READ : Matthew 15:21-31
What would you think if Jesus refused to help someone who came to him in need. “Impossible!” you say? Well, there was at least one encounter where he seemed to do just that.
“Beautiful Savior,” Christians sing,
Lord of the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, Praise, adoration,
Now and forever more be Thine!
In singing that hymn of praise we are referring, of course, not to Jesus’ physical appearance but to the beauty of his character, especially to his goodness and his mercy, his compassion and grace.
Of all the many virtues displayed by Jesus, none is more attractive than his compassion. This word is used over and over by the gospel writers to describe Jesus’ attitude and actions toward the sufferers whom he met during the course of his life. “Moved with pity,” Mark writes, “[Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him,” speaking of a leper whom Jesus met at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:41). Matthew reports that three years later, just before the end of that ministry, Jesus was still doing exactly the same sort of thing for exactly the same reason. When he was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time and met two blind men outside the city of Jericho, “Jesus in pity touched their eyes” and healed them (Matthew 20:34). Jesus spent so much of his time and energy reaching out to poor, needy sufferers – literally reaching out. He readily communicated his compassionate healing with a touch, even to those who by reason of their illness or disability were considered “untouchable.” Jesus was indeed a beautiful Savior.
A DISTURBING ENCOUNTER
But listen to this story of another encounter Jesus had with a sufferer, one that seems to undermine his reputation for boundless compassion.
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
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 their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Matthew 15:21-28, NIV
The Jesus whom we know so well from the Gospels appears almost as a stranger here in this story. The Lord whose compassion is so wonderful, whose mercy is offered so freely to all who seek it, appears strangely cold and uncharacteristically hard-hearted in this encounter. What’s going on here?
The encounter between Jesus and this desperate mother took place in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus and his disciples had left Galilee and headed northwest into Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon). Why did Jesus choose to leave his home country and travel to foreign territory? Perhaps he felt the need to get away for a short time, to escape the constant demands of the crowds and to relieve the increasing pressure brought to bear upon him by the hostility of his enemies. Or maybe Jesus wanted some private time to spend with his disciples, a period of peace and quiet that he could devote to teaching.
If so, it was not to be. Even in a foreign country Jesus’ fame had spread, and he was soon approached by yet another sufferer seeking help – in this instance a desperate Canaanite mother who came to plead with Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter.
The mother appeals to Jesus directly and powerfully: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly.” Moreover, the woman’s cry for help shows a great deal of understanding, even faith. “Son of David” was a Messianic title. Somehow this gentile woman had come to understand and believe in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the Savior. So she calls upon him for help. “Don’t worry,” we might have said to her, “you’ve come to the right place. No one has ever sought help from the Lord in vain; no one has ever come to Jesus with such a plea and been denied.”
Wrong! Or so it seems. Look at how Jesus responds. At first he just ignores her, as if hoping she’ll simply get tired and leave. Finally his disciples come and urge Jesus to send the woman away because she’s become a nuisance with her pitiful pleading. At this point Jesus makes a comment that appears to justify his refusal to help her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” And as if all this weren’t enough, when the woman still comes up and kneels at his feet begging, “Lord, help me,” Jesus seems to insult her. “It isn’t right to take the children’s food,” he says, “and give it to the dogs.” “Dog” was the epithet that Jews commonly used in referring to gentiles. So Jesus’ figure of speech almost looks as if he’s endorsing this view of people. Not to put too fine a point on it, this sounds to modern ears like a racist remark. The merciful and compassionate Jesus, the “beautiful Savior,” not only appears to reject this desperate mother’s plea for help, but he does so in what seems to be a harsh and offensive style. How could the “Lord of the nations” speak this way?
