OUTSIDER TRUST – LEGAL TENDER IN THE KINGDOM
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28)
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- Jesus left Gennesaret, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
- He took his disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon (approximately three days’ journey and Gentile territory).
- He did so to have a break from the pressures they had been under since hearing about the death of John the Baptist (cp. Matthew 14:13).
- A local Canaanite woman came up to him.
- She cried out to Jesus using an honorific Messianic title: “Lord, son of David…..”
- She kept on asking Jesus to show mercy because her daughter was suffering from demon possession.
- Jesus did not respond to her repeated cries.
- The disciples came to Jesus and encouraged him to send her away, since she showed no sign of letting up.
- Then Jesus answered. He told her that he was commissioned specifically to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
- The woman came up and knelt before Jesus.
- She asked him once again to help her.
- Jesus told her that it was not the right thing to take food from the children in a household and give it to the dogs to eat.
- She replied that it was possible for the dogs to eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.
- Jesus honoured her by telling her openly that she had exercised great faith.
- Because of her great faith her request for healing was granted.
- At that very moment, the daughter was healed, freed from demonic presence.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
It seems clear that Jesus implemented ‘Rest Period Plan B’ for himself and his disciples. The first plan was the one that saw him getting into a boat at Capernaum and setting off for a remote place – only to be followed by a crowd of five thousand plus. After a rough trip back overnight, interrupted by a walk on the water they were confronted with a different crowd at Gennesaret. Jesus and the disciples went to the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon to get some peace and quiet, and maybe grieve a little for John the Baptist. The four-day journey is not as significant as the fact that it was a Gentile region. If I break my rule and borrow from the account of this journey in the Gospel of Mark, the text specifically says that they went there secretly so that no one would know about it.
Bingo! They have just settled into a quiet beach house when they heard the voice of a local Canaanite woman calling to Jesus using a Messianic title. Their first retreat space was invaded by five thousand plus gate-crashers. Now it was just one local woman. This story has some unexpected twists and turns, so we need to pay attention to what is said and how it unfolds as a sample of kingdom ministry.
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
We have no idea how this woman knew that Jesus had quietly come to town. It didn’t make the social pages of the local paper, nor did it go viral on Facebook. Just think for a moment about the things that needed to happen for her to be aware that Jesus had entered her world. She had to know about Jesus. She knew the Messianic language that was used about him. She must have known what he looked like. She must have had some interest or have received some information about him to be the only one in town (we know of) who knew he was there. I say this because it was part of the process that had happened prior to this incident. She not only knew about the things he had been doing but she knew about HIM. Her daughter was in trouble and it was due to the interference of a demon. We know from references like Mark 3:8 that people were coming to Jesus from many places, including the region of Tyre and Sidon, so it is probable that this wonderful mother probed some of those who had seen and heard him. The point is that “great faith” doesn’t just show up on a certain day out of nowhere. It builds on the basis of deliberate and intentional activity. This woman knew enough about Jesus to take the very bold steps recorded in this passage. She knew enough about his mission to know what was in his heart, even when it seemed that he was ignoring her requests. She knew what to call him.
Some might think I am stretching the exegetical friendship to suggest that she had already “believed” but there is evidence to support the idea. Consider, for a moment, the social, ethnic and religious boundary lines she needed to cross to get to Jesus let alone the confidence she had when she got there. She was a Gentile in a world where the idea of covenant promise was considered to extend only to Jews. She was a woman in a world where women were commonly treated as if they had the same status as one’s material possessions. There was no reason by way of social status that Jesus would be expected to notice her let alone pay attention to her. If you add to these the fact that Jesus was wanting a break from ministering to people, this was the occasion when natural human motivation would have been at its lowest ebb. She didn’t have the right ethnic background. She had the wrong gender and it was the worst moment. In normal reasoning, none of those things add up to much that would produce assurance that Jesus would respond to her request – but it wasn’t reason that caused her to seek Jesus in the first place, it was faith. I think this story gives us a sharp view of the difference between faith (i.e. loyalty born of confidence) in Jesus and human reasoning. If this woman had relied for a moment on human reasoning, human speculation or past human experience her daughter would never have been freed from demonic oppression. We should follow the story here and see what a picture is painted of a measure of faith that was seen by Jesus but totally missed by his disciples – and many of us on too many occasions.
Jesus did not answer a word.
This little number has shaken a saint or two over the centuries. It seems totally inconsistent for what we have presumed about Jesus. If this was the only thing we knew about Jesus we probably wouldn’t say so many wonderful things about him when we worship on Sunday morning. I have had more than one person arm themselves with this story to show that Jesus was not the loving Saviour that Christians talk so much about. I have also fielded the accusation that Jesus was unloving to women because of the way he treated this woman. Once again I say, let us remind one another that this is one story alongside a few hundred that paint a picture of Jesus. The story of the cross is among them and that doesn’t fit the presumption that some may make because of what happened here.
