A story about amazing love…
Jesus withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
A story about love? Really? At first blush, I’m not getting that. When I first read this story, I felt like Jesus was fairly rude to ignore her and then deny her request the way He did. At first reading, He could come across harsh, or worse, bigoted. What’s the deal? Was He having a bad day? Maybe you have to be called names and be a little extra persistent to get a miracles on Tuesdays? Does this serve as a counter-example to Jesus’ teaching about loving your neighbor? Let’s unpack it and discuss…
Biased Against Bias
I think we have to start here…
One of the most offensive things you can possibly do in modern American culture today is to be perceived as prejudiced in our decisions or our speech — especially if that prejudice is racially motivated. Borne out of serious injustices that have existed, and to some extent still exist, in our culture / history / world, our culture is hyper sensitive to racial or gender or other forms of bias. But in my opinion, the conversation on these topics today isn’t very healthy. There are too many people out there making their living baiting racial or gender or sexual orientation issues — fanning flames to keep conflict alive and gain fame and fortune from it. And there are WAY too many people hanging on their every word. Some make it their whole lives — everything that happens to them is seen through the lens of oppression or inequality. Some ignore these issues all together. Some lump all these issues together to be one big pot of tolerance stew that everyone has to gobble down unquestioningly, or you’re evil. And some are extremely valuable in their ongoing efforts to ensure equality for all. But I fear that this last group is too-often drowned in a sea of all the others. No way I can tackle all that in a single blog post, but at the very least least my question drives within a few miles of it on the map…
Does this passage demonstrating that Jesus is in fact a bit of a racist? Chauvinist? Unkind? Unjustifiably grumpy? Why would Jesus call this woman a “dog”? Why would He withhold something from her that she desperately wants? What does this passage say about who God really is?
God’s Chosen People
Another aspect of this story that offends our cultural sensibilities is Jesus’ implication that one person would be chosen (for anything, really) and another not (chosen). The implication is that one person is special, but the other isn’t. One person is maybe even better than another. To our American ears that’s pretty offensive too. And the reason is that we have developed a sense of entitlement in our worldview that says it’s not fair for one person to have something while another doesn’t. That’s pretty crazy when you really think about it, but it’s what many think. “I deserve to be chosen too!” “No matter what you have, if I want it too, then it’s unfair that you have it and I don’t!”
It’s important in the context of this discussion to understand that the nation of Israel was and is very special to God. Special… as in “different”, “set apart”, “unique” among other nations. Um… correct… more important to God than other nations. Yes, including the US.
The woman in the story was a Canaanite, a Syrophoenician. A gentile. She wasn’t a part of Israel. Not in God’s family. Wasn’t chosen, like the Israelites were.
God has the Right
And that leads us to a really important question… God, where do you get off calling one person “special” and not someone else? What gives you the right to choose someone for something for no apparent reason, while not choosing someone else (who looks identical to us) for it? That’s totally unfair!
So here’s the third thing our me-soakedAmerican culture isn’t going to like… God absolutely has the right … to everything. We think we have rights. We demand them. They are to us what the One ring was to Gollum. We walk around wild-eyed stroking our independence mumbling, “My precious!” Can you imagine how thatsounds to the God who in majestic holiness dwells in unapproachable light and masterfully directs the entire universe such that two hydrogen atoms in a distant galaxy cannot dance with one another without His express permission. God is the one who literally holds the very molecules of your body together in His hand (Colossians 1:17). Everything is from God and to God and for God. He is the one with the rights, not us.
Whatever God does is good and just by the very virtue of the fact that He did it. So, I would submit that if we don’t like the way God does things, the problem doesn’t lie with Him, as if He were to be judged by our sense of what should and shouldn’t be. The problem lies in our understanding or our expectations. But we’ll come back to that
About Faith, not Rejection
So, we’ve established that in this story Jesus, as God, is making a distinction He has the right to make between His people and the rest of the world — specifically this particular woman asking for a miracle. Now, to me what’s left is understanding why Jesus didn’t heal her at first request anyway. So she’s not descended from Israel and God treats the Israelites differently. So what? Jesus has healed all kinds of people; why not just heal this woman? Why make an issue out of it?