CRUMBS FOR DOGS
The first thing we can say about this whole disturbing encounter is that it was intended to be exactly that – that is, an encounter that disturbs us. The reason the incident happened as it did is to startle us, to make us stop and think. Actually, Jesus’ original purpose was to make his disciples think. It seems to me one key to understanding this encounter is to note both where it happened and whom it involved. It happened to a Canaanite woman, a member of the race of Israel’s ancient deadly enemies. And it took place on foreign, that is, gentile soil. It’s true that Jesus’ primary ministry during his time on earth was to “the lost sheep of Israel,” as he says. But he also knew both from the prophecies of the Old Testament and his own sense of purpose that he would ultimately offer salvation to all of the world’s peoples and races (see Isaiah 49:6, John 10:16). But this would be the task for his disciples to carry out after Jesus had died and risen again for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus’ encounter here with this Canaanite mother is a glimpse in preview form of the greater healing which will soon be offered to lost, suffering people of every nation. But the question is: Will Jesus’ disciples follow through? Will they be able to overcome their natural prejudices against “dogs” like the Canaanites in order to reach out to them with the love of Christ and accept them as sisters and brothers in the fellowship of the body of Christ? So it seems to me that one of Jesus’ reasons for this unusual encounter is to get the attention of his disciples, to plant a seed in their minds and hearts for what will eventually become their own mission.
A TEST OF FAITH
A second thing to note, of course, is that Jesus did not deny this mother’s request for healing for her disturbed child. He helped her eventually, and in a most wonderful way. But before he did, Jesus spoke to the woman in a rather forbidding fashion. (Although we should note that we don’t know what tone of voice Jesus used with her; it’s possible that he spoke in an ironic or even a playful tone which could have suggested he didn’t really mean to put her off). The key point, though, is to observe that Jesus had a further purpose in how he dealt with the Canaanite woman, one that involved her own benefit. He wasn’t being a racist. He didn’t harbor prejudice against her. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. No, rather, Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. So he appears to be off-putting, and the woman persists in pursuing him. Answering Jesus in the same spirit in which he spoke, she picks up on his image and puts herself into it, throwing herself on his mercy. “Even the dogs get some of the children’s crumbs,” she said to him. It almost sounds as if they are joking together, as if they’re speaking playfully, doesn’t it: “So how about it, Jesus? Why not offer me a little help too?” Somehow this woman seems to have understood that Jesus, however harsh or forbidding the sound of his words, actually wants her to come to him for help and is ready to give it to her. “For that answer,” he said, “for that kind of faith, I’ll give you what you ask.” And her daughter was healed in that very instant.
I found a very helpful comment on this encounter in the writings of the great Reformer and theologian John Calvin:
Though [Jesus] appears to give a harsh refusal to her prayers, yet, convinced that God would grant the salvation which he had promised through the Messiah, she ceases not to entertain favorable hopes; and therefore she concludes that the door is shut against her, not for the purpose of excluding her, but that, by a more strenuous effort of faith, she may force her way, as it were, through the chinks.
Isn’t that a wonderful image? When God seems to close the door in our face, he doesn’t do so to exclude or shut us out. He only wants us to come after him harder, to pray with all the more intensity, to force our way into his presence, to seize his blessing, to come to him “through the chinks,” so to speak.
What this encounter with Jesus teaches us is the importance of faith – bold, persistent faith. On one side we have God’s word, God’s promises. We have heard him described as a beautiful Savior. We have read about his love and mercy in his Book. Attracted to him, drawn by the hope of grace, we have entrusted ourselves to this compassionate Lord. We believe his promises; they are all we have to depend on. But then over against all that comes painful experience, dealing us a hard blow that seems to negate all our hopes and cancel all those good promises. We face trouble, suffering. Perhaps it’s the sickness of a child or the death of someone close to us, maybe even some mistake of our own that ruins our life and happiness. Life loses its joy. Suddenly it looks as if God is frowning upon us, like he has closed the door in our face, as if he’s shut us out from all that we’d hoped for.
Now comes the critical moment. We have to choose what we’re going to believe: either God’s good promises or the evil appearance of our circumstances. We must decide what we’ll do, whether we will turn away from the Lord and sink into despair, or pursue him all the harder for his blessing. More than two hundred years ago a Christian poet in England named William Cowper struggled with these very questions. He suffered for all his adult life from severe mental illness, what today I suppose we would call clinical depression. But he summarized his determination to trust in the goodness and grace and promises of God even when he could not see or feel those things in his own experience, by writing a poem which has become one of the great hymns of faith.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Remember this above all else. When God seems to be frowning, when he has shut you off from his blessing, don’t lose faith. Don’t turn away. Keep pressing towards him. Push your way to him through the chinks.