Imagine you are in south Texas, a place with no shortage of people in need. You are there with a well-known and respected physician going about his work of healing and serving his fellow Texans. He is, by all accounts, a servant, sacrificing acclaim and prosperity to serve his neighbors in need. One day a clearly desperate woman enters into his healing tent. She is not a Texan. In fact she is from Mexico and while no one is sure if she is here legally, odds are by her dress and her broken-English that she is not. The woman walks up to the physician and begs his assistance with the plea of someone who is in obvious pain.
What would you expect this respected and servant-hearted man to do? What if he did nothing? Literally. He said nothing and completely ignored the woman without even a glance her way.
Taking the physician’s cue, his assisting nurses try to usher the women away. No need to attract more like her. But the woman, not unused to such treatment by a man of his complexion and from a country not her own, nevertheless her home, again pleads for relief from her suffering. This time the man says he has come only for Texans, his clearly identifiable countrymen. Implying rather directly but in a socially acceptable manner that she needs to go to someone else, that she is not the kind of person he serves.
Rather than leave at the clear insult, like most of us would, the woman, desperate for what she knows will heal, asks again directly, and in humiliation falls to her knees, “Please help me.” Perhaps we’d expect the physician at that point to give in and help her. Wouldn’t you? Seeing someone so low, not fighting back against unnecessary difficulty would melt most hearts. Instead the physician adds injury to his insult and says something to the effect, “It is not fair to the precious people (my Texans) for me to use my healing skills on someone like you, a nearly worthless being.”
What! What kind of man, especially a healer and a servant, could say such things? What is revealed about this “respectable” person in the interaction? Giving, skilled in helping, and yet pitiless and full of prejudice.
Of course we would expect at receiving such blatant and disgusting prejudice that the woman would be repelled and seek healing elsewhere. But she doesn’t. Undeterred by the abuse, she wittingly responds that the nearly worthless at least get a little of what the precious do, even if only a few moments, though not nearly the full treatment. So, nearly will be enough.
What kind of a woman could respond in such a manner? Faced with rejection, humiliation, and oppressive prejudice; she perseveres for what she desires.
Most of us would be revolted by the interaction. Though I am willing to wager that many of us would have unarticulated biases like the physician, but be sickened and frozen in our own prejudice. While others of us would harbor unarticulated disdain for people with such biases, and be sickened and burning with hate and anger. Seeing a prejudice exposed and seeing it responded in such a way would certainly bury into our consciousness as our hearts are exposed, would it not?
What if I told you that this was a true story, one that took place not in south Texas but in ancient Israel? And, what if I told you that the physician was Jesus and the sickly immigrant was a Canaanite (Gentile, non-Jewish) woman? Would you think there is something even more going on in the story than a detestable exposure of prejudice and humiliating perseverance?
Prejudice is not a condition unique to our time and place in history. The community that followed Jesus and the communities in which Jesus ministered possessed dividing prejudices similar to ours. Prejudices of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender, heritage and history, etc. Jesus himself was raised in a part of his country that would be considered intolerant to outsiders, the non-Jewish, and would have held strict gender, age, and ethnic boundaries.
Let’s read the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 together; keeping in mind that in this context Jesus and his disciples are “Texans” and this foreigner is in their land, unwelcome by a good portion of the population. On top of that she is female, someone a respected man, a rabbi like Jesus would not be expected to converse with. So, basically, the worst possible scenario faces this Canaanite woman to receive what she is looking for.
This is a woman begging for healing for her-self and her daughter. She desires mercy in healing. Her daughters anguish is her own. She is drained of life and is desperate for Jesus for both her own sake but only if it comes with her daughter’s freedom (what she desired most happened, her daughter was healed (v.28).
Matthew was an eye witness to this event, which is why his account has different emphases from the story told second hand in Mark 7:24-30. Matthew is actually one who tries to disperse the woman, and thus one who feels and is shaped by the story most intimately.
There are three things we need to note in this story today. A story we need to let shape us as it shaped Matthew and the other disciples—perhaps this story was what allowed them to accept the faith of the Gentiles in Acts 15?. Yet a story which has reasonably and regularly been passed over when telling stories of Jesus! I would venture to guess that this story is kept out of most kid-bibles and daily mediations.
First, Jesus’ response to this women is so drastically different than his response to others in need that we should be compelled to ask why. Jesus does not refuse the inquiries of children, nor the pleas of the blind, the lame, the unclean and unlikable; nor does he exhibit a culturally acceptable degradation of woman (remember the women at the well) or outsiders in general (like the Samaritan neighbor). We know this of Jesus—as did the women. Jesus was following the script form another interaction with a desperate women and her child in the same region of Sidon. Elijah was led by the Lord to extend mercy to a starving women and child in a similar manner in I Kings 17:8-24. Could the women know this story? Jesus most certainly did, and we can detect that the woman was at least familiar with such stories for she would not have approached him with a title like “Son of David” which reveals she is familiar with both Jesus’ ministry, and also the faith of Israel. Therefore, we should look around for what is different about this context that would cause Jesus to act in such a way. The clue comes in the interactions of Jesus with the religious, intellectual elite and his disciples in the verses that precede our story (15:1-20). Essentially, Jesus has made the claim that what makes someone unrighteous is not his or her deeds, but his or her heart—what she or he believes about God, about themselves and about others. We call it theology, Jesus calls it heart, the core belief that gives shape to how you live life. The heart will eventually be exposed, always; yet, it is often hidden by pretense of “good deeds”, religious actions or socially acceptable behaviors. This women believed something about Jesus, a belief she was willing to act upon.
