Monday, December 10, 2012

Racism and Deja Vu? - Matthew 15:21-39

The Syrophonecian Woman
21 Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon.
22 And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed."
23 But He did not answer her a waord.  And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, "Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us."
24 But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
25 But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, "Lord, help me!"
26 And He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
27 But she said, "Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."
28 The Jesus said to her, "O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish."  And her daughter was healed at once."
I don't usually spend time on the locations these events occurred in, but I think this story is a useful opportunity to discuss it a bit.  Jesus was in Gennesaret before, which was a town next to Capernaum on the coast of the sea of Galilee (an inland sea).  In this story, he travels to the region of Tyre and Sidon (two "heathen" cities famous in the Old Testament), which are about 40 miles to the North-West of Gennesaret, and are coastal cities on the Mediterranian Sea.  They were in non-Jewish territory, and were even outside Herod's jurisdiction.  Which brings us to the important question here: Why on earth would Jesus travel there? 
One possibility is that the Pharisees started plotting to kill Him after their encounter with Him that occurred immediatly before these verses (although that is not mentioned in this passage, as it is elsewhere), and He departed to elude their grasp.  Another possibility is hinted at at the parallel verse in Mark 7:24 - that He needed a break from the crowds, so He went far away into non-Jewish territory where perhaps He would not be recognized.  If this is the case, perhaps He did so in order that He could focus on teaching His disciples (which is more important, from an eternal perspective) instead of all his time being consumed with physical healings.  But, in the end, we don't know for sure why He ever travelled where He did.  Indeed, there are numerous instances in the Gospels where locations are mentioned for no apparent reason.  Perahps the authors of the Gospels mentioned the locations to add validity to their accounts of Jesus's life.
We get to witness here another case of the disciples not exactly being at their best.  Before judging them too harshly, we should remember that in thier culture, women were of extremely low caste, and Gentiles were looked on with derision, so the disciples' reaction to this Gentile woman "pestering" them and their Teacher was normal for their culture.  But, normal does not mean right.  Just because something is accepted in our culture does not mean it meets God's standards of correct behavior (in this case, love).
But then, what are we to make of Jesus's response?  Did he really coldly call her a dog?  Not at all!  You see, in His day, "dog" was a common slur that Jews used to refer to Gentiles.  But the word that Jesus used meant "puppy."  He made sure that the true, loving intent of His analogy was not misunderstood by doing a play on the word "dog" that actually made it...nice - a compliment of sorts.  From the context, it seems that this entire conversation is His usual playful way of engaging someone as a test of their faith.
It is also important to understand that when Jesus was on Earth, His intended ministry really was to reach out first to Israel.  After all, the Messiah was the promised one to IsraelAfter His resurrection was when the faith was going to expand among the Gentiles.  The reason for this is that, in the interest of fairness, God gave Israel a "fair shake" at accepting the Messiah first - so that when they rejected Him, it was completely on their heads, because they had every chance to accept Him.  And remember, God still had a covenant to fulfill with the Jews when He sent the Messiah.  If you take a look at Romans 2:9-11, you'll find that God acting chronologically (Jews, then Gentiles) does not indicate any inequality between Jews and Gentiles (see Galatians 3:28).  Romans 11 discusses this issue a bit more.  But the point I'm trying to get to is this: Even though Jesus had a specific purpose in focusing His ministry on Israel for a few years (2-3) before His Church expanded to actively reach out to the Gentiles, He didn't let that stop Him from having compassion on this Gentile woman and helping her.
Let's briefly look at the woman's faith, too.  (1) She recognized Him as the true God, even though her pagan culture surely lauded other (false) gods.  That means she was so sure in her belief that she was willing to risk that.  (2) She was willing to endure the disciples' ridicule and scorn (which she probably expected before she even came to them) to get to Jesus.  (3) She surely would have believed that, based on other world religions at the time, the Jewish God was not obligated to help someone not of those people - yet she trusted in His love enough that she came to Him and pressed Him.  Her faith was great, indeed.
Healing the Multitudes
29 Departing from there, Jesus went along by the Sea of Galilee, and having gone up on the mountain, He was sitting there.
30 And large crowds came to Him, bringing with them those who were lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others, and they laid them down at His feet; and He healed them.
31 So the crowd marveled as they saw the mute speaking, the crippled restored, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.
It's easy to lose sight of how amazing these mass healings really are after we've heard the stories a number of times.  So, it's a good idea to take some time to meditate on what it would have been like to actually experience this.
This account reminds me of a few lyrics I love from the song "Mary, Did You Know?"  They say, "The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again!  The lame will leap, the dumb with speak - the praises of the Lamb!"
Consider for a moment that, before John the Baptist, the Jews had not had a Prophet of Old in centuries, and were under foreign captivity - they felt as if God had completely rejected them.  So, the presence of a Prophet at all - and the ultimate Prophet, Jesus, who was performing so many miracles for them - was a shocking testament of God's love for them.  The fact that they had gone three full days without eating just to remain with Him (as we'll see in a moment) is proof of how deeply this affected them.
Four Thousand Fed
32 And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, "I feel compassion for the people, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way."
33 The disciples said to Him, "Where would we get so many loaves in this desolate place to satisfy such a large crowd?"
34 And Jesus said to them, "How many loaves do you have?"  And they said, "Seven, and a few small fish."
35 And He directed the people to sit down on the ground;
36 and He took the seven loaves and the fish; and giving thanks, He broke them and started giving them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.
37 And they all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, seven large baskets full.
38 And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.
39 And sending away the crowds, Jesus got into the boat and came to the region of Magadan.
If this story sounds extremely familiar, it's because we very recently covered the feeding of the five thousand (you can read that post here).  Why would Matthew write such similar accounts almost back-to-back?  I have a couple of theories... :-)  Even though it's the exact same scenario, there are some new lessons here that we shouldn't overlook.
First off, this is perhaps the most shocking picture in all of the Gospels of how Jesus's disciples simply did not learn and lacked faith to an astounding degree.  But, how often are we just like them?  It seems like God has to teach us the same lessons over and over - that's no different, no less terrible, than what's going on in this passage.
Second, the fact that Jesus fed 5,000+ the first time, and 4,000+ the second time demonstrates that He's not interested in one-upping Himself.  God provides in whatever way He thinks is appropriate for the situation - so we shouldn't be disappointed if God seems to do "less" for us than He does for someone else.
Third, the number of baskets left over before (12) was symbolic, and it is here, as well.  Seven is the number of completion or perfection.  This backs up the above point that God's will is to do whatever is perfect for that situation.  It also demonstrates that God will take care of us completely.
Questions for You
When have you been treated poorly by people who claimed to represent God (like happened to the Syrophonecian woman)?
Have you ever had an experience where God did less than you expected, but it still was enough provision?
Anything else you'd like to comment on - or add to the discussion?
Any questions?
Giving Credit Where It's Due
All images courtesy of Sweet Publishing.  Used by permission.

No comments: