There aren’t many stories in the Bible that paint Jesus in a less than perfect light. Why would he speak in a demeaning way to the Canaanite woman? It seems so out of the norm for him. But I can relate.
A much needed two-week vacation was coming up. A member of the church asked me if I would visit her neighbor who was in the intensive care unit. He’d contracted pneumonia and was on a ventilator. Things were pretty dire. The patient’s wife asked if her neighbor’s pastor could stop by to see them.
I was pretty busy trying to prepare two worship services for use while I was gone. A few unexpected things also developed that required my attention. So I was feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities within my own congregation. After all, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of St. Matthew by the Lake.
Why should I take the time and energy to step outside the boundaries of helping someone who wasn’t going to a church of their own? If they were churchgoers, they’d have asked their own pastor to visit.
Have you ever thought like that? One of those that’s not my responsibility thoughts?
Well, I wasn’t as rude as Jesus was to the Canaanite woman. I didn’t ignore the first request as if she didn’t exist. I certainly didn’t refer to these people as if they were dogs. I smiled and said, “Yes, I’ll see him.” But it was the thoughts running through my head as I walked away, that were similar to the reaction Jesus had for the woman. I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. And that’s about all I care to handle.
The woman was a Canaanite. She wasn’t a daughter of Abraham. She wasn’t born in the right bloodline. She didn’t believe the “right” things. She probably worshipped idols. These things made her the scum of the earth in the eyes of the chosen people, the Jews.
Years ago, I saw a movie, The Help. It’s the story of the relationship of southern white folks in Mississippi to black folks in the 1960s. Blacks weren’t allowed to use the same drinking fountains, or the same restrooms, or to go to the same schools, or read the same textbooks. Whites didn’t want to touch anything a black person had touched for fear of getting infected with some unknown disease. The relationship the Jews had with Canaanites was similar.
Jesus was a Jew. He grew up in an environment where prejudice was rampant in the way they talked and thought. That is, until he met an idol-worshipping Gentile who showed greater faith in the goodness of God than he had seen within the nation of Israel.
It’s refreshing for me to see that Jesus was capable of growing—of pushing beyond the lines that had been drawn for him by his tradition about who he could and could not help. He was in the process of understanding who he was and what he had been called to do. He was not only a Messiah sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but he was God’s chosen healer of the whole world. He stepped over the line and answered the Canaanite woman’s prayer. He healed her daughter.
One morning, I received a phone call in the church office. A woman I didn’t know, representing an agency that I’d never heard of, asked if she could send a representative, a retired pastor, to give us a presentation about how we could feed poor people in Central America and the Caribbean. My instinctive reaction was one of limitations and drawing lines. We were a small congregation going through our own financial struggles. We had other missions that we’ve made commitments to helping. We can’t save the whole world. We have to draw some lines somewhere.
Maybe that’s partly how Jesus felt at this time, too. “I’m only one person with more work than I can handle in a sixteen-hour day with my own people. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” It’s a hard question: Shouldn’t we draw the line somewhere? In another place in the Bible, Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks of you.”
If we give to everyone, we’ll be poor! Jesus also said, “Blessed are the poor.”
Are we really following Jesus? Our self-imposed lines originate from a mentality of lack rather than abundance. If we step across that line, we might find what Jesus found…persistent faith greater than any he’d seen inside the “chosen” people. And maybe our own faith will grow by what we witness in others.
Jesus stepped over the line of exclusivism and a mentality of lack in religion. He answered the prayer of an idolater and healed her daughter. Did he do that because she agreed to believe certain religious doctrines and because a card-carrying, baptized member of Judaism? No. He did it because she trusted that he was capable and compassionate. She lowered herself at his feet and kept asking. That’s the persistence of faith Jesus responds to.
What about you? What lines have you drawn? Who will you help because they are the right religion, the right color, the right nationality, the right political party? What lines have you drawn around people you won’t help because they aren’t like you? Who will you give your money to and who won’t you give your money to? And why? What lines have you drawn that say God’s grace is only reserved for someone like you and the group you’re in?
God calls us to step over the lines others drew for us and the lines we’ve drawn for ourselves. God calls us to love and embrace people we don’t understand, people who are not like us, who don’t think exactly what we think, and to give up the notion that we don’t have enough to make a difference in the world.
Who knows? The person who comes to you and asks may be an angel sent to help you grow – to take a necessary step to become the person God intends you to be. It could be more for your good than to fill the need of the one who asks.