When I first read this story… Actually the first dozen times I read this story… This question really bothered me. And for a bunch of times in a row, after pondering it for a few moments, I just let it go, trusting that God is good and that I was just failing to understand something. But the last time I read it — in fact, a couple of months ago — I decided I couldn’t let it go anymore. So, for weeks I’ve been pondering why Jesus behaves in this story the way He does. Why is He hesitant, or even what I would call “off-putting”, toward the woman?
And in my study of Mark this morning for the New Testament class I’m taking, God finally gave me the answer… It’s about faith.
Contrary to my original thoughts on it, this story is in fact not unique. Jesus demonstrates this pattern repeatedly when He interacts with people in the Scriptures. Not just gentiles either. Let’s see if we can identify a pattern out of a few select miracle stories…
(the particular story that unjammed the logs for me this morning)… Blind Bartimaeus is laying on the side of the road as Jesus and the disciples walk by. He yells, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”. But Jesus appears to keep walking!!! So, Bartimaeus yells again. Then, Jesus turns to him, asks him what he wants, and then heals him, saying, “Your faith has made you well.” (Mark 10:52)
John 4:46-50… A man travels far to find Jesus and ask Him to come home with him to heal his sick son. He finally locates Jesus and asks for His help. But Jesus seems to rebuke the crowd for a lack of faith. He ultimately agrees to heal the boy, but only after the man has to ask multiple times. “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him [first] and went on his way” (John 4:50) only to find that Jesus had healed the boy at that very time.
There are others, but I think that makes the point. Do you see it? I think Jesus is testing their faith. He has made it clear that God moves toward us in our faith. God moves mountains (Matthew 17:20), and generally does the impossible (Mark 9:23) … if we believe. Faith in the Lord is the beginning of a relationship of great power.
So Jesus is waiting so that they will be persistent … press … even demand a result. God is inviting them into bold request. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)
That’s the “power” I’m talking about. God has literally offered to act on my behalf. What I ask, He will do. But there are conditions… In the stories we looked at, Jesus isn’t healing people like a vending machine dispenses candy bars. Jesus is inviting them to walk with Him. The heart that demands for self will get nothing. The heart that submits to God for His glory, gets things we can’t even imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Back to our original story, Jesus isn’t being slow to respond (as some would understand slowness). I think He’s evoking a relationship-oriented, persistent faith from the heart of this woman, whom He loves. He’s drawing her into something that’s far better than if He’d immediately responded by handing her a Snickers bar, and then went on His way.
Sow the Field for Rain
The fact is that we have to be ready to receive miracles. God’s grace to us in Christ is first and foremost, but even in the everyday walking with God through life, being prepared is everything. If you want to reap a harvest, you have to plant the field like it’s going to rain, even if it hasn’t yet. In the spiritual world, life-giving rain comes after we sow the field. In the same way, we must be prepared to receive when we ask God. That means that we have examined our hearts, humbled ourselves, believed it will be as we asked, and acted as if God’s provision for us is a certainty. Most of us don’t do that; we either don’t ask (figuring we can take care of things ourselves) or we ask at the last second when everything else has failed or we ask not really sure what God’s going to do. I think Jesus would say, “simply believe”.
I have no idea where the woman’s heart was that asked Jesus for a miracle. I don’t know Bartimaeus either. Or any of the others in the New Testament, whom Jesus made wait for a miracle. What I do know is that God’s response to them (and to us) is a loving response. Always. If God’s not responding to you the way you think He should, check your heart. Check your expectations. Maybe He has something in mind that’s better than what you’re asking for. Or maybe He’s waiting for you to adjust your attitude in the asking of it (which is also better than what you’re asking for!), so that He can give you exactly what you want.
Either way, in each of these stories, Jesus gave a miracle to someone who didn’t deserve it. I too do not deserve God’s miraculous grace. I too am a gentile in a pagan land, who does not deserve to be seated at the Master’s table. And I too would be absolutely thrilled to eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.
Because compared to even the crumbs of God, what this world has to offer I wouldn’t feed to dogs.