Have you ever wanted just to get away from it all? When I was in college I went through a very difficult time where I was trying to go to school full time and work full time. I quickly got burnt out. One day I decided to put down everything I was doing and travel up the California coast. I took some money out of the bank, a few changes of clothes, borrowed a friend’s tent and camped along the way. No sooner had I reached my final destination of Big Sur then I realized I was ready to go back home, face and deal with my problems one by one.
We have read already in Matthew's Gospel about Jesus’ continuing battle with the Pharisees. This time the point of contention was hand-washing. We get the sense in our passage for today that Jesus was growing weary in battle. He wanted to get away from it all and just have a break. On this occasion, for his break, Jesus went clear outside the boundaries of Israel, into the region of Tyre and Sidon. The region of Tyre and Sidon represented an ancient enemy of Israel (Jeremiah 47:4; Joel 3:4; Matthew 11:21).
Let’s read Matthew 15:21-28 and see what the Lord might say to us about “getting away from it all”....
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession.”How do you handle interruptions? Personally I don’t handle interruptions too well. If someone interrupts me while I am reading, studying, or trying to write something important, I tend to get upset, though I try not to show it. By contrast, C. S. Lewis once wrote:
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 their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
. . . our imitation of God in this life . . . must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions. (The Four Loves, p. 17.)On this occasion we see Jesus’ “vacation” interrupted by a Canaanite woman crying out after him as he was walking along the road: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering badly from demon-possession.”
Notice that this woman calls Jesus–“Lord”. That could have been just a polite address, like “Sir”. But given the context, the title probably means more than that.
The woman also calls Jesus–“Son of David”. This was a messianic title. Even though the woman is a Canaanite, one of the ancient enemies of Israel, and therefore a Gentile, she recognizes Jesus as the Jewish messiah. Matthew doesn’t tell us how she came to know this, but she did.
This little story should remind us that no one is beyond the reach of the grace of God. I imagine there are many people in this world that would surprise us if they became believers in Jesus. But we shouldn’t be surprised by the grace of God and the power of God in operation. After all, if God can save us, why can’t he save everyone?
This woman’s request is simple; she wants mercy, apparently the mercy of healing for her daughter. We have seen Jesus heal many people throughout Matthew’s Gospel. We have even seen Jesus heal the servant of a Roman centurion in Matthew 8. But on this occasion Jesus responds to this woman’s request, at first, with silence.
Jesus’ response to this woman certainly makes us pause and wonder: what is going on here? As Tom Wright has written:
One of the great moral and cultural issues of the last hundred years has been racial identity. The world was horrified to learn that the German Nazis had killed six million people whose only crime was to be Jews. The world was then increasingly horrified to watch as the apartheid system in South Africa discriminated in hundreds of ways against most of the population simply because of the colour of their skin. Eventually, through much hard work, change came. . . .
So, when we read this story in our own setting, we may find it quite shocking. It looks as though Jesus, to begin with, is refusing to help someone in need just because she’s from the wrong race. We wouldn’t think much of a doctor or nurse who refused to treat a patient because they weren’t from the right family background, or weren’t the right colour. It seems very strange. What’s going on?We shall see just what’s going on as we move through this passage together.
One thing is clear: the disciples were irritated by having their vacation interrupted. They apparently did not care at all for this Gentile woman. They wanted Jesus to do something to get this woman out of their hair and bring an end to her incessant screaming. “Heal her. Tell her to go away. Do something, Jesus!”
Jesus responds to his disciples by reminding them of the focus of his earthly mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, Gentiles don’t come into Jesus’ mission, at least for the present.
On an earlier occasion Jesus healed the servant of another Gentile, a Roman centurion (8:5-13) and Jesus affirmed on that occasion that there would be a future time for the Gentiles to come into the kingdom. The disciples knew that Jesus had sent them to minister to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not to Gentiles or Samaritans (10:5-6). What the disciples didn’t know, at that time, was that Jesus was going to die for sins, rise again, and commission them to make disciples of all the Gentiles (28:19). This little story is like a half-way house between Matthew 10:5-6 where Jesus says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel,” and Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” It is as though the future is rushing into the present like a freight train.
There is also another thing that is quite clear in this story: this woman is not deterred by Jesus’ comment. She kneels worshipfully before him and reiterates her plea: “Lord, help me!” The example of this woman teaches us that sometimes simple, heartfelt prayers are the best.