If Jesus was loving (indiscriminately, including women), what in the world could be loving about a person hearing a woman crying out to him out of deep concern for the well being of her daughter and that person saying nothing. A loving person must have an alternative reason to emotional weariness or sheer indifference. There must be a bigger issue at stake. If so, what might it be? The context needs to be the first place we look for an answer. At the end of this story Jesus commends the woman for her faith in front of his disciples and heals her daughter. On this occasion the “end” will give a better understanding of the “means.”
So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.
The pressure of the situation worsens when the disciples, noticing that Jesus is not responding come up with their own conclusion. Most likely they are aware of the three strikes mentioned earlier: She is not a Jew and therefore has no claim on covenant love. She is a woman and therefore should not have the gall to expect Jesus to pay attention to her. They are all tired and looking for a break and she should come back during office hours. In my way of looking at it, they jump right into the trap Jesus set by remaining silent. Remember that this is a discipleship training school as well as a kingdom ministry program. Two of the recent experiences were ones where Jesus laid the foundation for a profound teaching moment. One was the feeding of the five thousand where he said “They don’t need to go away, you give them something to eat.” And then there was the hours Jesus remained up the hill praying waiting for his disciples to understand that the same power that multiplied food could deal with storms. They were once again in the school of hard knocks and I am convinced Jesus was wanting to deal with another sphere where the rule of the kingdom of God was very different from the attitudes and values of humanly derived kingdoms, namely that of racial, religious and social arrogance. If the context proves that Jesus was willing to heal her daughter from the beginning, then this exercise was one where Jesus allowed her to demonstrate her great faith to a very prejudiced classroom full of disciples. It was the very act of saying nothing that exposed their prejudice and lack of love. They were about to see, once again, the unlimited scope of God’s covenant promise.
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
It gets even worse – if you want to see if from a human point of view. Notice the play-off between the normal set of attitudes and social customs of the day and the deep and wonderful faith exercised by the woman. It must have taken a huge portion of courage for her to (a) find out enough about Jesus to know who and what he was, (b) notice he was there when apparently, no one else was aware of it, (c) keep on asking even though he was not saying a word, (d) hear the customary insult from the disciples. And now even more. I don’t see the silence of Jesus as an abrupt indifference. I think there might have been a twinkle in his eye. I am speculating, I realise. And when he talked about giving children’s bread to the dogs, I think I would imagine a wink or two. I don’t care if this is unjustified. I am trying to make the point that the loving purpose of Jesus here was to allow the faith of the woman to play out to its full strength in the presence of the unwitting disciples. They were men of their generation. I don’t blame them so much and I am grateful for the candour with which this story unfolds. If I were running the Public Relations Unit for the ministry of Jesus I would have left this story out just because of the potential misunderstanding it created. But that’s a human centred issue. It is different in heaven. I wonder when you read this story who you tend to identify with. I would suggest you might see yourself represented by the woman – exercising commendable faith. Most of us would qualify to number amongst the disciples. We find ourselves discriminating between those who are worthy of our attention and those who are not. When we are faced with people from the wrong background, the wrong religious affiliation, the wrong social status and the most inconvenient moment we commonly allow those things to rule rather than the compassion that drives indiscriminate redemptive love.
I think Jesus has measured this woman and is confident that no matter how much apparent discouragement might be put in her way, she is not going to change. This is what faith is all about. There is no way circumstances or adversity will dislodge genuine faith. Test it? Of course. Kill it? Not on any day of the week. Not faith that is directed toward the nature and revealed purpose of the living God, and therefore of his Son, Jesus. That’s why I love the transaction that has already been made in this woman’s heart long before Jesus arrived in town. When she knew he was there, she knew what to do because she knew what was in his heart. So, no silence and no apparent obstacle would resist her trust in Him. If he had thought up another ten objections, she would have come up with another ten reasons why he would be willing to bring the healing her daughter needed. And this is so profoundly true of many experiences in which we find ourselves. There will always be adversaries, hindrances and surprises. We must not allow ourselves the luxury of being intimidated by them. We must make our approach to God based on who he IS. Nothing less will qualify as great faith. As Paul said on one occasion: “Let God be true and all men be liars.” (Romans 3:4) This woman knew for certain what was in the heart of the Son of God. Nothing else could sway or influence her actions.
