Faith like a dog
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. The lake district had been a busy place for Jesus, calming the storms in people’s lives and dealing with their unfulfilled needs. It was also a place where Jesus was challenged by some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They hoped to pressure Jesus not to change the current habits of people and the way things have been done and instructed by them and others for generations.
Leaving that region by the Lake of Galilee, Jesus crossed over to the Phoenician coast to the region of Tyre and Sidon. He crossed from the region of home and familiarity over to a different place. It was place with different people, languages, beliefs and values. They looked and did things differently. It was a foreign place where no self respecting Israelite would go and still be accepted back in their own community without loss of friendship or status. Nonetheless, Jesus crossed over the barrier, crossed the rules made by people and not of God, and crossed over to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
I wonder if the Pharisees and teachers of the law took a chance and followed Jesus there. His faithful disciples certainly did. In that foreign land there was also a community of Israelites. Many of these people chose to live there to prosper from the business and trade in that region.
Like other Israelites elsewhere they regularly worshipped God as expected. They went through the process of worshipping God as set out by their elders and leaders. It looked fine to everyone around them, but for some their heart was not in it. In reality, their daily life showed more clearly just how their heart had turned away from God. The result was a community in which there was much suffering and very little compassion for one another. These were the Israelites that Jesus came to visit, to heal them, to give them a lasting hope, and above all to turn their hearts back to God.
A Canaanite woman from that region came to Jesus, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
Who was this woman? She was a local person, a native of the region. To the Israelites, she was of low status, a person to avoid. The many years of seeking medical attention for her daughter would have taken its toll on her. It would have left her poor and desperate for hope. To Jesus’ disciples she was considered a nuisance as she kept crying out to them. They urged Jesus to send her away.
The Canaanite woman knew she would receive an unwelcomed reception from the Israelites if she crossed over into their presence. Was it compassion for her daughter that moved her to cross the painful social and cultural boundary to Jesus? She knew who Jesus was. She had heard stories of his miraculous healing and the claim that he is the Messiah. She would have compared him with all the other ‘healers’ she had been to and heard about. But Jesus was different he shone above all the rest. The prophets of old foretold his coming and the things he did could only be of God. Jesus showed compassion to all people wherever he went. The Canaanite woman believed in Jesus as Lord and saviour.
I believe that it was her knowledge and understanding of Jesus, her faith in Jesus as Lord of all that moved her to cross the barrier to him.
“Lord, Son of David have mercy on me!” she cried.
Jesus did not answer a word.
Let me rephrase that another way; In the midst of suffering, God did not answer a word. There was only agonising silence. I’m sure we have all been on our knees praying to God in the midst of suffering and have only found silence to our prayers. The story of Jesus praying in the garden is another story amongst others that show God’s silence amidst suffering. Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt.26: 39)
The faith that Jesus had in his Father in heaven gave him the courage to cross the barrier of fear to meet his death on the cross for our sake. From the silence in the garden to the cross and death, God had worked salvation for all of us through Jesus Christ. Such faith and trust comes from a close relationship with God. He is the creator of the heavens and earth. He has created you and me. He can do all things even raise the dead to life. Faith in Jesus, in God helps us to endure suffering knowing that death is not the final scene. Like Jesus, we too will be raised from the grave to new life with him. We can even have renewed life now with Jesus, because he desires all to be with him.
Then Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The silence was broken with the words of Jesus. Hope and heart beat raced to collect the words of Jesus. It was a reply that would not have surprised her as she knew his mission and her place within that mission. Those words gave her hope and so she came closer and knelt before him in prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me!”
Jesus 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.
Jesus is making a show piece of this woman’s great faith, like holding up a trophy or sporting an Olympic gold medal. He compares her faith to that of a family pet dog. A faithful dog knows well its owner, their nature, their habits, and especially their eating habits. It is their trust in their master that they too will receive good things.
We have heard Jesus’ word in this drama, but let us closely look at his actions in this scene. It is amazing! Jesus crossed the barrier of norms and created a new standard. In a sense, he has taken the children’s bread and given it to the family pet dog. The woman received more than the crumbs from the table, her daughter was healed of demon-possession. Her daughter, in such a condition, would have behaved strangely, perhaps violently to herself and others around her. She would have behaved as if she was like a distant relative, hardly close to her mother and causing pain to all around her.
The sin of Israel in many ways was like demon-possession. Their heart was turned away from their loving Father in heaven. They no longer knew him. They continuously caused pain to each other and to God through their pride and arrogance. The irony in this drama was that Jesus set out to seek the lost sheep of Israel to turn their heart back to the Father in heaven, but there was only silence from them, and the only knee to bow before Jesus was a lowly woman, a foreigner.
When Jesus gave the Canaanite woman the bread of the ‘children’ he was in fact including her into table fellowship with the other ‘children’. Like an adopted child the woman received all things like the others. I know of some families with pet dogs, that are treated like adopted children, just like any ordinary member of the family. Some of these lucky dogs are really spoiled, they watch TV together with the family, receive treats like Smackos, and go on family holidays to the Gold Coast. I’ll say no more, I’m sure you get the picture.
The picture of the Canaanite women being adopted and included into table fellowship with Jesus is good news for everyone. Through the grace and mercy of Jesus we too can be included into table fellowship with him and receive his blessings. It doesn’t matter who you are, what language you speak, what you look like, which neighbourhood you are from, Jesus will accept everyone.
Faith in Jesus brought the Canaanite woman into his presence. Her faith was pleasing to Jesus, and he blessed her through it, and included her into table fellowship with him. Faith in Jesus makes us acceptable to him and a delight.
Finally, one perspective on this Gospel story is about great faith. Great faith endures the silence of God in the midst of suffering. Great faith knows that death is not the final scene. Great faith brings hope. Great faith can bring courage, healing, and peace. Great faith crosses barriers. Great faith can bring love and compassion back into the community. And great faith comes from believing in Jesus as Lord of all.