Welcome to one of the strangest stories — many would call this a troubling tale — in Jesus’ entire life and ministry.
As you are about to hear in this PODCAST, what happens here in Mark 7, and its parallel passage in Matthew 15, seems highly uncharacteristic of Jesus; uncharitable to a tragically needy-yet-remarkable mommy; and unnecessarily cold and calloused as far as a Jesus is concerned.
A Jesus, I will humbly remind you, who defined Himself as “gentle” in Matthew 11, and who described His mission as one “to seek and to save the lost in Luke 19.
As you read this story, at first blush anyway, Jesus was Anything. But. Gentle in the way He spoke to this panic-stricken mother who was understandably distraught over the condition of her daughter.
Tell you what: If His mission was to seek and to save the lost, you couldn’t find anyone more lost than this woman.
As we read this story together (it’s only 8 verses in Matthew’s account), you tell me if you find this encounter between Jesus and this mom at all unsettling or unnerving. Put yourself in the mom’s sandals for a second and imagine that Jesus is talking to you about your little girl.
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.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28)
A happy ending to be sure.
But what an insensitive, ungracious, uncaring way to get to that happy ending..
You talk about showing a little kindness (as we did last week), there was no kindness shown to this woman; no kindness of any kind was shown to her at all. Until the very end.
Jesus (apparently) ignored her (“Jesus did not answer a word.”), then (apparently) refused and rebuffed her (“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”), then (apparently) belittled her (“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”).
Curiously enough, that’s it as far as Jesus’ road trip up North into what is today Lebanon, what was then Phoenicia, was concerned.
This one strange story.
And as always, my friend, we have much to talk about.
You see, when I try to understand what Jesus was doing in this scene of His life, I start with the question: How human was Jesus?
While Jesus was on earth, He – out of necessity – laid aside the independent usage of many of His divine attributes. Most notable of these are the three “omni’s”: Omnipotence, Omnipresence, and Omniscience.
For example, Jesus exercised His omnipotence (all-powerfulness) when He stilled the raging storm. But then, He immediately laid it aside afterward when He got exhausted and fell asleep in the back of the boat. How could someone be omnipotent and exhausted simultaneously?
He also, quite obviously, laid aside his omnipresence since He was localized to wherever His one body traveled. He couldn’t be two places at one time.
He also laid aside His omniscience – knowing everything… sometimes.
When He spoke to the women at the well, He exercised His omniscience. He told her things about her personal life than only omniscient God could know. But there were times when He laid aside His omniscience and there were things that He didn’t know, including the day that God will return to earth, as we read in Mark 13:32 –
But no one knows the day or the hour. No! Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows.
So, when Jesus was born, He did not possess a mental checklist of events that needed to occur between the manger and the cross. He knew He was going to the cross. He knew when He was going to the cross – Passover. But there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that He had every single event of His life completely laid out for His knowledge and understanding. Therefore, there were times when He would be caught by surprise.
Examples: Did Jesus know in advance that He would be rejected in Capernaum and have to leave His hometown? Did He know that He would be totally and completely rejected in Nazareth? Did He know that John the Baptizer was going to be murdered? If He did know, then why did the news of the event shake Him to the core?
So, getting back to this week’s story in Tyre, if you are willing to accept that Jesus was fully God AND fully human, then I believe that these events were unexpected to Jesus and He was simply trying to get His legs back under Him, just like we experience when unexpected events rock our world.
Therefore, maybe – just maybe – Jesus understands our personal dilemmas more than we give Him credit for. Because His world got rocked, too.
Jesus was trying to get away. He hid out in a house, trying to escape for a bit. Then, this heartbroken mother sought Him out and invaded His schedule. She came shouting loudly, begging for mercy, telling Him about her little girl’s suffering.
And Jesus did not answer at all… not a single word.
I don’t believe He did this out of rudeness. If you look at how she was shouting – “as if from a long way off”, then she wasn’t nearby enough for Him to speak to her. He would have needed to shout back… from inside the house that he was retreating in.
He couldn’t answer her. She was too far away.
When she finally came closer, then He spoke with her.
Well… actually, when He first spoke, He didn’t answer her. She was still too far away. He answered His disciples.
In fact, I believe that He was still processing – out loud, even – what was occurring in this foreign land and how these events were going to affect the mission He was sent on – to save the lost sheep of Israel. He had ministered to Gentiles before, but they had always come to Him in Israel, for all of Israel to see, hear and learn from.
Once she approached Him, then He spoke with her. And His words seem quite cold and calloused… unless you understand the rabbinic teachings of Jesus’ faith tradition. The rabbis said:
“As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, so the Torah was intended to be given to the chosen people, but not to Gentiles.”
That’s what Jesus was taught in Sabbath School.
But, Jesus misquoted them. He changed the word for “dog”. Instead of the word meaning wild mongrels, he used the word meaning a dog who is loved, accepted and treated like a member of the family.
It’s as if He were going back and forth with the should I / could I debate as he processed her request, and where and when it was made.
After thinking it through, when He arrived at the answer, He told her, “You have mega-faith! Your request is granted!!” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
In other words, Jesus didn’t know exactly what to do at that very second. He needed a second to pray, seek God and assess the situation. He’s a lot like me… and I love that!
And I believe that all this explains an otherwise tough-to-understand in Hebrews.
Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
Jesus suffered rejection in Capernaum, rejection in Nazareth, rejection by Herod Antipas, the murder of His beloved cousin John the Baptist, attacks from Jerusalem rabbis… and this was just the beginning!
In these chapters, we are watching Jesus – even though He was fully God – learning to walk in obedience to the will of His Father.
Just like you and I need to learn how to do.