Getting on Jesus’ Case

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What were the odds? That some Canaanite woman could ever get Jesus’ attention and then to have Jesus fulfill her request? What were the odds? If this woman can receive God’s grace, how easy is it for us? Certainly she showed us that persistence works. But her persistence told Jesus how great her faith is. How do we talk to Jesus? We pray.

Tyre and Sidon were gentile territory. To the early gospel readers, this story is strange. In a few words, volumes are spoken. In Jesus’ time people would hear this and go, “oh!” For most of us we don’t see the implications and merely read on.

A Canaanite woman appearing in the story is not all that unusual, because Canaanites live there. But we remember that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to be seen in the vicinity of a gentile woman. So it is not all that unusual then for Jesus to ignore her and certainly hope she would just go away. Jesus’ reputation as a healer has obviously preceded him.

There is animosity between the area gentiles and the Jews. There is cultural and ethnic bigotry. The people of Tyre and Sidon didn’t take kindly to Jewish visitors. Jesus is walking with his friends so that they all may survive the journey. They would expect a local to yell at them and hurl insults. They probably didn’t expect one of them to yell at them for help and mercy.

But there are historical issues here. The hated Jezebel was from Tyre, bringing her gods with her. But she also was the wife of King Ahab of Israel, which included the Galilee.

The woman calls Jesus son of David. A gentile acknowledges Jesus in the royal line, something the Jews have yet to do. She calls him Lord, probably implying royalty rather than a divine title. King David and the King of Tyre were close allies. The King of Tyre provided the wood that was used for David’s palace.

Now comes the ironic part. She pleads with Jesus because her daughter has a demon. Sometime, centuries before Jesus, when the Jews became monotheists instead of pantheists, they relegated the Canaanite gods, particularly, from god status to demon status. If there is only one god, then the Canaanite gods weren’t really gods, so they must be demons. So, the Canaanite daughter is possessed by a Canaanite god, now a demon.

Jesus, being a proper Jew, ignored her. She was very persistent. She wanted, she needed help and knew that the only hope for her daughter was Jesus. The disciples were tired of her and asked Jesus to get rid of her. She was driving the disciples crazy. Her daughter probably appeared crazy.

Jesus told her that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, in other words, only to the Jews, most of whom were unaware that they were lost. But this woman must have had a sense that she was lost, or at least her daughter was.

In her great sorrow, she came closer to Jesus. She kneeled before Jesus. She begged Jesus, “Please help me Lord.” Jesus rebuffed her. Why should he take bread from children and give to a dog, like a Canaanite? Jews loved calling Canaanites dogs. Jesus is calling this woman a female dog. Jesus is harsh. In one of the greatest rejoinders in the Bible, she reminds Jesus that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

Jesus is brought up short. Jesus is schooled by a gentile woman, of all people. Jesus is schooled by someone he shouldn’t even be talking to. Jesus has a change of heart. He recognizes the great faith of the gentile woman and tells her that her daughter is healed.

The woman does not ask a favor for herself. She wants her daughter restored. We are not told if there is a father and husband. We are not told if there are siblings. This is a story of desperation and faith. It is also a story of persistence. It is a story of love and restoration.

So, why did Jesus go to this gentile area anyway? We are not told his motivation in this story. We are puzzled because Jesus initially ignores the woman. If he came to heal, why not just do it instead of refusing her request? If he came to preach and convert, undoubtedly a tough assignment, why not begin with a foreigner who seems to be the only one receptive to Jesus?

I think Matthew and Mark tell us this story for us to know of Jesus’ conversion. This Canaanite woman expands Jesus’ mission from one exclusively Jewish to include everyone else. They include this story to remind us that the good news is for us, too. We don’t have to be a Jew to receive God’s blessings. In order to receive Jesus’ blessing and mercy, the woman did not need to first become a Jew.

Jesus doesn’t always respond to us the way we would like. But persistence can yield positive fruit.

Let me share a modern parable with you. It is called Charlie the Chicken. It’s a story of Marjorie Gibson’s childhood.

One spring, when she was still a child on the farm, Marjorie’s father arrived at the back door cradling a little chick, about 3 days old. “He’s damaged,” said her father, “he drags one wing. I’ll have to destroy him but I feel badly, the little guy is so game!”

The family wouldn’t let him do it. They built a pen near the house. The damaged chick got hand feeding and cuddling by everyone. But Dad still worried, saying “This won’t work. Chickens do not accept anything that is different.”

Charlie the chick grew quickly. He came running when he heard his name called. Then the time came to see if Charlie could be re-united with his own kin. “We opened his pen and he ran towards the flock of chickens, dragging his wing and chirping,” Marjorie wrote.

“Results – then and for the next weeks – were mixed. Ignored, accepted, rejected, he received it all. Sometimes the rejection looked severe enough that we would call him and he would return to safety. Eventually he spent the days with the flock and the nights in his pen. “One evening as darkness fell he did not come home. I went to the chicken coop and called – and Charlie answered. For the first time he was perched on the roosting rails, on the lowest one and at the edge of the flock, but he was there and not rejected.

“Then one afternoon there was a mad crowding together of excited, screeching chickens. With some difficulty Dad dispersed the maddened flock. The bloody and ripped body of our feathered friend lay in a pool of blood. “Dad held me as I sobbed, and through his own tears said, ‘We tried, and Charlie tried, but sometimes creatures are so afraid of anything different that they go wild.”

Well, human beings are sometimes no different than chickens. Matthew Shepherd’s murder in Wyoming several years ago was an example of the chicken coop, as are other homosexual people who are murdered or beaten. But it is not just homosexual people. It is Christians in some parts of the world, also union members, Baha’is, immigrants, Syrian protesters, Palestinians, Moslems in this country and Europe, and the list goes on.

Liberals attack conservatives. Conservatives attack liberals. Have an Arab name when you go through airport security. Even the United States Congress is not immune to un-civil discourse.

As Marjorie’s Dad said, “Sometimes creatures are so afraid of anything different…” But as Marjorie said, there has been progress on some levels. “When I hear of schools including handicapped kids and mixing them successfully with non-handicapped kids, I say ‘Well Charlie, we can’t do much about chickens, but things are getting a little better with people.’”

So, Jesus gives us an example of how our learned prejudices can dissolve. The story of the Canaanite woman gives up hope. If Jesus could respond to her, how much more will Jesus respond to us? And just as Jesus responds to us, he commands us to respond to others in like fashion. We offer our needs and prejudices to Jesus in prayer.

Text: Matthew 15:21–28 (NRSV)

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. [1]

[1]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 15:21–28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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