I’ve felt compelled to preach lately on a story in the gospels that I’ve always disliked and wished I could delete from the Bible. I’ve called it a toxic text in that it seems to depict Jesus as exclusive, unfair, even mean. Now I’m finding this text extremely challenging and even inspiring.
In Matthew 15:21-18 a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus desperate for help for her daughter, who is “cruelly” demonized. Jesus ignores her, rejects her and humiliates her by referring to her as a dog, and then finally relents and delivers her daughter. What is happening in this story? What does it mean for us?
The Syrophonecian woman approaches Jesus desperate for breakthrough. Not a Jew herself, she “comes out” of her region, leaving her allegiances and securities to enter into Jesus’ Jewish world. She exercises exemplary prayer protocol. She cries out, and the text uses the same language as Exodus, where Israelite slaves cry out to God (Ex 3:9). She addresses Jesus by the Greek equivalent of the proper name for Israel’s God, YHWH, Kurios. “Have mercy on me Oh Lord!” She identifies Jesus as “Son of David,” a title that identifies him as Israel’s Messiah.
Jesus doesn’t answer her even a word. Yet the woman presses in, persisting dramatically in her intercession. Jesus’ disciples don’t help either. They cold-heartedly order Jesus: “Send her away, for she is shouting after us” (Matt 15:23). While Jesus doesn’t send her away, he excludes her by saying: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). How are we to understand the limited ministry priorities of Jesus “only”?
Jesus’ answer shows he still committed to his Father’s agenda to raise up Israel as the kingdom of priests called to be a blessing to every family on the earth (Gen 12:1-3). God had called Abram and Sarai out of Haran, Israel out of Egypt and then again out of Babylon to bring justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1), to be a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, set prisoners free (Isa 42:6; 61:1ff) “so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). Israel had been stiff-necked, rebellious. Yet God’s gifts and call are irrevocable. Jesus’ plan is to start with the lost sheep of the house of Israel who remain the beloved of God—in spite of their offender status. He wants to see his people mobilized. He will not give up seeking after lost sheep until he finds them. When he sends out the twelve on their first mission trip he is precise in Matthew 10:5-8 and consistent with his stance here:
“Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…”
The Syrophonecian woman refuses the Jesus’ time-line for ministry. Though she’s destined to be a future beneficiary of God’s coming Kingdom (once Israel becomes obedient), she refuses Jesus’ silence and rejects his “not yet.” Jesus’ silence and rebuttal provokes her to pursue him relentlessly in a way that makes her an exemplary intercessor. She comes and bows down before Jesus with a desperate prayer right out of the Psalms: “Lord help me!” Are we as relentless?!
Jesus responds by simultaneously upgrading his people’s “lost sheep” status to “children” and downgrading her to scavenger dog: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (vs. 26). Yet there on her knees at his feet, like a dog before children prone to kindness to their pets, she humbles herself further before Jesus and Israel: “Yes Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (vs. 27). The woman humbles herself to the extreme, acknowledging the oppressed Israelites who Jesus calls to their highest vocation are her masters.
Many scholars think there is a historical basis for arguing that this woman was wealthy. I’m not so sure. But if so this woman would then be recognizing the place of the poor as bearers of the Good News to the world and her masters!. At the same time her humble yet relentless pursuit of deliverance for her daughter there and then is a call to seek the future things of God’s kingdom here and now. Jesus is willing to change his mind, to give her and us the future now.
Are we willing to leave our region (nation, ethnicity, denomination…) in pursuit of the Gospel that has the power to save? Do we love enough to cry out, follow after, humble ourselves to such extremes so as to call in God’s future promises into the present? When we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” let us expect an acceleration of God’s coming salvation. While in Korea I found myself compelled to pray for every North Korean knee to bow every tongue to confess that Jesus is Lord—since that is in God’s future (Isa 45:23; Phil 2:10).
Now I’m on a plane to Guatemala where I and my Tierra Nueva colleagues Chris and Angel David will be crying out for healing and salvation of hard-core salvatrucha gang members incarcerated in the Guatemalan prison system. We want to see them touched and converted by Jesus’ love now, so there will be no more victims of brutal gang violence. Please pray with us as we train ex-gang member prison chaplains and at-risk urban youth workers over the weekend.