Which brings us to the second item of note, that Jesus is about exposing the heart in order that heart might be healed. What Jesus is doing with and for his disciples is exposing their hearts—their unarticulated belief that God plays favorites and that they are those favorites, therefore this person (gentile and female) is not. See how they quickly take Jesus’ cue of silence (a culturally acceptable response) and try and get the woman to leave, out of respect for religious custom of course. However, they did not follow Jesus’ example to engage with the woman at the well, but without hesitation they act upon their biases here. And in so doing expose their hearts. So, Jesus will draw out their hearts—what they believe about God, themselves, and others. One Middle Eastern author comments,
“Jesus tells the disciples, ‘You will be happy if I get rid of this women, and limit my ministry to Israel. Very well, I will verbalize where your theology [hearts] lead us. This will give you a chance to observe the response of this ‘unclean’ Gentile women’… [Jesus’] verbalization is authentic to [the disciples’] attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling women pleading for the sanity of her daughter…Jesus is saying to [the disciples], ‘I know you think Gentiles are dogs and you want me to treat them as such! But—pay attention—this is where your biases lead. Are you comfortable with this scene?’… It is actually embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated. As that happens one is obliged to face those biases, often for the first time.”
Walking with Jesus in the way Jesus walked with others who are doing the same will expose our hearts: our prejudices, our fears, our pride, our missing the point of God and religion, our expectations of where and among whom God works, etc. What we believe about God’s justice and mercy, what we believe about our place in his family, what we believe about who and how people come to join in that family will come out in life together. And often, like in our story today, in a way that leaves us exposed but not condemned. Jesus does not rebuke the disciples for not catching their prejudice when trying to dismiss the woman, though he certainly could have. No, he lets them sit in their exposure as they continued to walk together. Exposed by the light of Jesus’ powerful blessing in response to her ridiculously humble and courageous faith. Leaving each disciple to decide if he would see something different and better in Jesus like the woman saw. Would the disciple be willing to act like she acted, and receive the same commendation in his own faith for a healed heart?
What is the turning point of prejudice in the story? The honoring or discovering of faith. Whether she knew the depth of her faith or Jesus drew it out of her, Jesus made sure that this woman’s faith was exposed, a faith that overcame prejudice. Which brings us to the third item of note, Jesus honors through testing faith.
We do not like tests, at least most of us! Yet, it is only through passing a difficult test that a student is confident in her abilities, that he is found to have what it takes to succeed and can prove it. God has been testing for millennia. Think of Abraham and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac—Abraham’s received promise and his only hope for a future. Genesis 21:1-2 says, “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’… ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’” The author of Hebrews (11:17-18) noted that Abraham responded “By faith…when he was tested, offered up Isaac…He considered God was able even to raise him for the dead, form which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
Like Abraham, Jesus sees in this woman, desperate for relief, her own and her child’s, a faith that will change the world. And, he is going to give her a chance, a test, to demonstrate the faith she possess and how God responds to faith; to herself, to his disciples, and to everyone throughout the last 2,000 plus years who have read the good-news of Jesus in the gospels. So, with each rejection—silence, a socially acceptable dismissal, and a blatantly prejudicial degradation—the woman’s faith will be tested. A test she passes each and every time.
Faith in what? That is the question we are compelled to ask. Faith that only Jesus can give her what she most desperately desires and needs, both her and her daughter. Faith that, not matter how difficult or humiliating the opposition to receiving from Jesus what she knows only he can provide, it is worth it. Faith that, even if she has to momentarily take on something that is untrue—that she is nearly worthless like a little dog—such behavior will result in getting what only God can give—a resurrected son like Abraham, a healed daughter and reprieve of a mother’s anguish in her story.
“Indeed, in all of Israel they have seen neither such total confidence in the person of Jesus in spite of his hard words nor such compassionate love for a sick child. Her response is a deadly blow to [the disciples’] carefully nurtured prejudices against women and Gentiles…Her faith is expressed in her unfailing confidence in the person of Jesus as the agent of God’s salvation for all, both Jew and Gentile. She confesses him as Lord and Master. A final, almost indefinable, element in that faith is her willingness to pay any price, even public humiliation, in order to receive the grace mediated by Jesus…”
Oh, to have so much confidence that Jesus alone can heal me and those whom I love to be willing to suffer through struggle, prejudice, cultural obstructions, and pride to receive his word of healing. I long for such ridiculous faith. Faith that makes me willing to be a fool for myself and for you; to persevere and cling to Jesus.
Many of us are having our faith tested. Tested not because we are expected to fail, but tested because we are expected to prevail. And in doing so, receive the glory and goodness of Jesus as our own. To live by faith that convicts and faith that is ridiculously courageous. A faith that is willing to pay the price of pride and prejudice, of difficulty and oppression to receive the grace mediated by Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.
As we receive the grace mediated by Christ this afternoon, may we be ones whose hearts’ are exposed and healed in the mercy of Jesus.