I’m going to be honest here, there are parts of scripture that, when I read them, I cringe a little. Or a lot. I say this as an unashamed bible thumping, bible teaching, bible believing Jesus freak. But, it’s true. So I might as well be honest about it.
A few of those cringy bits are from the Old Testament – there are just some really hard things to make sense of!
A few others have come from the easily misinterpreted apostle Paul. Poor guy, I used to hate reading the New Testament because he seemed like a bit of a jerky know-it-all. (So sorry about that Paul, I love you!)
But there is one instance that comes from Jesus himself. This is hard for me to admit because although he did have some challenging words they are usually reserved for the religious elite who, lets be honest, sort of deserved it. But in general when dealing with outcasts and women he has such a gentle way of offering freedom, power, healing and acceptance.
But then I read Matthew 15 about the Canaanite woman…and the cringing happens.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
So wait a sec, did Jesus just call her a dog? Is that a racial slur?
Honestly, I don’t know which is worse, the name calling or the way he initially ignores her.
It hurts my heart and confuses me. Where is the man from Nazareth I know and love and follow? Ignoring and insulting a needy woman? What is going on here???!!
I could certainly speculate quite a bit here. Was he hungry and tired and irritable and these words just slipped out?
He is human, after all, and I for one can certainly relate to responding poorly in those situations when I am underfed and moody. But, I just don’t think so. The Jesus I read about in the gospels is intentional with every single word, every single step, every single prayer and every single meal. Even at his most haggard, his most desperate, he has compassion on others.
So I just have to dig a little deeper. A critical and enlightening step I always need to take when trying to understand a few verses of scripture is to look at the parts surrounding it. What comes right before? What comes after? What is the overall context?
Well, the first thing I notice are the two stories that Matthew uses as bookends to this interaction with the Canaanite woman.
Immediately before this conversation, Jesus rebukes and teaches both the Pharisees and his disciples about what defiles a person; that which is in their heart, not any food they eat. Washing rituals and dietary restrictions were a couple of ways that the Jews were set apart from the Gentiles and so Jesus sort of turns this on it’s head by saying it is actually what is already inside of you that defiles you, not your food or hand cleanliness.
I wonder if when Jesus uses the term ‘dogs’ he is simply saying out loud what the disciples already had in their hearts. Maybe this helped them remember with conviction their Teacher’s words about what actually defiles a person.
Immediately after this conversation, Jesus continues through gentile territory to heal thousands and does another miraculous feeding of 4,000. While there were some Jewish people in this region, the majority would have been Gentiles just like the Canaanite woman. He ministers freely and compassionately with no mention of crumbs or dogs.
So in between these two passages is sandwiched this odd, yet seemingly offensive interaction.
Matthew was intentional with this, what was he trying to show his Jewish audience? What was Jesus trying to show his disciples and what was he trying to show this woman?
I’m going to look once again at how Jesus responds to her:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
It’s true, Jesus came first for the Jew, to the lost sheep of Israel, and did most of his ministering in Jewish territory.
Before that, God chose this people for his own to bless and guide and reveal himself to.
And it wasn’t the Gentiles.
And this is where I see that underneath the harsh words of Jesus lies an even harsher truth: God works in ways that can feel strait up sucky to us.
God works in ways that feel narrow. God works in ways that feel exclusionary. God works in ways that are confusing. God works in ways that appear to go against what we thought was His character.
Do you ever feel that?
God works in ways that appear absolutely ANTITHETICAL to us…and to him!
I see this over and over again in scripture, one example comes later in Matthew when Jesus tells his disciples he will suffer and die. Peter, full of faith one moment, comes against this idea, assuring Jesus this will never happen, not on his watch!
But Jesus bring some harsh words yet again, this time for Peter:
Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things
Ok, so first he calls the lady a dog and then his best friend Satan? Real nice, Jesus!
But once again, underneath these harsh words is an even harsher truth for the disciples to grapple with: God is going to bring His kingdom through through death on a cross. This seems positively antithetical to any hope for victory for either Jesus or his disciples. We see this same attitude reflected in the disciples’ dismissal of the Canaanite woman – a female gentile isn’t really going to advance the agenda. So better just ignore her.
Peter, who I think by this time was grasping what the Kingdom of God was like and who it was for, was still having a difficult time understanding and accepting the how. The “How” in this case – the Messiah dying – seemed to run directly against any kind of kingdom victory, actually the very OPPOSITE of what one would do if they were trying to secure power and influence!
God’s ways, especially when you can only see the tree and not the whole forest, are hard to understand and even harder to appreciate.
I think it would be natural for the Canaanite woman, who had been excluded, to feel wronged and to be frustrated and even to come against Jesus like Peter does.
But, unlike Peter, she doesn’t seem to have a bone to pick with the ‘how“.
In the midst of the all implications that come with not being an Israelite, she acknowledges and also affirms Jesus as being both a Son of David and Lord.
Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David
Even though the God of David hasn’t appeared to be for her or for her people, she still says these words.
Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David
I really struggle with pride, so I don’t think I could be so gracious or humble! But this woman takes it a step further, and goes on to submit to this religion and it’s ways.
Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.
How much humility is required of a person to say Yep! I am a dog! That’s me!
Where is the scorn? Where is the offense?
It’s so easy, too easy sometimes, to praise, worship, submit and celebrate when it appears that God is on your side (on the side of your race, your gender, your culture, your political party, your class, your way of life…).
For this woman to acknowledge that her and her people were not chosen by God, yet still seek Jesus as someone good and to bow before his authority, power and even his Jewish identity feels out of this world crazy to me.
I contrast that with Pharisees from the verses just before this, what a striking difference!
In the midst of a system and a people group and a religion that is ANTITHETICAL to her very existence and identity, she seeks Jesus. She seeks the “who” and she leaves the “how” up to Him.
She surrenders her story, her history, her people.
She surrenders her dignity and her pride.
She surrenders it all to Jesus, because He is Jesus.
And that is the faith that the Son of David desires.
Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly
Jesus praises her faith, but I don’ think it was just her faith in him as a healer that helped her daughter, I really don’t. By this point everyone knew he could perform miracles, even the Pharisees. I believe she was demonstrating a faith that proclaimed that this God created her, loved her, and chose her, regardless of her identity as a Gentile woman. She shows her faith not in just what he could do for her, but in his very character and being.
Somehow she has faith that the God that chose the Hebrew family and not the Canaanites, is still for her.
And she is right.
Even though God made a people for himself through Israel, his original heart, purpose and intent was never just for Israel, it was for all of humanity, all of the nations.
Yaweh chose a people, to demonstrate his love for all people.
God created a family in order to eventually create one family.
Christ is sent to Israel for gentiles.
So even though it appeared, to both Jew and Gentile, that God was only for Isreal, the truth is that was simply the way our Father was choosing to work through history in order to reach an entire world and so through the family of Abraham came our Messiah, first to the lost sheep of Israel and then to the very ends of the earth.
There is the mystery of God. His ways can seem antithetical. This woman had faith in a paradoxical God and through that faith she received what He wanted to give all along.
However, I don’t necessarily think she had an amazing theological framework, I think there was just something about Jesus that sang to her. After all, the Pharisees had a FANTASTIC theological framework, yet their hearts missed his song.
So she surrendered the “how” for the “who” and she received not only the ‘who’ in Jesus Christ, but then also the fullness of the “how” as God’s plan for the Gentiles unfolded before her very eyes.
What appears at first glance as a narrow, exclusive Way is actually broad and wide and overflowing – she submitted to the former and she received the latter.
This should be a picture of hope for me for when I just can’t understand why God is working in certain ways.
Oh what I would give to see the Canaanite woman on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit of the Jewish God wads poured out on her!
Oh what I would give to see her empowered by that Spirit in the priesthood of believers, maybe to heal the sick and cast out demons, so that she may give to others what the Messiah gave to her and her daughter!
Oh what I would give to see the look on her face when the apostle Paul proclaimed that among the people of Jesus Christ, she, a Canaanite woman, was to have the full rights in the Kingdom of God as a Jewish firstborn son. To hear Paul say that in Christ there is neither Slave nor Free, Jew nor Greek, nor is their Male or Female (And no dogs)!
Oh what I would give to see her claim her seat at the table, next to her Jewish and Gentile brothers and sisters, taking the bread and the wine together and remembering their Lord’s death.
Oh what I would give to see myself living in this fullness, yet I agonize and wring my hands at the ‘how’.
Needless to say, I no longer cringe at this passage because all I can see is God drawing out from all of our hearts that which defiles, while honoring this foreigner and paving the way to bring His Kingdom.
I do, however, cringe thinking of the times in my life I have lacked the faith of this woman. I do cringe at times that I have held the same attitudes as the Pharisees. I cringe at times that I have actually thought insulting things about others.
I pray that I would have the faith of the Canaanite woman.
It means I may not have position, power or privilege, but I get Jesus, and He is my prize.
To have the faith of the Canaanite woman means that when the “how” of God is frustrating, confusing and even offensive to me – Jesus will be enough, all day every day.
It means I believe and proclaim that His purposes, His Character and His Love are good even when the circumstances of my life would have me shaking my fist at God.
The faith of the Canaanite woman means I have faith even when there is a big tree blocking my view – whether that tree looks like a scary diagnosis, a muddled path in the middle of my journey, a theology I can’t wrap my mind around, confusion over how God is working, or an invitation to take up my cross. With her faith, I hope to remember that the forest is expansive and beautiful and breathtaking and I will get to enjoy it all as I humbly cry out to my Lord for mercy and as he makes my defiled heart clean.
Lord, Son of David, help me to trust your ways when they feel upside down and hard to swallow – because I have heard your song, and it is good.