentile; they were hanging out in a “heathen’s” home, perhaps even sharing a meal or at the least, enjoying a cup of water.

And I wonder if, as they gathered around that Gentile table, the disciples repeated Jesus’ words regarding inner purity, almost like a self-soothing mantra. “These dishes won’t defile me. This food won’t defile me. This house won’t defile me.” They certainly had to be on edge, and maybe even a bit confused.

I imagine we’ve all been there. So stuck in the rules and all those biases handed down to us, or maybe even trained within us, that we couldn’t fathom going to that part of town or initiating conversation with that type of person. When all we see is someone so obviously far from God, we risk missing the point. Jesus sought out the diseased, the sinful, the broken. He crossed boundaries, broke through barriers, and bridged the cavern that existed between them and God—those who, in recognizing their need for God, proved to be much closer to salvation than all those religious leaders who were so convinced of their righteousness.

May we never forget how we once were also enslaved to sin and in need of a Savior. 

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<strong>2. Embrace discomfort.</strong>

2. Embrace discomfort.

We can’t live for God in our comfort zones. We can’t courageously yield to the Holy Spirit within, fulfilling His purposes for us, while controlled by selfishness and insecurity. At each moment, one voice will dominate our thoughts and our actions.

The disciples could have stayed in Israel. They could have refused to enter that Phoenician home. They could have remained with the Pharisees, endlessly washing dishes and following rules. Imagine all they would’ve missed out on. When we’re fear and comfort-led, we forfeit a lot as well:

– Seeing God work miracles in other people’s lives.

– Participating in those miracles and catching a glimpse of His heart through them.

– Experiencing the love of Christ expressed through us.

– Knowing we’ve been a part something so much bigger than Netflix-watching and social media-surfing.

3. See the humanity beneath the sin.

Years ago, my family and I served at a local soup kitchen that routinely fed alcoholics and drug addicts. Most of them smelled and many were foul-mouthed and angry. Only a handful showed any interest in hearing about God. Standing on the other side of the food line, it was easy to focus on their behavior. But as we began to connect, I came to know them on a deeper level. I learned of their hurts, of past abuse, of being ripped from their homes as children and shuffled through the system. Of loss and mental illness and pain.

While those stories didn’t excuse their sinful tendencies, they reminded me of our shared humanity. This drove me to compassion and increased my desire to respond with love and grace. In short, to more accurately reflect Christ.

When I read the disciples’ reactions to the Canaanite woman in Mark 7, I get the sense that they couldn’t see past her depravity. They appeared to think that they were better than her and that she had no right to ask anything from Jesus. But Jesus saw and met her need, reminding us all of our greatest call, which is to love.

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4. Rely on Jesus.

How often, when serving Christ, do we recite a quick prayer then rush off in our strength? Are we really surrendered to and dependent on Him? Are we desperate for Him, knowing apart from His power and provision, His intervention, we’ll fail?

This was the situation the Canaanite woman found herself in. Jesus was the only One able to save her daughter, and she refused to let anyone or anything, including the rebuke from a group of Jewish men, dissuade her. Kneeling before Jesus, she cried, “Lord, help me!” (Matt. 15:25, NIV). But notice, she wasn’t asking Him to help her. She wanted Jesus to help her daughter.

She was interceding for another, someone she loved deeply who was living in spiritual and emotional slavery. While we might not encounter the demon possessed, all who are far from God are enslaved and in need of rescue. May Christ’s love for them expel any trace of apathy we might feel. May it drive us to our knees before Him, crying out, “Oh, Lord, have mercy!” And may we remember that it is only by His mercy, not our eloquent presentations or persuasive arguments, that our friends, loved ones, coworkers, and neighbors will be saved.

5. Reflect on God’s power.

Do some people in your circle appear too hard-hearted, too stubborn and deceived, to ever trust in Christ? Maybe you’ve prayed for them, shared truth with them, and reached out to them for years, with no signs of progress. In fact, they seem to be slipping further from God’s grace.

If so, note this: the woman’s child couldn’t have been further from God. She certainly wasn’t seeking Him out, nor would she. In fact, had she been the one to encounter Christ that day, she might have yelled at Him, cursed, or even blasphemed Him. Perhaps that’s why the mother sought Jesus out alone. But that didn’t matter. She knew, whether from near or far, from personal touch or by command, He had full power to save.

“Woman,” Jesus said, “you have great faith! Your request is granted.” (Matthew 15:28a, NIV)

“And her daughter was healed at that moment.” (Matthew 15:28b, NIV)

With a word, Jesus revealed His power over the forces of darkness and brought life where spiritual death once reigned. The same God who healed the Canaanite girl has the power to save our friends, coworkers, and loved ones as well, for nothing is impossible with Him (Luke 1:37).

Jesus encourages us to lose our life for the sake of His mission. While, thankfully, most of us won’t live out that command literally, we’re all called to relinquish our agenda, plans, and our comfort zones for the sake of the gospel. We’re not to shy away from the darkness. Jesus said we’re the light of the world, and He wants us to use our light well to courageously seek out the most hopeless, hostile, and despondent hearts. As we do, God’s power fills us, then flows from us, igniting us with a passion and fulfillment we’ll never experience apart from Him.

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Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.