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
What a moment. What a shock to the disciples who had given their verdict in the negative. Not only was Jesus paying attention to her and fulfilling their normal social expectations, but he was commending her for showing great faith. There is a lively debate that goes on among Christian teachers as to the nature of genuine faith, as well as great faith. Jesus defines some situations as demonstrating “little faith” and others as “great faith.” Some people presume faith to be a state of psychological certainty; that is, “I feel certain.” It is a kind of feeling. As a result, there are streams of teachers who see any expression of doubt as a toxicity that must be jettisoned if a person is going to attract the favour of God in a given situation. It would presume that God considers that person’s emotions and notices how people really feel. I tend to be among those who see faith as the actions and attitudes that display loyalty and trust toward the covenant agreement God has made. God has made a commitment to make everything new (cp. Rev. 21). Jesus came to proclaim good news to poor people, liberty to captives, freedom to oppressed and favour from God. In doing so he was loyal to that task every day of his life, through his death and following his resurrection. This was what the woman had become convinced about. Her actions, in the face of all the circumstances to the contrary were loyal to what Jesus was and what he promised. At every stage of this story she was faithful to that reality. That’s exactly why Jesus could do what he did and say what he said. As she crossed cultural/religious border after border, the disciples got to see what she already believed. They saw the covenant promise of God being offered to someone who was otherwise an outsider. Her faith was great because it never once entertained the idea of giving up, going home or backing off. May we also see what she represented and cry out to God for the same commitment.
The result here is the proof of the pudding. Jesus wasn’t playing “hard to get.” He was always going to heal her daughter. He just used the situation to help his disciples to get yet another dose of kingdom expansiveness. This new era of power and love reached out across the borders created by religious pride and social degradation and enveloped a woman who ticked none of the boxes. As a result, a Canaanite household was invaded with the presence of the Great King. This King’s kingdom was first proclaimed by the woman’s intentions and was exposed by Jesus’ response. And the minds and hearts of the men from Galilee were once again blown apart with a demonstration of covenant love.
IF THIS WERE HAPPENING IN MY LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
I realise that this woman’s faith started forming long before Jesus came to her region. Even though we are not told where she got her understanding and information from, that process gave her the revelation into Jesus’ heart and purpose. In other words, it was the fact that she KNEW JESUS that enabled her to step across social boundary after social boundary. Her bold actions were made possible because she knew what Jesus was really like.
What is challenging about it is that the disciples didn’t know Jesus as well as this woman did. Think of how much exposure they had to Jesus since the day they left everything to follow him. But they didn’t know what the woman knew. I think this so deeply exposes the fact that they had retained the “nationalistic military ruler” notions about the Messiah. They were blinded from seeing the new day of the kingdom of God by assumptions of traditional Jewish prejudice.
We do the same thing. We domesticate Jesus to suit our own preferences. We presume that he would vote for our political party, favour our pet doctrines and like us more than he likes them. There are a thousand variations, but they all blind us to the heart of God and the unlimited expanse of his rescuing love.
SO, I want to know Jesus like the woman knew him. When I do, I will have the same courage to step across all the borders I draw around myself and the borders that my culture and background want to draw for me. Only if I know him will I have the courage to cross those lines like she did. And I want that courage more than anything – well I hope, anything.
If I know there is no limit to his compassion and no boundaries to his promise I will not be intimidated by my lack of ethnic or human status. If someone I care about is in need, I will make Jesus the first option not the last. If he says something I don’t understand, I will take strength from what I know more than what I think I heard. If he seems to say nothing I will depend on what I know about his nature and purpose rather than getting offended that he has not fulfilled my personal expectations. If I know him I will only be satisfied with when what I know is realised by what happens. In this case, it was the well-being of a daughter. I want to tell the same story a hundred times before I die. The woman’s actions and persistence were honoured, first by Jesus statement and then by the fact that her daughter was freed from the influence of demons. I need to have the same stubborn resolve to trust the God who Jesus came to reveal for the same reason.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?
In the first instance, the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed to this woman through what she had previously heard and come to know. She heard that Jesus was the Lord – and believed that he was. She heard that he was the Son of David (the promised Messiah) and she believed that. She heard that he had power to heal and free people from demons and she believed that. Even though she was a Canaanite woman and would have been shouted down by anyone who knew traditional Jewish teaching on these matters, she paid no heed to what they might have said. She could believe that each of those covenant promises were accessible to her. On the strength of this faith she came to Jesus at an inconvenient time, knowing that convenience didn’t mean very much when divine compassion was present.
In the second instance, the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed to the disciples. They started out with the idea that she was not entitled to a response. Like the crowd who needed food and the stormy sea that needed to be calmed, it became apparent that their belief had some serious flaws. Now, when Jesus declared that the woman had great faith, they must have been gob-smacked. When they found out that the daughter was set free they had a choice to make. What they had witnessed was the favour of God being available to Gentiles on the same basis it was available to Jews. This was a hard gospel for them to accept – and we know from things that happened later that it took a few more revelatory experiences for them to be fully convinced that God was not drawing lines of special favour around Israelites. When Peter saw the same vision three times, found that some Gentiles from Caesarea had come to take him to the home of a Roman centurion – and then to preach to them and see the Holy Spirit fall on them, he concluded that God didn’t care about ethnicity or background. He just wanted his kids to come home. The woman could have taught that to Peter. In fact, she did. He was a slow learner, just like many of us.
 Mark 3:8 When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.