The Untouchables – Gentiles

The Untouchables – Gentiles

The Untouchables – Gentiles.

Jesus answered and said, ‘It is not  good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.’ And she said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Dear woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”  (Matthew 15:26-28; also refer to Mark 7:24-30).

Most of the time in the Gospels, Jesus was straightforward, if not blunt, in His interactions with others. His strategy was usually rather transparent in an understandable way. But sometimes He wasn’t so transparent. Sometimes it seemed like He went out of His way to muddy the waters with His perplexing stories and parables. And sometimes He engaged in conversations that were puzzling and not so understandable. His conversation with the Canaanite woman in Tyre was one of those bewildering interactions that has readers scratching their heads till the very last moment. The end result of the conversation is clear enough, but how they got there is not so clear.

Context. At one point in His public ministry Jesus decided to head into Gentile territory. So He and His disciples hiked thirty miles north to the region of Tyre. This region had Canaanite roots, and they were traditional enemies of the Jews. Tyre was a bustling port on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in modern day Lebanon, and it was wealthy, materialistic, and very competitive with Israel over trade and commerce. Tyre was also known for its paganism and immorality. It was the region where the evil queen Jezebel established Baal worship, which became a serious thorn in the religious side of Israel for generations (1 Kings 18-21). Tyre was a well-established Canaanite city, and most Jews would be resistant to any contact with its residents. For Jesus to journey to Tyre meant that He was crossing racial boundaries as well as religious boundaries. This was a significant event for Jesus and His disciples, who were no  doubt extremely uncomfortable and itching to go back to their homeland. But according to the prophet Isaiah and other prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus had different marching orders as Messiah, to be a “light to the Gentiles.” (Is. 42:6), that He “should be God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Is. 49:6). His mission was put forth clearly by Simeon in his prophetic word over the baby Jesus. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32).

The Woman from Tyre. As soon as Jesus and the disciples entered the region, a Syro-Phoenician resident of the Canaanite city came to Jesus, begging Him to heal her daughter who was demon-possessed. She was very persistent in her begging and became annoyingly so in the eyes of the disciples. She remained single-minded and undeterred. She had at least a mustard seed of faith, because she called Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David.” That amounts to claiming that Jesus is Messiah, the long-awaited One from the line of King David. We don’t know how she developed this faith, but she certainly had eyes only for Jesus as the One who could heal her daughter and cast out the demons. Matthew comments that her daughter was “severely” demon-possessed, which probably means possessed by several demons. The woman begged for Jesus’ mercy, and that as usual stopped Jesus in His tracks. Her request for mercy was something Jesus didn’t take lightly. His heart of mercy actively looked for ways to demonstrate mercy. When He is asked to show mercy, He will do so.

Silence. But Jesus’ initial response seemed anything but merciful. Her begging was met by a wall of silence from Jesus. This seems rather insensitive and certainly inhospitable. His silence seemed to fly in the face of His mission to the Gentiles. What was He thinking? Was His nonresponse intended to test her faith? Was He desiring that more of this woman’s virtues would be revealed? Was it supposed to tease out more of a conversation? Was He playing hard to get to see what she’d do? Jesus must have known His silence would only further stimulate her holy stubbornness. She wasn’t defensive or hypersensitive in the face of this silence. The woman was resolute, and would not accept this silence as the last word.

Disciples. Jesus’ disciples became increasingly annoyed with the persistent mother of the demon-possessed daughter. They weren’t comfortable in Tyre in the first place, and now they were asking Jesus to send her away. Most New Testament scholars say that the Greek terms used here in reference to the disciples implied that they are asking Jesus to heal the daughter, to do what she wants, and then send her away so she won’t pester us any longer. They had little patience, and were certainly less than sensitive to this needy person who wouldn’t go away. Jesus stopped and gave her some attention, and the disciples simply wanted to keep on walking. They wanted this woman’s daughter healed of her demon-possession, not out of compassion, but out of impatience.

Jesus. Finally, Jesus broke His silence and said something to the woman, to the effect that He had His hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus said He is focused on giving the first opportunity to accept Him as Messiah to the Chosen People of Israel. His silence was puzzling, and now so was His verbal response. Why did He even bother going to Tyre if He wanted to solely focus on Israel? Once again, His bewildering response only made the distraught mother dig her heels in deeper. She simplified her request, though. She fell at Jesus’ feet at this point and merely said, “Lord, help me!” Even though she was probably touching His feet and crying onto them, Jesus continued to turn an apparently unsympathetic ear to this mother. Jesus told her that basically, He doesn’t want to take the life-giving bread that was first intended for the children of Israel and give it to the Gentiles.

Dogs. The Gentiles were often called dogs by the Jews, so this was nothing new and of course rather insulting. But there were two Greek words for dogs… the wild scavengers who were hated by everyone as being uncivilized, and the little dogs that were household pets. Jesus used the word that referred to the  more lovable pets that people would often have in their homes. The Canaanite woman picked up this reference by cleverly responding to Jesus that even household pets get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. This shrewd response to Jesus even managed to sneak into the conversation that she thought He was the Master of the house. Her humility at this point was amazing. She readily accepted her place as beneath that of the Chosen People of Israel, and yet she nonetheless wanted to somehow be a part of God’s chosenness.

Jesus. This clever and determined woman successfully challenged Jesus, because He ended up commending her for her faith, to the point of calling her “dear woman,” a term of endearment. It is at this point in the encounter that Jesus probably helped this woman to her feet and spoke those tender words to her. It’s not often that Jesus commended anyone for their faith, but here He is commending a Canaanite, a Gentile, and a woman for her faith. “Great is your faith!” Jesus exclaimed. And He provided a spiritual healing for her daughter at that precise moment. His power and authority in the spiritual realm doesn’t know any bounds, and is not limited by physical proximity. He can cast out demons long-distance. Once again, Jesus incarnated Love and Power.

Teachable Moment. Jesus never let a teachable moment pass by without making the most of it. If you were a disciple watching His interaction with the Canaanite woman, what could you have learned?

  1. The importance of crossing boundaries: the racial boundary with Canaanites; the religious boundary with Gentiles; the gender boundary with the woman. This distraught mother was an example of all three barriers, and yet she was found worthy by Jesus, of conversation and a healing and the salvation of her soul;
  2. The necessity of patience and compassion with needy people regardless of boundaries;
  3. Faith means demonstrating persistent belief and trust in Jesus’ power and love;
  4. It’s okay to be challenged. No need to be sensitive or defensive when someone challenges you. In fact, you might even find it reasonable to commend the challenger;
  5. Even a foreigner’s mustard seed of faith is sufficient for acceptance, for affirmation, and for healing;
  6. Jesus has boundless spiritual authority over demonic powers, and is not limited by distance, only unbelief.