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.”
-Matthew 15:21-24 (NIV)
We’ve always wanted that. As long as there’s been a church, factions within it have been trying to construct a Jesus that agrees with them. From Christological debates to social concerns to political issues, we all emphasize the words and actions of the Lord that support our positions or contradict our opponents’. But it’s really hard to get Jesus to do and say what we want him to. I mean, it’s almost like he doesn’t answer to us.
This Canaanite woman, for instance: Mark calls her “a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia,” which I guess explains well enough where she’s from. But Matthew uses the more loaded term — “Canaanite.” As in, the people that Israel were supposed to displace when they entered the Promised Land. So this passage is already full of the subtext of an ancient holy war in which Israel, believing it to be the will of their God, had killed, enslaved, or otherwise moved who knows how many people out of the land to make room for themselves. Thousands of years later, even those of us who believe that they were right, that it was the will of God, struggle a little to understand.
So there’s that. She’s a Canaanite. She’s a pagan, she’s other, she’s alien, she’s the enemy.
And yet, she comes to Jesus. She comes begging for his help. Her daughter is suffering, and like any mother with a suffering child she couldn’t care less where the help comes from. If it comes from Israel’s God, fine. She calls Jesus by the name of the royal house of Israel. She acknowledges him as the Messiah, a term that likely would have meant nothing to her before this. “Maybe if he sees I believe in him,” she reasons, “he’ll help me.”
It seems too perfect, the opportune moment for Jesus to overturn what must have been millennia of prejudice and hatred on both sides. It’s a chance for him to make some kind of statement about the universality of the gospel, or how love conquers all, or something. But, instead, Jesus does nothing. Doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even acknowledge her request. Maybe it’s a test for the disciples? I don’t know, but if it is they blow it, too: eventually, her continued requests get so awkward that they ask Jesus to send her away. And, finally, he says something.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” No, that can’t be right. I mean, he’s already healed the servant of a Roman centurion. The woman needs help, and Jesus is quoting policy? That’s not the Jesus I know. This is why Jesus can be so infuriating, though. Just when you think you know what’s he’s going to do, he deflects a sincere cry for help with such a callous-sounding statement.
I’d like to think Jesus says it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, knowing what’s going to happen. And maybe so. But maybe not.
The woman doesn’t give up, though. She asks again, this time kneeling in front of him. He has to look right at her. He can’t do that thing that you do when a guy asking for money at an intersection approaches and you pretend not to see him. She’s right at his feet. Everyone can see. He finally speaks to her, and you think maybe he’s going to do what she asks.
Only, when he speaks you kind of wish that maybe he hadn’t said anything.
“It isn’t right to give the kids’ bread to the dogs.”
Ooof. If a celebrity tweeted something like that today, he’d be gutted. His brand might never be salvaged. He compares a Canaanite woman with a child in need to a dog eating food intended for the children. That would be a PR nightmare, if Jesus cared much about such things.
Look, I have a son who sat and ate at the kitchen table, and I have a dog who licked up the crumbs he dropped from the kitchen floor, and I get what Jesus is saying. It just sounds so bad, especially coming from Jesus. And so I say again: if you think you have Jesus domesticated to your agenda, think again. I promise, there’s something like this. Something that will seriously disrupt what you think you know about him.
That woman doesn’t waver though, does she? “Oh, I get it. Your concern is Israel. But even the dogs get scraps and crumbs, and that’s all I need from you: a few scraps and crumbs.”
And there it is: the faith that Jesus always seems to respond to.
I think that’s the point, really. This woman hasn’t tried to figure Jesus out. She isn’t trying to make him fit her agenda or operate on her schedule. She hasn't crammed him into the mold of her pet causes, political issues, or party platforms. She doesn’t pretend to know what he’s going to say, or try to sit in judgment over whether he’s right or wrong. She cares about one thing: he can help her child.
Her faith — trust, dead-certain conviction that Jesus can save her daughter — contrasts in Matthew 15 with the so-called religious folks who think they have God all figured out, quantified, and categorized. They know, so they think, how to work the system; how to simultaneously appear pious while having exactly what they want. This woman, on the other hand, doesn’t know the system. In some ways, she's so much farther from God than the Pharisees.
In all the ways that matter, she’s so much closer.
While they’re criticizing, she’s humbling herself. While they’re trying to pull themselves up by their merits, she’s on her knees in helplessness. While they’re telling Jesus what he ought to be saying and doing, she’s hanging on his every word. While what comes out of them defiles them, what comes out of her are words of faith. They have religion and tradition and rules. She has “great faith.”
I fear, in our sophistication, we may sometimes be more like the Pharisees than this Canaanite mother. Maybe we’ve been so long following rules that we’ve come to believe our relationship with Jesus hinges on how well we keep them. Maybe we don’t feel the immediacy of our need like she did. Maybe we’re a little too convinced that we have God all figured out.
Whatever the reason, I think the solution might be that we fall to our knees in front of him, in the enormity of our helplessness, and call out for mercy. Don’t try to figure him out. Just come to Jesus in the sure knowledge that you need him, and in the faith that he will save you. Listen to his words. Try to do what he says. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that salvation lies in understanding or obeying him. Salvation is his to give, and his alone. And he does not withhold it from anyone who believes.
May our faith be great. And may we never discourage those with the faith to come to Jesus like this woman did.