Finally Jesus speaks directly to this woman. Jesus repeats a proverb that was common among the Jews, a proverb with which this woman may have been familiar. Granted, the proverb refers to Gentiles as dogs and the Jews as children. But it is probably not quite as harsh as it sounds. The dogs in the proverb are household pets, little puppies. Jesus uses this dismissive proverb to test the woman’s faith.
John Ortberg has written:
Deliberately induced frustration in the hands of a master teacher is a powerful learning tool. Master teachers are always testing and probing to help their students see where they are on the learning curve. This passage is about the master teacher. Ken Bailey, who has written insightfully on this encounter, notes that to grasp the point of this passage, you have to see that Jesus is giving a test for two different sets of people. But tests are not always pleasant to the ones who are being tested.Some tests are irritating; some have a point. Jesus teaches his disciples and the Canaanite woman by testing them and his tests have a point.
My favorite story is about a guy taking a class in ornithology, the study of birds. The teacher has a reputation for being extremely difficult, so this guy studies his brains out for the final. He goes to class feeling prepared, but instead of having a normal test, there are 25 pictures on the wall of birds' feet. He is supposed to identify the birds by their feet. The guy goes nuts, and says to the teacher, "This is crazy. Nobody could take this test." The teacher says, "Nevertheless, you have to take it." The kid says, "I'm not going to take it." The teacher says, "You have to take it, or you fail." The kid says, "Go ahead and fail me. I'm not going to take this test." The teacher says, "All right. That's it. You've failed. Tell me your name." The kid rolls his pants up to his knees and says, "You tell me."
The test for Jesus’ disciples is: “Do you realize how much I love everyone?” The disciples fail this test. They want to get rid of this woman and they think Jesus does too. In Matthew 19 we will see the disciples failing the same test once again. They shoo away the little children whom Jesus longs to have come to him.
The test for this woman is: to what lengths will she go to demonstrate her faith? Unlike the disciples, this woman clearly passes the test. She is not deterred by the proverb. Rather, she picks up the same image and uses it in a clever way, in effect to say to Jesus: “If the puppies can eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table then certainly you can do this healing for my daughter, Master.”
Jesus is overcome by the woman’s answer. Commenting on her great faith he tells the woman her request is granted and her daughter is healed at that very hour.
We have read about so many healings in Matthew’s Gospel it is easy to pass over this one as just one more healing story. But we mustn’t do that. Do we really believe that Jesus has the power to heal? Do we really believe that Jesus continues to heal today? I believe that Jesus’ power to heal is no less available today than it was for the Canaanite woman 2000 years ago.
However, this story, at its heart, poses a different question for us to answer: to whom are we reluctant to reach out? Usually, the person we have most difficulty reaching out to is someone we perceive as different from us. Is it someone from a different socio-economic group? Is it someone of a different sexual orientation? Is it someone from a different race, or someone with different skin color? Is it new people in the community or maybe someone of a different religion? We all have people we are reluctant to reach out to in Jesus’ name.
The disciples were reluctant to interact with this Canaanite woman. The Jewish-Christians in Matthew’s church were probably reluctant to reach out to Gentiles and share the good news about Jesus with them.
I believe Jesus wants us to break down barriers between ourselves and other people. Jesus can empower us, so that we won’t be reluctant evangelists any longer. At first sight it seems as though Jesus is reluctant to reach out to this woman. But beyond Jesus’ seemingly gruff exterior in this case we see the same heart of caring we have witnessed throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus’ seeming reluctance is merely a test—a test of the disciples’ love and a test of the Canaanite woman’s faith.
It is the disciples who are reluctant to really care. This woman represents a nuisance to them—an interruption in their holiday. They, like Jesus, just wanted to get away from it all and rest. Jesus wanted to rest, but he was willing to interrupt that rest to reach out to a woman in need—even a woman who was seemingly beyond the scope of his earthly mission. The disciples, like us, weren’t so ready and willing to reach out, especially when it threatened their own comfort.
C. S. Lewis once wrote to a friend. . . .
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.C. S. Lewis’s step-son, Douglas Gresham, once told me that Lewis really had learned this lesson. By the time Doug came along, Lewis never complained about being interrupted in his work. He was always willing to set down whatever he was doing to help someone else who needed him.
If we could learn to live in the same way, perhaps the whole world would be won to Christ very quickly. Perhaps the number one lesson we can learn from this snapshot of Jesus’ life is the importance of the willingness to be interrupted. Maybe what the Lord wants from us is not so much to reach out to the person across town or around the world, but to simply make time for every person he brings across our path every day. And in order to do that we probably need Jesus to change us, to change our desires, priorities and attitudes, from the inside-out.